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Saturday, June 01, 2002

the malgieri brownies are very good, by the time i got through fixing the recipe. . .

but they still lack the utter chocolate mouth-smash i'm looking for. yes, it's true dear readers, 8 oz. of valrhona manjari 64% is not enough. which is one of the things a close examination of the recipe brought to my mind. . .

the previous recipe by christopher kimball called for 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate. that's a clearly inadequate amount. the malgieri recipe calls for 8 oz. bittersweet, which means it actually might not have as much chocolate percentage-wise in the recipe as the mere 4 oz. but i was hoping the stronger, purer flavor of the valrhona would make up for that. . .

i also naturally used plugra for the butter. the recipe calls for 4 whole eggs. that much egg white could be drying in the recipe, which is one of the reasons why the recipe calls for a mix of dark brown and white sugar. the dark brown sugar not only imparts a nice dark color boost, but also offers great taste, and more moisture. i used india tree muscavado dark brown sugar, which had to be microwaved with a wet towel and then mashed with a fork to get all the lumps out -- it has that much damp molasses-y stuff in it. yum. but this also brought the question of whether the serious brown sugar might overpower some of the chocolate flavor.

dilemma. . .still, i went with it. i beat the eggs until they were thick and yellow with the wire whip in my stand mixer, adding the 1/2 teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons neilsen-massey vanilla. with a happy heart i took out my 10-inch wusthof-trident chef's knife and chopped up the valrhona -- i just love seeing the big sans-serif letters stamped on the "bar." then i melted the chocolate and butter together in the microwave. i microwaved the brown sugar for 2 minutes, mashed it, measured out the white sugar, and sifted the flour. i added both sugars to the mixture and whipped away. in went the chocolate and butter! another brief whip, then i took some care folding in the flour by hand with a rubber spatula. nice batter. but what about that chocolate intensity?

since i always bake by weight, i used 5 oz. all-purpose flour, 8 oz. chocolate, 8 oz. brown sugar, 7 oz. white sugar -- and 6 oz. callebaut chocolate chips folded in at the last minute to deal with my nagging concerns! i can't say this is a 1-bowl recipe. as i poured the batter into the 13x9 pan lined with parchment paper that the recipe called for i could right away the pan was a tad too large. i might make this recipe in two 9-inch cake pans instead. . .or even fold up some foil to make a dam that reduced that 13 to 10. hmm. . .that would be an interesting experiment. . .of course changes in pan size affect baking time.

i could also see that with such a thin layer of batter 45 minutes would be too long to bake the brownies. i reduced the time to 30 minutes. i pulled the brownies out to see they had developed a beautiful, tender, thin and shiny sugar crust. a skewer in the middle came out clean. since i'm always annoyed that recipes rarely tell you when things are done the sane way -- by internal temperature -- i whipped out that handy taylor instant-read thermometer and took a quick reading. about 154 degrees was what i got. for what it's worth. . .

these brownies are supposed to sit overnight. no way in my house. mr. right was instantly on the prowl. i did get him to hold off for 3 hours. and the results are excellent -- slightly chewy, a light shiny sugar crust that gives to the tooth, and a dense fudgy center with sudden pockets of semi-liquid chocolatiness (from the chips). definitely edible, and miles above the kimball disaster.

still, i want brownies that are even more intensely chocolate. i may have to graduate from valrhona to cluizel's noir infini 99%. . .and maybe use 6 oz.? i might also back off on the brown sugar and switch to regular dark brown. well, another day, another batch. . .

posted by fortune | 6:12 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Friday, May 31, 2002

once long ago, i got my hands on a single dark chocolate mini-bar. . . and it was good.

this, plus many reviews and personal recommendations from sources i trust, put me on the path to richard donnelly. then, when i actually wrote him, his prompt and courteous reply increased my good feelings. now, dear readers, i have actually sampled the whole goods, and done so side by side with equal candies from jacques torres. the artist was kind enough to send me a sampling.

before i talk more, let me discuss my feelings about this. many sites review chocolates, such as mrk.'s xocolatl, dale's page, or eric's page, etc. most try to use some kind of numbering rank. this number system is common; it echoes the common wine ranking system.

however, while i admire the authors of these pages very much, i don't like a numbered system. i prefer in-depth, flowery prose, and full disclosure of the writer's preferences, a la elizabeth david. the numbered system fakes an objectivity that isn't really possible, to my mind. further, donnelly sent me these chocolates. if i didn't like them, i would say so; i won't lie just for a freebie. fortunately, this isn't an issue here -- because donnelly's chocolates are mind-blowingly fantastic. let's fall down the pit of obsession. . . .

