Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Chocolate-Pistachio Apricots

Chocolate-Pistachio Apricots

10-20 Dried, unsulphered apricots (purchase at your local natural food store)
8 oz good quality bittersweet chocolate (see Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier entry)
½ cup pistachios, shelled, roasted and chopped

Place wax or parchment paper on cookie sheet.
Heat the chocolate in a microwave safe container for 1 minute at a time, stirring in between until all chocolate is just melted.
Dip apricots, one at a time, halfway into chocolate and then into chopped pistachios.
Lay on cookie sheet. When done, refrigerate apricots for about 20 minutes until chocolate hardens. Remove from wax paper. Eat. (Can be stored up to 2 weeks in airtight container.)

Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier

Gail Ambrosius Chocolate: Simply Divine

As the economy continues to take turns for the worse, it becomes harder to decide where to cut personal expenses. Hair cut? Next month. Sushi dinner? After tax returns. Shopping spree? Next summer. Family vacation? Next year. New car? Next decade. Chocolate? Wait a minute, I’m not giving that up! Market research shows that premium chocolate sales actually do well in a depressed economy. Not surprising given that even a small morsel of chocolate can coax you out of many otherwise dark moments. No wonder botanists named the cacao plant Theobroma cacao, literally meaning “food of the gods.” In my opinion, chocolate is food fit for both gods, and mere mortals.

There is something about chocolate that most people find hard to resist. For me, it is the smooth, sweet, yet slightly bitter taste of the processed cocoa beans that keeps me going back for more. That “something” that makes chocolate seemingly addictive has names: phenylethylamine, theobromine, anandamide and tryptophan, for example. These chemicals actually function as mood enhancers, though there is no hard evidence that they are addictive, or that there is enough of them in a normal serving of chocolate to really create a “high.” Though the chemical constituents might be the same, all chocolates are not created equal. Artisan chocolate has become more popular as people demand better taste and attention to quality. Here in Madison, WI we are lucky to have a few local chocolatiers, including Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier.

When I stepped inside Gail’s store on Atwood Avenue, I immediately felt like I had walked into a small European bakery. Natural light pours through the large windows that face the street, and makes it easy to get a look at the truffles and chocolates in the glass display case. Though the store is small, the atmosphere is lively and welcoming. You can see into the kitchen through a hole cut in the back wall, and watch Gail and her employees mixing, dipping and pouring chocolate.

Gail has an obvious talent for both the art of making chocolate and running a small business, though she has admittedly studied hard as well. Before she opened her store in 2004, Gail spent time in Paris studying chocolate making with the renowned Valrhona and Cluizel families of chocolatiers—and “unabashedly sampled lots of world-class chocolates” while there. Tough trip! Kidding aside, Gail’s hard work has paid off. Gail won the top spot in Make Mine a $ Million Business program, which helps women grow their businesses by providing financing, marketing and educational support. Recently, she won an award for her “three hot nuts” bar at the prestigious Next Generation Chocolatier Competition in New York City. Gail has also won local favor, earning Silver Medal Award in the Best Candy/Chocolate Store category of Madison Magazine's annual Best of Madison awards.

Simply put, her chocolate is divine, and her commitment to supporting women in business, farmers in Central America and creating a quality product keep her business flourishing. Gail uses the finest ingredients, such as single-origin cacao. She also avoids preservatives and waxy stabilizers. Gail puts her talents to work creating exquisite truffles such as maharajah curry with saffron and white chocolate shavings, and cardamom with orange blossom. I recently tasted her baby seas turtles, gold-bellied buddha, and peppermint truffle. The turtles were exquisite. The caramel was not too sweet, with a subtle roasted quality. The nuts perfectly complemented the caramel and bittersweet chocolate. The peppermint truffle provided a perfect crunch of mint countered by a smooth chocolate center. Fittingly, the buddhas looked unpretentious from the outside, but presented a divine inside of rich dark truffle.

I certainly recommend eating her chocolates and truffles “as is.” But if you are feeling adventurous, I enjoyed using her chocolate to complement the chewy tanginess of dried apricots and the sweet crunchiness of pistachios. I call these Mediterranean-influenced creations Chocolate-Pistachio Apricots. There is just something about this nutritious chocolate treat that I think you will find hard to resist. Guten Appetit!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best-ever Banana Bread

Though solstice was only last weekend, I already feel as though I am in the heart of winter. Snow has fallen and keeps coming, giving me just enough time to soak my weary back before I have to shovel again. Hunkering down in the kitchen to put together a warm meal, or to bake seems to help ease some of that back pain, too. I am particularly into baking right now and make banana bread on a regular basis. I have become known for this banana bread, which is adapted from Sundays at Moosewood by Molly Katzen. It is hands down the best I have ever tasted and can be amended in so many ways.

Basic Banana Bread Recipe
Preheat oven to 350.

1/2 cup butter softened
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs, whisked
3 tbsp yogurt or milk
3 ripe bananas, smashed (about 1 cup)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
pinch nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

add ins: nuts, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, dried fruit (strawberries, raisins, candied ginger are all good). You can also experiment with using a little bit of rice or whole grain flour for part of the flour.

Mix wet ingredients until well blended. Then mix dry ingredients separately. Add dry ingredients to wet until just blended. Add nuts or chips if using. Pour in greased 9 x 5 loaf pan. Bake at 350 for about 50-60 minutes, or until knife inserted into center comes clean. Let cool 10 minutes before cutting! Guten Appetit!