chocolate and salt

my semester is almost over, but while i’m wrapping my  last few papers and exams up, i thought i’d share one of my pieces here. the next few days will be filled with learning my way around my new camera, and then there should be plenty of photos to come…

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Chocolate is one of those simple pleasures that most people are powerless to resist. Add a pinch of salt and chocolate takes on a whole new dimension, with an unexpected fullness and captivating flavor that brings any dessert to new heights. 

These two major players are pillars of the ancient and modern culinary world, each demanding attention and devotion. For every person with a sweet tooth you find another with a preference for salt. Many claim to have both. Chocoholics in particular are a fiendish group, embracing their addictions and using the decadent ingredient in every way imaginable. Champions for salt constantly reach for anything savory, briny, acidic or fried. Combining sweet and salty satisfies almost any craving, and simple snacks like caramel popcorn and flavored nuts have been popular for decades, as well as more sophisticated caramels covered with chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt.

Both of these irreplaceable ingredients have long food histories. Chocolate is crafted from the cacao bean, which is roasted, ground, and combined with other ingredients to make it more palatable. The Aztecs, who cultivated the bean in Mexico thousands of years ago, used it in a creamy drink with vanilla and chilies. Once Europeans discovered it, they took out the spice and sweetened it up with milk and sugar. Modern chocolate goes through a complicated production process, and is crafted into many varieties to satisfy every palate. Chocolate is often considered a guilty pleasure, a necessary indulgence, and a culturally accepted form of hedonism.

On the other hand, salt has played an important role in human civilization since its discovery. This mineral has been used as currency, preservative, and even military tool, with winning armies salting the earth to mark conquered territories. The cause of wars, reason for hefty taxes, and the agent for the formation and downfall of cities, salt has always been involved in the struggle for power. Used to create any number of secondary items, like pickled vegetables or mineral baths, its simplest purpose is to act as a flavor amplifier, adding dimension and depth to almost any food or dish. Salt can now be found just about everywhere, and has hundreds of types and variations for every imaginable purpose.

In general, a touch of salt is necessary to keep flavors balanced and palatable. Salt has been combined with sweeter items for hundreds of years, most notably in France with their salted caramels, but adding a bit more salt than strictly necessary creates an incredible surprise. Topping brownies, truffles, or a simple bar of chocolate with extra salt forms a rich dichotomy that has to be tasted to be believed. Something about that additional pinch of sodium – whether you combine rich dark chocolate with fleur de sel, or creamy milk chocolate with smoked salt – forms a delicious, irresistible fusion.

If you’re anxious to try this exciting combination, Boston is a wonderful city to find tempting sweets that fit the bill. A great place to start is Beacon Hill Chocolates on Charles Street, which produces an overwhelmingly large selection of handmade chocolates. Their Olive Oil and Sea Salt Truffle, filled with dark chocolate ganache, gives a delicious mouthful of the ideal sweet and salty combination. For more decadence, head to Sweet Cupcakes in the Back Bay or Harvard Square to try the worthy Salted Chocolate brownie cupcake, no frosting necessary. The dense cake is rich and smooth, and the crunchy salt adds a delicious snap that brings the creamy chocolate flavor to life. Taza Chocolate in Somerville takes the trend a step further, adding black pepper to the Chocolate Mexicano Discs, which come two to a package and are designed for snacking. These bite-size treats combine kosher salt, Mexican chocolate and cracked black peppercorns in a surprising and unusual combination. The refreshing salt and smooth chocolate combine with the kick of the black pepper in a delightfully addictive way. And for the ultimate chocolate and salt experience, check out the Saturday afternoon Chocolate Bar located in the Langgham Hotel’s Cafe Fleuri. This overwhelming menu takes adventurous eaters through the five elements of taste, all featuring chocolate: sour, sweet, bitter, savory, and of course, salty. This last course includes exquisite soft pretzel sticks filled with dark chocolate and topped with sea salt, along with a beautifully textured Peanut Crunch Cake with layers of chocolate mousse, flourless chocolate cake, and crushed salted peanuts.

If you’re more interested in crafting your own confections, there are a number of easy ways to combine different types of salt and chocolate. Melting premium chocolate over pretzels, salted nuts or even potato chips is a delicious and simple way to satisfy your cravings at home. Topping your favorite cookie, cake or brownie recipe with fine sea salt is another easy option. Or for the dedicated chocoholics, try handmade chocolate truffles topped with flaky sea salt for an extraordinary concoction. No matter how you get your fix, trust this – you’ll never go back to plain chocolate again.

Chocolate truffles with sea salt

Makes 36 pieces

8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract 
8 ounces meltable milk chocolate wafers
Sea salt

In a double boiler over medium low heat, heat semisweet and bittersweet chocolates and condensed milk, stirring gently, until melted and smooth. Stir in vanilla extract.

Remove from heat, cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Once chilled, remove from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Using a teaspoon or your fingers, roll chocolate into 1/2 to 3/4” balls. Arrange on baking sheet and refrigerate for 15 minutes or until firm.

In a microwave safe bowl, heat milk chocolate wafers according to package instructions, until melted. Stir gently until completely smooth.

Using a fork, dip chocolate balls into melted chocolate and rotate until completely coated. Arrange truffles on wax paper or baking mat. Sprinkle each truffle with a pinch of sea salt. Set aside or refrigerate until milk chocolate is firm.

Store truffles in an airtight container in a cool place for about 10 days.

Recipe adapted from Ree Drummond on her blog, The Pioneer Woman (http://www.thepioneerwoman.com).

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