Simple Ingredients, Complex Flavors

Category: Chocolate

Desserts for breakfast, flavoring bonbons with smoke, and the memorable flavor of browned butter.

Employing basic techniques like smoking, caramelizing and browning, pastry chefs and chocolatiers are pushing the boundaries by transforming ingredients into complex, memorable flavors. Pastry chefs never want to leave well enough alone. Whether tinkering with a formula to achieve a specific texture or manipulating basic ingredients in some way to make the flavor of the final result more complex or memorable, creative and curious practitioners of the pastry arts are forever on a quest for something new. Transforming dairy ingredients such as milk and butter through browning, giving flour or chocolate a smoky undertone, or caramelizing milk or white chocolate slowly in the oven are just three of the ways chefs are innovating, pushing the boundaries of baking and pastry forward leading to delicious and previously undiscovered results.

Dessert for Breakfast

Ethan Howard, Executive Pastry Chef at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, CA, puts a new spin on breakfast cake in his Caramelized White Chocolate and Smoked Butter Coffee Cake. “We work in a kitchen where the chef is smoking proteins for the savory side of the menu all the time, but usually this process involves hot smoking, so that the protein not only takes on a smoky flavor but is also cooked. Inspired by this method, I was drawn to experiment with the basic ingredients of the sweet kitchen – butter, flour,  and chocolate, but I was using the smoker at a lower temperature, for cold smoking.”  Howard expands the thought, “Why not try to enhance the building blocks of the pastry and dessert kitchen using that same apparatus? Knowing how fat readily picks up aromas, I started to experiment with butter. I melted it and placed it into a pan and then into the smoker.” When using it for a creamed method cake, since the smoked butter melts and goes out of emulsion after the smoking process, Howard chills and then re-emulsifies it before proceeding with the mixing of the cake. Additionally, taking a page from El Bulli’s playbook, Howard caramelizes white chocolate slowly, which tones down its characteristic sweetness, and then uses that chocolate to give a dulce de leche richness of flavor to the breakfast cake. “Pushing the envelope to enhance flavor,” in his words, he has also found that smoked butter works particularly well when resolidified and rolled into a laminated dough, layering the dough with coconut for a new-wave napoleon dessert.

A Little Smoke in Your Bonbon?

For her signature cardamom orange bonbons, Michele Huyke, Pastry Chef and owner of Rimini Gelato (with locations in Vail and Beaver Creek, CO), smokes dark couverture chocolate by placing it into a half hotel pan set onto a perforated insert over smoking tinder fueled by cherry wood chips flavored with orange spiced tea. In cold smoking, the temperature of the pan set up does not exceed 100 degrees F., hot enough to produce aromatic smoke and to melt the chocolate, at least partially. About her most popular sweet, as an après-ski pick-me-up or anytime-of-the-year treat, she says: “A hint of smoke in the chocolate marries beautifully with orange and the warm spicy notes of the cardamom, adding another dimension to a complexly flavored bonbon. Low-tech but effective, I seal the pan tightly with foil and then allow the chocolate to absorb smoke slowly over a number of hours. In this time, the chocolate melts. I then retemper it before using it to line the inside of polycarbonate chocolate bonbon molds.”

Browned Butter: Delicate and Memorable

Rather than smoking the chocolate, Michael Laiskonis, Creative Director at Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, turns to browning butter to give an exciting flavor profile to a ganache which becomes the centers of bonbons. Deeply interested in the flavor-giving potential of browned milk solids, Laiskonis has also worked extensively developing recipes using the almost powder-like browned butter milk solids in ice cream. (It’s worth noting that when clarifying butter used for sautéeing or as an ingredient in some baked goods, it is precisely those milk solids – and water – that we wish to remove, leaving only milk fat, the clear yellowish portion of the butter.) As the cream is being cooked and, as Laiskonis notes, “the natural emulsion of the cream breaks up,” more and more water is evaporating and the nonfat solids separate from the fat. The solids then brown, yielding a flavorful granular mass. In both the ganache and the ice cream, Laiskonis has discovered that “the fat has to be delicately balanced for both texture and flavor.” To produce browned milk solids, he starts with heavy cream (6% milk solids by weight), rather than butter (2% milk solids by weight), adding extra nonfat milk powder to the mixture before cooking it to achieve that browned, highly aromatic end result. Manipulating ingredients takes time and effort but the payoff can be rewarding both to the chef and his or her audience. By challenging one’s self to achieve distinctive and memorable additions to the dessert menu based on innovating, the chef moves the pastry art forward. And, as Laiskonis says so aptly in his essay contained in The Kitchen as Laboratory (Columbia University Press, 2012), “This fresh and inquisitive attitude towards cooking makes me more passionate about the work I do, and with each new discovery, the foundation is laid for the next innovation, and the next, and so on.” Reinvigorated and receptive to new ways of using basic ingredients, you may never look at flour, dairy or chocolate in the same way again.

Robert Wemischner is the author of four books, his latest being The Dessert Architect (2010, Cengage); he teaches baking and pastry at LA Trade Tech College.