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Chocolate Classics Redefined

Pastry Chefs Get Creative, Transforming Timeless Desserts into Modern Hits

Caitlin M. O'Shaugnessy

As one of the most versatile and beloved ingredients in any sweet treat, chocolate is a key player on
almost every dessert menu. Timeless desserts such as pot de crème and flourless cake are some of the most popular dishes that feature chocolate of all types, but pastry chefs are transforming these classics with new techniques and flavor profiles, confirming that trends may come and go, but chocolate is always in style.

From the simplest brownies and fondues to soufflés, truffles and layer cakes, the spectrum of chocolate ranging from white and milk to the darkest unsweetened varieties gives chefs an incredible opportunity to experiment and customize their creations.

At Sondra Bernstein’s wine country restaurant ESTATE in Sonoma, Chef and managing partner John Toulze elaborates on the inarguable difficulty of creating a dish that incorporates chocolate in a new way: “It seems that most people have their tried and true favorite chocolate dish. Whether it was something that mom packed in the lunchbox, or the favorite chocolate that you got trick-or-treating, chocolate evokes strong memories. Most people do not like to cheat on their chocolate love.” At ESTATE, Toulze is currently featuring chocolate in a less familiar texture, by mixing it with polenta to form a cake topped with hazelnut-brandy gelato and hazelnut praline.

With any gourmet ingredient, there is the threat of overdoing it; is there such a thing as too much chocolate? Located in historic Old Towne Orange, California, Haven Gastropub’s Executive Chef Greg Daniels thinks that perhaps there can be too much of a good thing: “I’m not a huge fan of chocolate on chocolate desserts.  That’s the only time I think that there could be ‘too much’ chocolate.  I think if the chocolate is broken up with lighter flavors, or additional savory ingredients, that’s what a makes a great dessert.”

A great chocolate dessert isn’t created without obstacles – chocolate can be notoriously tricky to temper, and it is easily affected by the heat and humidity found in a professional kitchen. Chef Toulze at ESTATE acknowledges this complexity, saying, 

“The most difficult chocolate desserts are those that require tempering chocolate. Whether it be for a garnish or as an individual portion of the dessert, many kitchens are not set up to hold chocolate in this manner. Other difficult chocolate desserts are those done à la minute. Generally these types of desserts take considerable time and you only get one shot to make it perfect. With the volume at our restaurants, our approachable dessert plan includes breaking the desserts into simple steps, allowing the dessert to go out to the guest in a timely manner.”

Unusual additions

While mint, peanut butter, raspberry and even bacon are all delicious when partnered with any type of chocolate, chefs are increasingly looking beyond these more conventional pairings to find new and unexpected combinations. At Haven Gastropub, the dessert menu features two different dishes that explore new flavor profiles not traditionally associated with chocolate.

Chef Daniels describes the Café y Cigaro as “an ‘18 and over’ sandwich of espresso chocolate chip cookie, and tobacco ice cream. The combination was a suggestion of our former pastry chef, and it just worked.  The tobacco was an interesting addition to ice cream; the flavor was subtle, but the nicotine made for a great tingle in the back of your throat.  It was all about the experience.  We have since taken that dessert off of the menu, just to change things up a bit, but I’m sure we’ll use tobacco or something else outside of the norm in future desserts just for the experience factor.  Our guests appreciate being challenged to try new things and odd combinations.”

Oakland’s Picán restaurant puts a new spin on their dessert menu by incorporating southern touches with their innovative chocolate creations. Their sorghum and white chocolate pot de crème varies widely from the standard, with white chocolate, bourbon cherry sauce, a molasses tuille and crème fraiche. Chef Dean Dupuis describes it saying, “Dark chocolate can be overly rich, so white chocolate is a nice alternative. We wanted to add a Southern flavor and we already use the sorghum (it’s a great southern sweetener) and it adds a kind of toasty nutty or smoky flavor similar to molasses but not as strong. We’ve played around with spices, chilies, cinnamon and pepper. They can add a great flavor…and chocolate takes flavors very well.”

Chef Dupuis also features his unique take on a classic cocktail combo “Bourbon & Coke,” which is made up of a chocolate Coca Cola cake with caramel milk chocolate ganache and some “bourbon panna cotta in a shot glass so it looks like milk. People love the classic milk and chocolate cake idea, but we’ve played with it, and added a southern twist and made it our own.”

Chocolate with a buzz

Chocolate liqueurs like Godiva have been popular with bartenders for years, but more recently chefs have been experimenting with another innovative chocolate pairing that breweries have been tinkering with for decades – chocolate and beer. Haven Gastropub’s most popular dessert is The Irish Car Bomb, which pairs chocolate cake with an Irish stout. Daniels describes it as “a chocolate stout cake that is made with Irish Stout and Cordillera Cocoa Powder.  We top that with Irish Stout Ice Cream, Irish Cream Chocolate Sauce, and Irish Whiskey Caramel Sauce.  We think we’ve made a great dessert to mock the shot that many people have enjoyed in bars around the country.”  

Similarly in San Diego, the Firefly restaurant at The Dana on Mission Bay features the American Strong Ale Chocolate Cake.  Chef de Cuisine Eric Manuel describes the creative process behind the dessert saying, “Port Brewing Company in San Marcos makes a great beer called Old Viscosity that I am a big fan of. So it started with the beer then we thought that this would go great with a chocolate dessert, and then we just decided to try to incorporate the beer into the cake batter. The result was a rich chocolate cake with sweet malty notes.”

Along with combining alcohol and incorporating
unusual ingredients into the batter of chocolate desserts, chefs are exploring the pairing of nontraditional spices and even vegetables into new and tempting creations. Veronica Laramie, the Pastry Chef and co-owner of eVe in Berkeley, includes a dessert simply entitled “Dark Chocolate” on her menu, “Because people can have a chocolate flourless cake with vanilla anglaise and berries anywhere. We like to think outside the box, using new flavor combinations with new techniques to make a unique dessert that shows my profile as a pastry cook. I always create my desserts from a familiar technique for the customer, and then build the rest of the components around it. For example, in Dark Chocolate, we have a carrot-honey-grains of paradise-cocoa nib dessert, which includes a simple and delicious brown butter carrot cake with a deep dark chocolate cream (that is almost pudding like) with a honey crunch, a cocoa nib and carrot sorbet, and a pickled carrot, finished with honey gastrique and cocoa dust.”

When trying to create a distinctive out-of-the-box chocolate dessert, the most successful approaches are constructed by chefs focused on the careful building of flavors and textures. At Junnoon, a modern Indian restaurant in Palo Alto, Executive Chef Kirti Pant incorporates cumin into his desserts. Additionally, to put his own spin on molten chocolate cake, Chef Pant blends Indian spices into this dessert staple.

Other recommendations for chefs looking to create an out-of-the-ordinary chocolate dessert include ESTATE’s Chef John Toulze’s suggestion of “playing with the different cocoa contents for an interesting, bitter edge and to get a better understanding of how different chocolate percentages can change a dessert’s flavor. It really depends on what ingredients you are mixing. One thing I love to do is to burn chocolate and then create a dish that goes with it. While it goes against all the rules, it really can add a unique flavor and style to the end product.” From hot chocolate to frozen gelato, no matter what percentage the cacao content, chocolate is the one dessert ingredient that will remain à la mode in every season.

Carrot, Cocoa Nibs, Grains of Paradise
Inspiration for Executive Chefs