long-time readers know my very favorite chocolates are the knipschildt truffle, torres' dark chocolate passion-fruit heart with alize, el rey's bucare, and valrhona's manjari. now you know my prejudices up front. donnelly sent me a box of assorted candies, including truffles, and a set of his mini-bars. i plan to discuss the truffles and other treats later. because i had on hand a bar of jacques torres' west african dark (pink label) and some of his delightful coconut candies, i could do a taste-off to comparable candies immediately.

other reviewers have said that donnelly's fillings overpower his covering. to my mind, this is just more proof that consumer reports has no clue; they likewise say ridiculous things about espresso machines. donnelly's candies are every bit superior to martine's at bloomingdales. those candies are quite nice, but in my view lack the artistry you see in donnelly.

i'll elaborate more on this in a minute. first, let's note that chocolates are often gifts, which means presentation and shipping matters. donnelly takes exquisite care in his shipping. the chocolates came to me on an 80-degree day here in new york; yet since he carefully wrapped them surrounded by chill-packs and bubble wrap, they were actually a little too stiff to eat. i had to let them warm up for about 10 minutes. these chill-packs were so effective that after i had opened the package at noon, swooning at the intoxicating aroma; repacked the candies roughly; let 'em sit on my desk all afternoon; and then took them with me on the un-air conditioned subway to my un-air conditioned yoga class and on home, the candies were still cool. so if you plan to order from donnelly, you can rest assured your chocolates will be packaged to transit safely.

as for the presentation, it is stellar. his gift-wrapping exceeds that of jacques torres or la maison du chocolat. kiplinger's compares it favorably to a tiffany's wedding present. i have to agree. i found his choices of hand-made oriental papers original and elegant. the ribbons are not the thin gold elastic bands you so often see, but actual lush wide satin ribbons, hand tied in plump, perfect bows. one box came in a lovely straw-colored rice-bran paper with a deep merlot bow; another in a slate-y blue-gray paper gently embossed with metallic silver vines and a midnight-blue ribbon. my colleagues actually gasped at the site of them. they are that lovely.

and the perfume! these chocolates also have jacques torres and maison du chocolat dead beat on aroma. even before i opened the ribbons my cubicle mate could smell their intense deliciousness. although i had swore to save them for the taste test at home, they were irresistable. while i cannot say i resist chocolate, my cube mate, a programmer, is generally indifferent due to her strict diet (she's a fairly serious runner who enters races). the sensual scent of these candies inticed even her pure heart. so we raided the box, and i gave our several candies to the women around me. the response ranged from rapture to inquiries about donnelly's marital status. he certainly made 4 or 5 intense devotees that afternoon.

but for the serious comparison. jacques torres makes a dark chocolate coconut cream candy, as does donnelly. the torres coconut bon-bon is a rough thin square about the size of two thumbnails, dipped in belgian couverature, and garnished with a tiny spring of chopped coconut. the interior is filled with a white coconut cream with a body thick like very cold honey. not stiff tho'. it is perfectly smooth, light, neither too wet nor too dry, not sticky, not gritty, and not overly sweet. the coconut flavor is fresh and intense. the couverature gives gently to the teeth and is just thick enough so that every nibble has about double the filling to the chocolate, yet the flavors are balanced. you taste coconut and chocolate evenly. it doesn't coat the tongue, but rolls around on it, seeps into it, and stays for a long, long aftertaste. it's a delicate, tiny treat, with an intense flavor, partially due to the malibu liquor. in the past, this candy has contained bits of coconut inside, but recently seems to have settled into the pure cream.

the donnelly bon-bon is a larger, textured piece about the length of my thumb's first joint and easily 1-1/2 times as thick; you'd need to stack up three of jacques' squares to equal it. unlike the rounded rectangles from torres, donnelly's candies are crisply modeled, every detail sharp. his coconut treat is filled with fluffy, white chocolate ganache containing small bits of toasted coconut.

i would say that the filling is every bit the equal that of jacques. the candy is covered a tad more thickly with chocolate than jacques', since it has to hold together at a larger size. however, since the candy is thicker, donnelly's candy has more filling inside than torres'. so if his were as rich, it might overpower the chocolate shell in a nibble. but donnelly has even thought of that -- his coconut filling is a little less intense than jacques', so that the pure coconut and white chocolate flavors shine through without dominating the chocolate covering. the texture is superb, almost moussy.

