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Chocolate
by Nick Malgieri

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

It's easy enough to produce yet another "sumptuous" book about chocolate. Admittedly, I too enjoy leafing through well-photographed, well-researched volumes about chocolate, but if I had access to even a fraction of the chocolate pictured, I would be wired twenty four hours a day. I'd rather have a carefully-written book on how to work with chocolate because, in my experience, the more chocolate you produce, the less you actually need to eat.

I've had the impulse to ask Nick Malgieri why he gave his ambitious book such a simple title: Chocolate, when most other authors seem impelled to use descriptors like "sinful" or "decadent." Then again, this is the author who wrote How To Bake; pretty straightforward, eh? But of course I already understood. Chocolate doesn't require adjectives; it speaks for itself.

Chef Malgieri is Director of Baking and Pastry at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. In 1998, I attended the fourteen-week full-time professional course he designed for the Institute. I had no idea exactly what was in store for me. Pastry, well that's creative, isn't it? One of the gentle arts, something like the Japanese sumi-e brush paintings I used to do in my teenage years. I think it was day two that Chef Malgieri shocked me out of this wishful dementia. He took the class through the first stages of working with cooked sugar solutions, the basis for most confectionary. Of course, he explained, the chef can judge the approximate consistency of the solution by using a candy thermometer; at 300 degrees, the solution is at the "hard crack" stage, for example. But real artists need to know the sugar boiling stage without using a thermometer. It's simple, just cool your hand in ice water, then stick your hand into the thickening ultra-hot solution quickly, grab some of it between thumb and forefinger, and plunge both hand and solution into an ice water bath before you cripple yourself. I was by far the oldest and also the sole male student during that session, and I wasn't about to chicken out in front of a dozen young women. I survived the operation unscathed, and so did they. In fact, we all took to the process, and switched to thermometers only reluctantly.

Hence, I laugh when people tell me that working with chocolate is "hard." You can hardly injure yourself with a substance that is most comfortable at body temperature. If you fail, the results might not look pretty, but you can still sneak into a corner and gorge yourself.

Nick Malgieri is no martinet; he knows how to teach. He also knows that true teaching is not synonymous with over-simplification. Chocolate is written with that fact in mind. Yes, you do need to be careful and patient. Yes, you do need to understand how ingredients (and few are more capricious than chocolate) work together. And, yes, you do need some basic intelligence to produce chocolate masterworks. No one needs to work with chocolate to satisfy the kids' appetites at dinner or snack time. Chocolate is something we do for the love of it. Chef Nick shows us how to do it for the love of it.

Nick Malgieri would not be Nick Malgieri if he didn't begin Chocolate with a complete overview of the history and culture of chocolate You'll get to appreciate what a long road chocolate has traveled since the Spanish conquistadors first learned of it from the Mexican Aztecs in the sixteenth century. Chocolate charmed (and addicted) Europe as a beverage for several centuries, but it wasn't until the nineteenth century that European pioneers like Conrad van Houten, Rudolphe Lindt, and Jean Tobler (all of whose names have been immortalized as high-end chocolate brands), and Americans like James Baker (of the baking chocolate brand) and Milton Hershey (of the Pennsylvania chocolate giant) brought chocolate into the food industry mainstream. Cacao trees are maddeningly difficult to grow; harvesting must be done by hand; beans must be fermented, then sun-dried, then roasted, and only then is the cacao shipped from its tropical home to chocolate factories all over the world. In the factory, the cacao goes through a number of sophisticated and costly processes that result in the many varieties and quality levels of chocolate products we now take for granted. The chocolate we buy today may have begun as a combination of beans from South America and Africa, processed into chocolate slabs or pellets in Europe, configured into chocolate showpieces by a dedicated artist in America. Climate and weather changes in cacao producing countries like the Ivory Coast make business news headlines; international futures and options markets allow speculators to guess on cacao price moves. The only thing simple about chocolate is the knowledge that it is so complicated that scientists have never been able to come close to synthesizing it in the laboratory. The best they can do is figure out how to cut corners and costs during the manufacturing process.

Nick Malgieri's Chocolate is a demanding, no-compromises book, simply because there are so many ways home cooks can be tempted to relax their standards. Inexpensive "compound chocolate," a product based on cottonseed oil, is one of them. It's easy to work with and inexpensive, but it's not the real thing. Chef Nick would rather have us learn to achieve a temper pure cocoa-butter-based chocolate, the way the professionals do, for better flavor, surface sheen and that quality chocolate "snap." Tempering involves coaxing the fat molecules in the chocolate to line up in the right direction; it requires quick wits and sensitivity to small temperature variances. It sounds tricky at first, but Malgieri is a dedicated teacher; he won't let you fail. You break through barriers, you learn, and you become a better cook.

Food photographer Tom Eckerle's contributions to Chocolate are exquisite, capturing every chocolate grain and nuance of shade, but Malgieri's scholarship, depth and leadership qualities make Chocolate a must-have-on the counter, not the shelf. (It's a handsome volume but, go ahead, stain it.) The cakes section alone is book length: first explaining in detail basic methods for producing cake layers for chocolate cakes, using genoise and sponge cake rounds and sheets, then moving into scores of meticulously delineated examples of plain cakes ("Chocolate Sour Cream Cake"), single-layer cakes ("Vermont Farmhouse Devil's Food Cake"), rolled cakes ("Swiss Roll," and the "Traditional Bûche de Noël" or "Yule Log"), layer cakes ("Chocolate Chestnut Cake"), meringue cakes ("Chocolate Pavlova"), molded cakes ("Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Cake"), cakes in bowls ("Chocolate and Vanilla Trifle"), and individual cakes ("Chocolate Buttermilk Cupcakes with Boiled Icing"). Malgieri goes on to give equal depth to cookies, creams, mousses, custards and soufflés, ices and frozen desserts, pies, tarts and pastries, chocolate confections, sauces and beverages, and finally a pair of sections on the demanding subjects of chocolate decorations and showpieces.

Every recipe in Chocolate fits in with Malgieri's overarching purpose as an educator: to cover the field, teaching, explaining, and coaching serious, intelligent cooks, both amateur and professional (in my first professional cooking job, Nick Malgieri's How To Bake served as a continual resource for the entire kitchen). The choice of recipes in Chocolate reflect the extremely broad circle of friends and professional associates Chef Nick has acquired over a long career in baking and pastry education. Every recipe in Chocolate, or any of Nick Malgieri's books, is painstakingly tested by a team of expert, dedicated chefs. Obviously, the team tests for flavor, texture, and appearance; once or twice some of these oeuvres have filtered down in bite-sized pieces to me, more for my enjoyment than for my opinion. Less obviously, but critically, the testers test the recipes for clarity, readability and, most important, reproducibility under real-life conditions in non-professional kitchens. The rule is that even the most intelligent, savvy cook can misunderstand a poorly written recipe, even for the simplest of dishes. Cooking may be both a science and an art, but recipe writing requires psychological engineering. For a cookbook to be worth purchasing, using, splotching, it needs to empower its readers to cook with knowledge, perspective and confidence. Chocolate succeeds in all these respects. The sacrifice and attention Chef Nick demands are worth it, however, since once you become dedicated, you earn the right to be decadent. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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