I believe with the high quantity of volatile aroma compounds present in chocolate it can be tied to any flavor, much like game of 7 degrees of Kevin Bacon. At blackbird we have exercised this belief to pair chocolate with a variety of unexpected flavors.
To successfully incorporate chocolate into unusual places, we have devised a fairly effective system. Once the flavor we intend to pair with chocolate is decided, we start a three phase approach. First, taste all the chocolates that are available to us to find one that speaks to the flavor we are trying to pair. Second, explore the documented world of cuisine for instances of similar flavor pairings. And third, find flavors that both ingredients pair with individually and use them as a bridge between the two. With this approach, we have paired chocolate with concord grape, watermelon, all manner of citrus and fruit, avocado, carrot, parsnip, cumin, and Parmesan cheese, just to name a few.
This year, as autumn rolled around again and I was looking for an unexpected way to feature apples on the menu, chocolate came to mind. In following with the aforementioned approach, we first looked around for the chocolate that spoke to the flavor of apples.
We tasted through the collection of chocolates we have on hand finally landing on the cidery, fruity Manjari from Valrhona.
Second, we looked for examples of chocolate and apple that already existed. Internet searches turned up chocolate covered caramel apples, and chocolate chip apple pies. This did not produce a result we were happy with, so we began combing through our book collection. A book on chocolates and confections provided us with a chocolate bon bon scented with calvados. The thought of the apple brandy and chocolate together struck a chord, and we held on to this idea.
Finally, we began to list flavors that bridged the gap between the two flavors. Caramel, walnut, ginger, fig, rosemary, honey, cinamon, hazelnuts, shortbread, and so on, and so on. The flavors added up fast! It seems these two had a lot more in common than we thought. After a little testing we settled on the mutual flavors of black walnut, figs, and roasted cassia bud.
Roasted cassia bud sounds exotic, but it’s a flavor that all will recognize immediately upon consumption. Cassia is a close cousin to cinnamon. So close, in fact, that most cinnamon sold in the united states is in fact the bark of the cassia tree. Imagine the difference between the cinnamon flavor of a red hot, or a stick of big red gum, and the cinnamon from the little spice jar that we put in apple pie or over cinnamon toast. I assumed for most of my years that the first flavor was fake, a manufactured misrepresentation of what “real” cinnamon tastes like and inserted in red flavored candies. Surprise surprise, it’s indeed true cinnamon that flavors those candies, and cassia, a different plant altogether that I gleefully ate rolled up in cinnamon rolls or sprinkled in my oatmeal.
The cassia tree not only shares it’s bark with our kitchens, but also produces a second spice, the cassia bud. This small clove shaped spice is the unopened flour, harvested just before it blooms to be dried in the sun. The harvest has to be carefully timed making the crop available on a limited basis. The flavor is distinctly that of cassia, but also quite floral. The buds also posses the ability to be roasted, much like a nut. A little time in the oven, and these buds deepen in flavor and color, and take on chocolate notes. Once cooled, a spice grinder does quick work of powdering the roasted cassia buds, something nearly impossible to achieve with the dried bark.
Armed with information from all three of our exploratory pathways, we set to creating a dessert of chocolate and apples. I had my heart set on including a classic french chocolate mousse for our next chocolate dessert. We had perfected the texture for Avec’s menu first, flavoring the mousse with greek wild mint, and casting it into little cups, covered with a peppermint fudge sauce my cook Amy lovingly calls “liquid girlscout thin mints.” A little whipped cream, and a couple chocolate cookies, and Avec’s mousse is a lovely expression of the classic texture.
At Blackbird, the mousse is scented with calvados, and sweetened not just with sugar, but with apple saba, a unique concentrated apple syrup from the collection at Rare Tea Cellar. We pile the chocolate calvados mousse on the plate over dots of a cassia flavored fig jam, and crumble a butter rich black walnut daquoise over. Black walnuts sanded with roasted cassia scatter across the plate, as tiny chewy shreds of dried apple follow behind. Bits of a broken chocolate plaque find refuge amongst the cake crumbs, and flakes of crunchy seasalt rest atop the mousse. Finally, a scoop of ice cream flavored with fig leaves nestles into a comfortable spot near some crumbs of cake and a few nuts.
The dish was intriguing, and thoughtful, but it was fig leaf ice cream that truly surprised me. There was no way for me to prepare how elegant and distinct a flavor was locked away inside these biblical loin cloths. We procured leaves from anyone we knew with fig trees and infused them into ice cream. The smell was intoxicating, like a musky sweet bubble bath I remembered from childhood, and upon final tastings, the earthy flavor of black walnut fluttered about as intense coconut notes popped through. If you find yourself with a fig tree, even one that only produces nothing more than a few fruits for the birds, take note. There is more culinary potential in your tree than you think!
This post should help guide you through your own chocolate pairings. Perhaps I can even enlist you in my mission to prove to the world that chocolate goes with everything.
Additional Components: tempered chocoalte plaques broken, flaky sea salt