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Chocolate and Salt: An Inspired Combination
The genesis for this article was an occurrence in my life quite some years ago now, when I was a summer intern for a company in Colorado that had a test kitchen (although they were better known for their stationery). I got to test all kinds of recipes for them and sometimes suggest improvements, although my boss needed very little help in the latter area; her knowledge of food far exceeded mine. One day, I was testing a flourless chocolate cake recipe for possible inclusion in one of the company’s sets of recipe cards. It was a very simple recipe---chocolate, butter, eggs, vanilla, and nothing else. The cake came out well enough, but it tasted flat. I knew I had used good ingredients, so I was puzzled by this result. Then my boss tasted the cake. She also pronounced it flat and asked to look at the recipe. When I showed it to her, she commented that the cake needed salt. I thought she was crazy, but, well, she was my boss. So, following her instructions, I made the cake the exact same way again, following the same recipe—except that I added a couple of pinches of salt. The difference it made was unbelievable. The cake had a much fuller chocolate flavor that sparkled on my taste buds.
That was an “aha!” moment for me. Ever since, I’ve put salt into almost everything chocolate that I’ve made. I believe that the key to adding salt to chocolate foods lies in quantity as much as type. Too often, I’ve come across chocolate cupcakes or brownies or other treats that look delightful, but taste overwhelmingly salty. Regarding chocolate desserts, I tend toward salt minimalism. Americans are so accustomed to salt in the many processed foods we eat that we don’t realize that more isn’t always better. You don’t need much to accomplish your objective here, which is to make the chocolate flavor of your dessert seem more chocolatey. So not for me the teaspoon of salt in the eight inch square pan of brownies; my additions of salt usually come in pinches and dashes.
If you’re like me, you grew up in a household where salt was salt; there was only one type. These days, though, we know better. Should you use one of the fancy specialty salts on the market? My belief here is that it depends upon what you’re making. If chocolate is the star, I use ordinary table salt. Its finer crystals will dissolve more quickly and completely in your food system, and in this case, whether you’re creating flourless chocolate cake or chocolate ice cream, you’re not especially looking to taste the salt; you’re using it to make the chocolate taste “pop”. Sometimes, though, you do want to taste the salt. There are occasions where the flavor, texture and/or appearance of salt contribute to the pleasure of eating a food (for instance, I know someone who dips miniature rice cakes into chocolate, then sprinkles them with salt before the chocolate covering sets). If any of these three circumstances applies, a specialty salt is the way to go. For an excellent guide to the many types of salt now available to consumers, see www.saltworks.us (click on Salt Info, then find Cooking/Culinary Related and click on Gourmet Salt Reference Guide). To answer your next question, yes, specialty salts are costlier than table salt—in some cases, substantially so. But then you don’t necessarily use them for everyday dishes, a fact which helps them to last longer.
The combination of chocolate and salt has really caught on in the US within the last ten or fifteen years! This is especially noticeable in combination with caramel. Most often, you’ll find caramel squares, dipped in chocolate and topped with a pinch of a specialty salt, but each chocolatier has his or her own way of handling this confection. Knipschildt Chocolatier, in Connecticut, enrobes a creamy caramel center in dark chocolate (this is a round piece, not a square one), and tops it with pink Hawai’ian sea salt. The piece is called “Hannah” (Knipschildt names all of their chocolates after women). Fran’s Chocolates has won raves for their smoked salt caramels, but they also make gray salt caramels. Lillie Belle Farms offers a lavender-infused caramel with a pinch of fleur de sel atop, and it’s one of their most-requested items. Pish-Pish Confections, in California, has developed Coastal Caramels, lovely, soft-textured caramels dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with Swan’s Island Sea Salt (note that this Pish-Pish sells online and prior to major chocolate holidays only). And, for those among us always seeking new tastes, there are Bacon and Salt Caramels. Xocolatl de David, the chocolatier behind these confections, is a small, Portland (Oregon)-based business, with some distinctly innovative ideas about what goes into their confections. They have other unusual chocolates, too, such as Salt and Pepper Caramels and XocoBeans, whole roasted cacao beans mixed with honey and fleur de sel. And the list goes on and on.
