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Here we are at the end of another month and posting another Daring Bakers Challenge. It’s the first time that I haven’t procrastinated on doing the challenge, but I’d never let that stop me from posting late. It’s still February 28 for a couple more hours, though, so here you go!

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE’s blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef.
We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

We served this cake as dessert at a semi-impromptu dinner party we hosted last weekend (more on that tomorrow). While we’re on the theme of lateness, I will admit to you that we served this cake at midnight (gulp) because I didn’t start making it until after dinner. It did, however, come together very quickly, and it’s totally possible to throw this together at the last minute.

I used Green and Black’s Maya Gold chocolate for the cake, pairing it with a David Lebovitz-recipe coffee ice cream. The ice cream was fantastic (it’s Carlo’s favourite). The cake tasted like– well, it had 4 and a half chocolate bars in it. It tasted like chocolate. Carlo and I found the cake to be a bit too heavy and rich for our tastes, but then we’re not big cake fans, period. Our guests went back for seconds, though, so I think that means it was a success!

Thanks to Tony for taking the cake photo. Considering that it was taken at midnight (=NO LIGHT), I think it looks pretty great.

If you’d like the recipe, check out Wendy or Dharm’s blogs (links above).

Now that the celebrations (and thus the expectations) are over, I can tell you that I love New Year’s. Sure, I understand that it’s a totally arbitrary celebration, that the difference between December 31 and January 1 is nonexistent, that all those ambitious resolutions we make are a little bit silly, and getting blotto just because one day turns into another one is stupid.

Minus the getting too drunk to think part (which is never a good idea), though, I don’t think the ritual is dumb at all. Okay, so it’s arbitrary and it fakes a pattern onto what is essentially randomness. But that’s our whole lives, isn’t it? I love how people  make order out of chaos, I love that people make the effort to mark the passage of time, I love the ambition and hope of resolutions. Even if they’re unattainable, they’re sweet, don’t you think? I (or you, or that armchair explorer who decides this is the year he’ll run a marathon) love believing that I can fix the things that are wrong, that I can wipe the slate, start something new, be better faster stronger.

So Carlo and I had a good New Year celebration, just the two of us at home, and I made him talk about 2008 and all the good things that happened/we did during the year, and we made some plans for the next year too (a lot of them blog- and food-related–hold on to your hats!). And I decided that the ritual needed some tradition, so we ate 12 grapes at midnight. Arbitrary choice, yes, but I made it mostly because I had a recipe I wanted to use. It’s all random anyway, so who cares if it’s not our tradition? The act matters less than its symbolism. Plus I really wanted to make these grapes.

Of course, because I am who I am, these were no ordinary grapes. This is a recipe from Michel Richard’s “Happy in the Kitchen,” a whimsical book with lovely ideas. Richard says  that when you offer these grapes to people, they invariably say “‘No thanks, I’m full already,’ no doubt thinking that you are presenting a dense chocolate bonbon. Then, when they bite in and get a juicy, tart squirt of flavour, they always reach for another.” Sounds perfect, right? This description is right on. The finished product looks like craggy little truffles, and the combination of the sweet juicy pop of grape and the smooth richness of dark chocolate is fantastic. It was a great first food for the new year, but don’t let the New Year stop you. Like any good resolution, these grapes shouldn’t be tied to a particular moment. They’re so easy to make and so charming, I think you should have them anytime at all! I know I’ll be eating more of them very, very soon.

Chocolate Grapes
Adapted from Michel Richard

1 pound cold firm seedless grapes, stemmed
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I used 70%), melted and slightly cooled (Richard advises checking the temperature of the melted chocolate by touching it to your lip. If it feels the same temperature, it’s a good temperature to be used)
1 to 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1. Rinse and dry the grapes well, then place them in a large bowl. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Add the chocolate to the grapes a spoonful at a time, tossing the grapes to coat them evenly (I used my spatula both for tossing the grapes and for adding the chocolate).
3. The chocolate will begin to set and harden a bit. When this happens, use a small fine-mesh strainer to sprinkle cocoa powder over the chocolate-coated grapes. Gently toss/stir the grapes so that they’re evenly covered in cocoa powder (be sure to do this step after the chocolate has sufficiently cooled, or else the cocoa will just be absorbed into the chocolate instead of coating it).
4. When the grapes are all coated and separated, remove them to your waiting baking sheet and place them in the fridge to cool until the chocolate is set. When you want to eat the grapes, leave them out to sit for about 10 minutes or so before you eat them, or else the chocolate is too cold and doesn’t taste as good.
5. A final note–the bowl you used for your grapes will be coated with cooled chocolate. Don’t waste it! I scraped it out and saved it to melt for hot chocolate.

I’m nothing if not a project-lover. As if NaBloPomo weren’t enough, I decided at the beginning of November that this would be a great month to commit to working out.  I’m trying to exercise every day this month. Before you start cautioning me and advising Carlo to have me committed, no, I’m not running every day, or even lifting weights. I’ve got a wonderful yoga class once a week, and I count a good walk as exercise, and I’ve got a free month-long membership at the Y, so I can branch out a bit. I’m being smart about it. Yesterday, my plan was to go down to the Y and try out their yoga class, see if it was as good as my regular one.

Only… I decided I needed to make fudge. This urge was so strong, I couldn’t possibly wait until after the course. The sugar, the milk, the cream, and the cocoa were screaming to be tossed into a pot right now, and who am I to refuse? So instead of yoga, I made fudge. I wish I could direct you to the site that inspired me to do this, but alas, I can’t find it and can’t remember it.