mr. right, when he did this taste test for himself, noted that the torres' coconut cream was more intense. i personally think, as i said above, it's a question of balancing the flavors in a larger bon-bon. i find both these coconut candies equal in covering, flavor, mouthfeel, balance, and aftertaste. donnelly wins on aroma. if you think chocolates should be minute and dainty, you may prefer the torres; if you're a person who wants two or three good solid bites in a chocolate, donnelly is for you.

let's move to the bar chocolate. a comment i have on both torres' and donnelly's bars is that neither tell you their percentage. are these 54%, 61%, 70% bars? who knows! i wish the labels said flat out. mr. right and i tasted the torres pink-label bittersweet (west african origin) and the donnelly dark bittersweet. once again, i have to discuss presentation. torres wraps his bar in silver foil and construction paper with black printing. with all due respect, they look as if they came off a home laser printer. donnelly wraps his bars in gold foil and more of that beautifully textured paper, decorated with a lovely black and gold diamond label on the front and nicely sealed with a re-stickable label on the back. i feel like this wrapping, besides making the donnelly bar pleasant to open (that silky paper is a treat to touch!), may keep the bar a little fresher, since you can re-wrap the foil carefully and re-seal.

as for aroma, donnelly again won for me. to be fair, i don't know how old the torres' bar was; probably several days older than the donnelly, so perhaps it's not quite a fair comparison. then we checked snap, finish, and gloss. these are important indicators of bar quality. the color of the donnelly bar was a tad lighter than the torres', but despite the color factor, mr. right and i judged them both equal in gloss. likewise, the bars were equal in snap. they broke cleanly, with light texture in the thickness of the edge. no flaking or chipping.

the torres bars are thicker than the donnelly mini-bars, and the pieces are differently shaped: torres' pieces are little trapezoids whereas the donnelly pieces are thinner and rectangular. this difference in thickness made it a little hard to compare how they melted in the mouth exactly. but i let both of them sit and soften for a bit before chewing away. that's when the differences became obvious. the bars are a different style, and i think a different percentage. mr. right, who likes the mouthfeel of lindt, loves the torres bar. i found the torres the tiniest bit waxy in the mouth when you first began to chew. then it dissolved into a harmony of flavor, rich and long-lasting. yum.

the donnelly was a bit drier and more intense; it reminded me texturally somewhat of el rey's apamate 73.5%, bernard castelain noir (which, if i recall correctly, is about 72%) or a michel cluizel amer 72%. but due to the light color of the bar, i doubt it's actually that high percentage-wise.

not to get all pretentious (oops! probably waaay too late for that!) and wine-talk-y, but i might say it was a tad oak-y. really, something about the mid-to-late taste reminded me of chardonnay. mr. right wasn't fond of it at all. but i thought it was heavenly; perfect for serving after dinner with a fine dessert wine or an espresso. the torres' bar is easy to eat, it's delicious and you could just munch and cruise on the flavor. but the donnelly bar makes you think and explore what you were tasting; it's about details, whereas the torres has an overall, round taste. as i said, torres is harmonious and unified; the donnelly has more distinctive dimensions, your attention is drawn more to the notes, the punctuations, in the chocolate.

above, i said donnelly possessed an artistry in his chocolate. by this i mean his chocolate is a fine food that focuses your attention on what is in your mouth at that moment. you can't eat it blindly. his skill is to make you conscious of what you are eating, to appreciate the depths and nuances by bringing them to the forefront of your mind. you can't ignore donnelly's chocolate when you eat it, i find.

after all that, let me take a moment to talk about other flavors in the donnelly ballotin. his tahitian vanilla is a signature flavor; and i found eating the dark candy a revelation. it was exactly as if i were licking a spoonful of nielsen-massey vanilla-bean paste. never have i tasted a product with such a pure and intense vanilla flavor. i can say the same for his saffron candy -- i could never have imagined this vibrancy. it was as if i were tasting saffron for the first time. donnelly's mint is also note-worthy.

unlike any candy-mint you've had before, this mint is the immediate fragrance of dewy, fresh mint leaves you've just plucked and crushed under your very own nose. and i can't end without mentioning the ginger, which is exactly like freshly grated: a spicy river rushes straight for your nose, as if you had plucked a bit clinging to your kitchen rasp and set it on your tongue. and i can't close without noting his amazing honey-caramel. it's simply the best caramel ever. ineffable, actually.

what's amazing is these flavors dwell within the overall chocolate balance. they are the bright trumpet notes that sing out against the creamy fillings, the light brittleness of the covering. and although it might seem lame, this is how i'm going to close out my comparison of the torres and donnelly -- with music. torres is telemann; donnelly, dizzy gillespie.