I have to admit to you that I wasn’t a big fan of the chocolate-salt combination at first. But in place of contempt, familiarity has bred affection; now, I find a well-made, salt-topped, chocolate-covered caramel to be a joy. If you don’t care for caramels, you can find other chocolate-and-salt based treats with very little effort. Poco Dolce has created “tiles”, all beginning with bittersweet chocolate and all topped with just a bit of grey sea salt. Flavor variations range from Almond Coconut to Aztec Chile to Sesame Toffee. There are chocolate truffles with salt, as well as bars that incorporate the chocolate-salt duo. Many of us know and love chocolate-dipped pretzels and potato chips. I’ve seen restaurant desserts that combined chocolate with salt. And who knows how many types of creations I’m omitting here, just from sheer ignorance? My point is, if you haven’t yet consumed a blend of sweet and salty tastes, with the glorious additional flavor of chocolate, you’re missing out on something special. Give this mix a try, and see if you don’t agree.
---Knipschildt Chocolatier, www.knipschildt.com
---Fran’s Chocolates, www.franschocolates.com
---Lillie Belle Farms, www.lilliebellefarms.com
---Pish-Pish Confections, www.pishpish.com/index.html
---Xocolatl de David, www.xocolatldedavid.com
---Poco Dolce, www.pocodolce.com
Recipe of the Month:
Pan con Chocolate y Sal
This is adapted from a 1999 recipe (by Amanda Hesser) in The New York Times. This recipe is quickly and easily made, and it’s very flexible.
2 baguette slices (day-old is OK), each about 1/2 inch thick
About 3/4 ounce best-quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil (see Note)
Fleur de sel or other coarse-grained specialty salt (do not use kosher salt here)
Adjust rack to upper third of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet or other flat, metal pan with aluminum foil.
Place baguette slices on baking sheet. Drizzle top of each slice very lightly with olive oil. Place into oven to warm for about 5 minutes. You’re not looking to toast the bread here, but if it begins to brown slightly, that’s fine. Remove from oven; divide chocolate evenly over tops of both baguette slices. Replace in oven for just a minute or two, until chocolate is barely melted. Remove from oven.
Transfer slices to a serving plate. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and top each baguette with a pinch of specialty salt (black or dark smoked salts won’t show up well against the chocolate).
Note: I try to match the olive oil I use to the food I’m making with it. Here, I like a fruitier, somewhat more robust olive oil, as anything too delicate would be overwhelmed by the bittersweet chocolate. But again, you can use what you like.
Chocolate Recommendation of the Month:
Coco Delice Fine Chocolates
Dennis Kearney is one talented individual. Mr. Kearney lives in northern California, and chocolates are his business, under the Coco Delice name. But you’ll not find chocolates like these in your local market or mall, I can promise you that. These confections are made from much better ingredients (yes, you can tell when you taste them). They tend toward the sophisticated, with a predominant use of dark chocolate, as the chocolatier himself prefers chocolate that isn’t too sweet. I’ve tried and enjoyed several examples of Coco Delice chocolates, including the caramelized, chocolate covered hazelnuts, which are exactly as their description states. The combination of textures and tastes is fantastic!
For the purposes of this article, however, I’ll focus on the Peanut Butter Bonbons and the Salty Caramels. The former, sure to be a favorite with peanut butter freaks near and far, is a lightly-salted organic peanut butter mixed with miniature chocolate chips, all covered in dark chocolate. It isn’t too dry or too salty; this is the peanut butter “cup” you’ll wish you’d grown up eating. They’re small, as well, so you might have to take a second one in the true spirit of scientific inquiry. The Salty Caramels are listed elsewhere on the site as a piece called the “Forais”. Either way, this is a dark-chocolate-enrobed blend of organic cream, semisweet chocolate, organic sea salt, and caramel. Here, too, the salt is used with a restrained hand, and the overall effect is brilliant. Mr. Kearney offers a number of other lovely chocolates, as well, and, best of all, online ordering is as easy as the proverbial pie. Surf over to the Coco Delice website, at http://cocodelice.com, and try one of these great chocolate-and-salt sweets for yourself!
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.