Wednesday, September 3, 2008
My husband frequently points out that I make a lot of assumptions when telling someone how to make something. “It’s really easy…” is how I lead most lessons, only to lose my audience in a haze of terms like bain-marie, blind bake, and cartouche. Years spent in the commercial kitchen have caused me to make the mistake of assuming others cook with similar experience, equipment, ingredients and passion.
I began to appreciate his point this summer when I made a chocolate pound cake in someone else’s kitchen. What came out of the oven was not the same delicious cake I bake in the Pinch kitchen. It made me realize how my recipes could be received differently when prepared using different ingredients.
The critical difference between the Pinch Chocolate Pound Cake and its inferior impostor was the cocoa. I only use Valrhona cocoa. I’ve worked with several cocoas and have determined this one to have the best depth of flavor and the least bitterness of its peers. Valrhona cocoa is a Dutched powder with a rich color and excellent taste. I use it in everything - baked into cakes and dusted on brownies or truffles.
What does Dutched mean and does it matter?
Dutched cocoa is treated with alkaline which removes much of cocoa's natural acidity, rendering it nearly neutral. Some bakers believe that the Dutching process affects leavening. Recall the elementary school science fair volcano? Baking soda (a leavening agent) requires an acid to cause a reaction. The science is sound but I have yet to experience a loss of leavening when baking with Dutched powders.
What difference does quality make?
All the difference. Quality in chocolate is proportional to its percentage of cocoa butter. Grocery store cocoa powder contains 9-12% butterfat. Higher end products such as Scharffen Berger (a natural cocoa) and Valrhona contain 20-25% butterfat.
I made my chocolate pound cake three times with a three different qualities of cocoa: Valrhona, a mid-level Guittard natural cocoa (meaning not Dutched), and a low-end supermarket variety, also natural. The difference between the cakes was amazing. The cheapest cocoa made a chocolate colored cake that lacked flavor. The Guittard cake was quite good. The cake made with Valrhona cocoa knocked everyone’s socks off.
This is the classic problem for the home cook. As much as we try to emulate professionals and follow their recipes, much of the time we are not using the same quality ingredients.
What’s a home baker to do?
Cooking like a pro entails spending a lot more on your ingredients. Importers and specialty shops such as Sur la Table and Williams Sonoma are good sources, as is Amazon. If you'd like to up the ante a bit but don't need to have anyone's socks knocked off you need look no farther than your neighborhood grocery store. Droste cocoa (Dutch-processed) is widely available and gets universally good marks for flavor.