if you haven't had a donnelly chocolate, you've probably come this far, thinking that i'm really crazy, too effusive. to which i can say: order a box yourself. prepare to be surprised.

posted by fortune | 6:19 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Thursday, May 30, 2002

what a somber feeling to stand in my office window and look out at the ceremony today over ground zero at 10:29am. . .

as i was on the 31st floor of our building at the corner of church and cortlandt, all of us here in the office could barely hear the "5 times 4," or the bell-ringing that marked the start of the ceremony. this manner of bell-ringing is a tradition of the new york fire department.

it was a beautiful but somewhat hazy day. bright red tugboats plied their way up the hudson, with a police boat standing by. overhead flew news helicopters and 2 military helicopters. the streets were lined with people, as were all the terraces of the world financial center; people even thronged on the unfinished portions of the winter garden. from my vantage point i could see straight down onto church st.; to the left to vesey/liberty st.; forward to west st., the highway; and as far as fulton st. on the right.

but like all the spectators my eyes were focused on the long ramp, hung with flags and banners, that led down into the ground-zero pit. firemen, policemen, national guard, and other uniformed agencies formed a cordon on either side. down at the foot stood the band and bagpipers in formation. the shrouded and flag-draped "last pillar" lay on a flatbed truck with a bright yellow cab, with another flag flying at the back. the red and white ambulance sat waiting about 2/3 of the way up the ramp. with great solemnity an honor guard accompanied the flag-covered stretcher representing those tragic victims whose bodies have not been found. two men at front, six to carry, and two at the back. after the stretcher was laid in the ambulance, it slowly moved up the ramp; the honor guard split, to reform around the ambulance, and the band and bagpipers marched slowly up the ramp to a mournful tattoo.

from my vantage point, we could hear the rumble of the drums. all my colleagues were in quiet tears around me. the last pillar followed up the ramp. the ambulance stopped for a time underneath the west st. pedestrian overpass, and the band stopped behind them. as the pillar approached, the ambulance and band both slowly moved forward. the ambulance stopped after turning onto west st. and band followed. as the pillar moved under the overpass, the truck paused. 2 buglers blew a melancholy taps, and 5 nypd helicopters, in sleek blue and white, flew by overhead in a "v" formation. the entire cortege moved forward -- the cordon of uniformed officers began to peel away from the sides of ramp, starting at the bottom, and marched in a dignified reel up behind the pillar. the crowd erupted in cheers and applause loud enough for us to hear, even so far up. firefighters marched slowly up the church st. side as well, to great acclaim from the spectators.

the main procession moved up west st. and crossed fulton, out of my sight and into all our hearts. (news report here.)

for those interested, quick highlights of the world trade center coverage on this site:

the day
the day after
another view
vigil on the brooklyn promenade
my return to downtown
century 21 re-opens
3 months
6 months

posted by fortune | 9:15 AM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

should we here at bread, coffee, chocolate, yoga offer thanks and gratitude to yon aged hippie longhaired lefties?

alexander cockburn definitely thinks so. . .(his leftie newsletter here.)

i personally began baking bread as a teenager with a horrible recipe for batter bread from the old joy of cooking cookbook. i was dying in independence, mo. at the time. always grounded, sent home from school for my manic-panic fuschia hair, i hated tv. (readers should know i went through a long anti-tv period in the late 70s and early 80s. instead, i listened to the cure and the kinks. everything around me had slid into dinosaur, arena rock; i was desperate. . .) one bored weekend afternoon i made this terrible batter bread. yet it was still much better than the bunny bread we bought at the store. breakthrough!

i've really been baking bread ever since; when i lived in santa fe, i baked it three times a week. of course, at that time i was using some laughable recipe i had learned from a gauzy hippie chick on old upper canyon road. it never turned out well. but my starving-artist neighbor charles iarrobino (this was well before he had discovered venice) and i would go pick some apricots that grew wild on the trees and eat ratatouille, apricots, and this sad bread. . .it was always too dry. . .but in santa fe i did discover trappist organic flour.

in those days, bread wasn't "real," and learning how to bake authentic european-style hearth breads was difficult. it was in santa fe that phillip whalen turned me on to real coffee via peets. whalen also gave me a battered copy of the old tassajara bread book, and things began to look up for me.

while i no longer bake bread in any of those styles now, and laugh at the memory of the whole-wheat adobe bricks i used to produce, i guess i do owe something to someone. edward espe brown? zenshin whalen? ray davies? i'll choose to thank mr. right, who eats it all and is kind enough to say he likes it. . .

