Some time over this past winter, an old college friend of mine reached out. "I love your blog," she said. "But do you ever bake anything without chocolate? I feel like that's all you seem to do." I laughed nervously and explained that since it was winter, there wasn't a whole lot of the fresh fruit that I liked to bake with easily available (ehem, like strawberries? Or rhubarb?). For some reason, her statement had embarrassed me and I reacted the way I always do in those situations — that is, I just laughed it off and self-deprecated as much as possible.
Later, however, I realized that it had been silly of me to respond in the way that I did. Because it's true; I love chocolate. At the end of a long hard day's work, there's nothing more I like to do but treat myself with some chocolate — a bite of a chocolate bar, usually, or some ice cream or maybe even milk. Why do I have to excuse myself for doing so? I know that it's not a particularly exciting or unique ingredient, sure, but it's probably one of my favorite flavors and a big comfort to me.
At this point, it probably goes without saying that chocolate is also one of my favorite ingredients to bake with. You can use it in everything, whether it's a dough, batter, pudding, or in candies, like these double chocolate salted caramels. The recipe comes from Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook, my current favorite cookbook:
I first discovered Mast Brothers chocolate when I was last in New York City, poking around Dean and Deluca. I make a point of going shopping there every time I'm in New York, but truth be told, it's both an exciting and mildly depressing experience for me — so many fun, exciting and exotic ingredients at such exorbitant and outrageous prices! I always have to practice a lot of self-restraint, lest I walk out of the store paying $500 for five items.
During my last visit, a box filled with chocolate bars, wrapped in what looked like beautiful parchment wallpaper, caught my eye. It turned out to be bars of Mast Brothers Chocolate. At $10 a bar, I almost couldn't justify the expense until a quick Google search told me of the company's origins: two bearded brothers, New York City transplants by way of Iowa, who began making chocolate in the kitchen of their Brooklyn apartment after traveling to exotic places like Madagascar, the Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea to befriend cocoa bean growers. And with that, the Mast brothers started the first single-origin, "bean-to-bar" movement:
Six years later, the Mast brothers have graduated from selling their chocolate from local farmer's markets to places like Dean and Deluca, from their kitchen to their own chocolate factory (complete with a tasting room!) in Brooklyn, and published Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook. The cookbook features a wide range of recipes, from drinks (like chocolate soda!) to baked goods (like these brown butter, chocolate, maple and pecan cookies) to dinners (like orange cocoa nib crusted salmon), all with chocolate as its main star. The recipes are simple yet elegant, often times with only a handful of ingredients and never exceeding more than a page for their instructions.
This recipe for chocolate caramels with sea salt, for instance, was an absolute delight:
In the past, I'd always been intimidated by making candy, but Mast Brothers' recipe boiled it down to just seven relatively easy steps. The result was a luscious and perfectly chewy caramel paired with deep and bold dark chocolate.
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Some baker's notes:
- I'm not usually a sucker for specialized tools, but to succeed at making candy, it's really important to have a good candy thermometer on hand. I also prefer digital candy thermometers like this one by CDN since I find that they give you the most accurate readings and are often times instant-read.
- Let's talk about tempering chocolate. It's a common step in many chocolate candy recipes, one that sounds intimidating as all hell but is actually... not. Tempering is the process of heating and cooling chocolate to the right temperature for a stable crystallization of cocoa butter. Tempered chocolate has a glossy shine with an appealing "hard snap" when bitten, whereas untempered chocolate has a weird, white powdery surface (called "bloom"). For the recipe below, I include instructions for tempering chocolate using The Seeding Method, which involves placing solid, tempered chocolate into a bowl of melted chocolate. As the solid chocolate melts, its orderly cocoa butter crystals encourage the cocoa butter in the rest of the melted chocolate to reform in the same way — shiny and snappish.
- For tempering to work, it's important to use a good, high-quality chocolate bar and not chocolate chips. Chocolate chips are designed to hold their shape in high temperatures and has a different crystal structure from bar chocolate. I'm serious. Food engineering is crazy.
- a candy thermometer, preferably digital or instant-read (see baker's notes)
- a wire rack
For the Chocolate Caramels:
- 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 5 ounces 70% dark chocolate, finely chopped
(enough for double coating 24 rectangular caramels)
- 8 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped
- flaky sea salt (I used Jacobsen Vanilla Bean Flake Salt)
- Generously butter an 8-inch square pan.
- In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine 1 1/4 cups heavy cream and 2 cups unsalted butter. Heat over medium heat until melted. Set aside.
- In a separate, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 cups granulated sugar. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature constantly until the sugar reaches 300 (F).
- When the sugar reaches 300 (F), ladle a small amount of the cream and butter mixture (from the 2nd step) to the caramelized sugar. It will boil and sputter violently, but this is normal. Continue ladling the cream and butter mixture into the sugar until completely combined; heat the mixture to 260 (F), before adding 5 ounces finely chopped dark chocolate, using a heatproof rubber spatula to stir the mixture until it is a uniform golden-brown color.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared 8-inch square pan and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.
- When the caramel has cooled completely, slice the caramels into square or rectangular shapes. Transfer the caramels to a sheet of wax paper. Prepare a wire rack by placing over a baking sheet (this will catch any excess chocolate and salt that fall off the caramels).
- Set aside about one-third of the 8 ounces of finely chopped chocolate. Place the remaining two-thirds of chocolate in a double boiler, or a heatproof glass or metal bowl set over a saucepan full of simmering water (if doing the latter, make sue the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water). Allow the chocolate to melt, stirring occasionally and monitoring the temperature with a candy thermometer.
- When the chocolate has fully melted and reached just above 105 (F), remove the pot (or bowl) from heat. Dry the bottom of the pot (or bowl) with a dish towel, before stirring in the reserved chocolate (from the 2nd step). Stir until the chocolate temperature drops between 88 - 90 (F).
- Carefully remove any unmelted pieces of chocolate and set aside. Test the temper by smearing a small amount of chocolate on wax paper, and allowing it to cool at room temperature for about 10 minutes. The chocolate should feel dry, with a smooth, streak-free and shiny finish. If the chocolate appears dull or streaky, you can melt the chocolate and repeat the tempering process.
- If satisfied with the chocolate, work quickly and place an individual caramel on a fork. Dip the caramel into the bowl of tempered chocolate until completely submerged, before transferring to the prepared wire rack. Sprinkle with sea salt. Repeat until all caramels have been covered in chocolate, and allow the caramels to cool completely.