posted by fortune | 5:48 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

excuse me, but i have to bore you just one last time. . .

it's the coffee politics again. long-time readers may recall that i have written before about the coffee situation in colombia. with world coffee prices still depressed, a civil war raging, and the economy stalled, some desperate colombian coffee farmers have turned to planting illegal drugs. once upon a time, growing colombia's superb coffee guaranteed a family middle to upper-middle class status. facing the loss of their dreams and family land, or under pressure from the rebels who basically demand that coffee farmers in the areas they control grow drugs, more and more farmers are in fact pulling up their beautiful old coffee trees and planting coca.

this last weekend, colombia elected a new president, alvaro uribe, himself from coffee country. and he has pledged to aid coffee farmers so they can stay in the coffee business. uribe plans to ask the u.s.a. to increase its aid. currently, we are involved in colombia only as part of the so-called "war on drugs," the drug interdiction effort; the large amounts of money we've sent were handily approved by congressional leaders at the time and the general policy is still widely supported. no matter how you feel about the success of that so far, it's clearly in everyone's interest to support coffee farmers in the coffee business.

uribe intends to ask for a lot more foreign aid from the u.s.a. during the last 2 years, we have already sent more than US$1.3 billion to colombia as part of the so-called "plan colombia." currently, congress is considering sending another US$35 million this year, and the bush administration has budgeted US$98 million for 2003 to help colombia protect a prominent oil pipeline. this will involve us much more deeply in the colombian civil war, which sadly involves things such as paramilitary death squads. . . .craziness we've all seen before.

frankly, it's my feeling that we should not get so involved in this effort, unless uribe can shut down the alleged death squads. our experience in central america in the 80s is not a pleasant chapter in our history (let's not even mention iran-contra); and we may be on the path to repeating it in colombia unless we wise up. however, i do think it wise to increase aid temporarily to colombia's coffee farmers to allow them to weather the current price depression. this could mean trade assistance, or favored access to our markets; perhaps there are more creative means than simply handing out cash for uribe to use as agricultural subsidies.

the point here is not discuss arcane bits of foreign policy. the point is to note that the coffee price depression is a serious problem with many ramifications for consumers. it's causing problems all throughout the americas and africa. while these troubles seem far from home, remote, distant, outside our daily lives, i want to show you that actually we are paying for them in very real ways: tax dollars for foreign aid, increased illegal immigration, more drugs on our streets. cheap coffee is proving very expensive!

the solution is to overhaul the coffee market, to get specialty coffees off the commodity rollercoaster, or to restructure the global coffee sector in some way. i don't have an advanced degree in economics. but our immigration efforts, our war on drugs, our desire to see our neighboring countries stable and prosperous -- none of these will be successful until our leaders and development agencies directly address the coffee situation head on.

in the meantime, what can the average person do? a small something is often better than a big nothing. . .look for fair-trade coffee at a store near you. again, even starbucks and peets offer these coffees.

posted by fortune | 5:56 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Monday, May 27, 2002

you know, when i want to keep up with these peripatetic yoga teachers, i often just slap together quickie web pages for 'em. . .

this allows me to have an idea of their schedule, and that way i can wake up, say "i feel like a class with teacher x," and just find out where they are. i've already made a page for famed punk yogi j. brown.

and recently i made a similiar page for "mad dog" yogini alma largey. i still need to get her cellphone number, but otherwise it's good to go. alma is a tiny little wisp with platinum hair. she can also probably lift a mini cooper (flash required), all 2,524 lbs. of it.

what's cool about alma is her laid-back intensity. in her soft little voice she'll say, "ok, consider playing with handstand away from the wall. just see how that feels. it's a new outlook, you know?" meanwhile, as she's speaking, she will have gently piked up into a handstand in the center of the room, crossing her legs into half-lotus. "the key is to drive down through your arms like a mad dog," she'll continue in her mild way. still inverted, she raises her head to gaze at the class with her piercing hope-diamond-blue eyes. "it's interesting."

well, yeah! if only we all could likewise hang out in handstand all day, chatting up a storm. . .alma rocks. take her class nearest you now.

posted by fortune | 12:58 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

Sunday, May 26, 2002

everything you wanted to know about espresso chemistry but were afraid to ask. . .

if you don't have the big bucks to shell out for illy's book, espresso coffee, but long to have the chemical low-down on our favorite beverage, check out his excellent short article in the june 2002 scientific american, available on-line or at your favorite newstand now.

highly recommended.

posted by fortune | 3:05 PM | top | link to this | | email this:   |

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