Once my ingredients were simmering, and I was practicing patience and wielding my thermometer, waiting for soft ball stage (234-240 F), I started thinking– is fudge really worth skipping yoga for? If this particular fudge wasn’t spectacular, I was obviously going to feel guilty all afternoon. In self-defense, my mind started reeling through possible fudge-fudging possibilities, searching for something to add value to my candy. And then I remembered a chocolate bar that intrigued me recently: the Chocophilia Fleur de Sel chocolate bar that a fantastic local chocolatier, Kerstin’s Chocolates, makes. I thought about my fudge, and thought about how fudge is always so rich, and (if you do a good job, anyway), so smooth. And I thought, yes, salt in my fudge is a great idea. It would cut the richness of the fudge a little, add a bit of crunch to contrast the smoothness, and as we all know, a pinch of salt in sweets always ups the flavour.

My experiment was a success, the salt giving the fudge just an extra pop of flavour and a welcome bit of texture to what turned out to be a lovely, smooth confection. Of course, not just any salt will work for this. You really need a large-crystalled, pure-flavoured salt, something that won’t disappear into the fudge but will maintain its own character even swathed in chocolate (try fleur de sel or Maldon salt). And of course, you don’t need a lot. A little salt goes a long way. I used a little fleur de sel mixed into my fudge, but I found it had the most impact sprinkled on top.

I enjoyed my fudge, and then I went for a walk. Cooking and exercise. My projects are fulfilled.

Fleur de Sel Fudge
This recipe is easiest with a candy thermometer, but if you’re comfortable without, look for soft ball stage by dropping fudge into a glass of cold water. If it forms a soft ball, you’re ready to go.

1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. fleur de sel, divided

1. Grease an 8×8 square or 9-inch round cake pan with butter. Set aside.
2.Place milk, cream, sugar, and cocoa powder in a heavy-bottomed pot, and bring to a boil on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When the mixture is boiling, turn it down to medium to prevent it from boiling over. Monitor with a candy thermometer, stirring occasionally if necessary.
3. When mixture reaches soft ball stage, or 234-240 F, remove from heat and beat vigorously until the mixture has lost its glossy appearance. Stir in butter and vanilla, then gently stir in 1/2 tsp. fleur de sel.
4. Pour fudge into prepared cake pan, and sprinkle remaining fleur de sel on top. Leave to cool before cutting into small squares.

There was some talk a few months ago about Vosges’ new bacon-flavoured chocolate bar. When I first heard about it, I immediately started imagining the smoky saltiness of good bacon buried in smooth, rich chocolate. I went on chocolate-search alert. Unfortunately for me, I saw neither rind nor rasher of it. But I kept imagining those flavours. Last month, when I was contemplating–again–how much I love my ice cream maker, it suddenly hit me! If bacon works in a chocolate bar, why can’t it work in ice cream? I wrote the idea down, which is why for weeks, visitors have been puzzled by the note on our fridge that reads “Bacon-Choco Ice Cream.”

In my imaginings I always pictured dark chocolate, so when I started recipe planning, it was with something much darker than the milk chocolate Vosges uses. Our base recipe comes from Kate Zuckerman’s incredible cookbook “The Sweet Life.” (go. buy it. you won’t regret it.) In her recipe for dark chocolate sorbet, Zuckerman explains how the starches in chocolate absorb water at certain levels of heat, becoming incredibly creamy. I figured this was the way to go, as I couldn’t quite imagine the bacon bits nestled into a custard base. Maybe I’m wrong about this. Next go-round, anyone?

So. We had the concept of the base down. The bacon was next. I decided to candy the bacon so that it wouldn’t clash with the chocolate. I dipped the bacon in sugar and baked it until it was crispy. Then I mixed it into the incredibly rich, creamy, delicious chocolate sorbet. Quick note–this sorbet is an absolute must-try, bacon or no bacon. In her intro to the recipe, Zuckerman says that people are always shocked that the sorbet has no dairy. There’s a reason for this. Go look at the picture at the beginning of this piece again. Ignore our sub-professional photo skills and instead look at the sheen. It’s a thousand times silkier in the mouth than it even shows in the photo.

The chocolate sorbet with the bacon mixed in, however, is a whole different experience. Because the bits are mixed in after the sorbet, they don’t change the initial flavour or or silkiness at all. However, once your mouthful of chocolate has melted a bit, you get a little bacony, salty crunch. We liked how the salt cut through the heaviness of the chocolate, and how the smoky bacon flavour melted into the last vestiges of the rich chocolate at the end of every bite.

Cooking notes–
-Make sure your bacon is diced small. I was a bit lazy and left some larger bits (like 1/4 inch), and those few interfered with rather than complimented the chocolate.
-The candied bacon was beautiful coming out of the oven, but in hindsight we weren’t sure we needed to candy it. Maybe it was a cowardly move? You tell me. Next time, I might try just frying it up nice and crisp and mixing it in without the sugar protection.
- This is obviously not going to work with just any bacon. We got our smoked bacon from Porcmeilleur, at the Jean-Talon Market, but there are a few places around Montreal that might be worth trying. I think maple-smoked bacon would be delicious in this.
-If you don’t own an ice cream maker, I discovered that the base for this sorbet thickens into a beautiful silky puddingy mass in the fridge. So you can still play along. After you’ve prepared the sorbet base, ladle it into individual serving bowls and place them in the fridge. In a few hours, they will be thickened to a pudding consistency. Then, if you want to get in on the bacon, you could sprinkle the candied bacon on top.
-Use the best cocoa powder you can justify, as it is really the flavour base for this sorbet. Carlo went all crazy and insisted on Valhrona cocoa powder. It was <ahem> $13 for 250 grams, but WOW is it amazing.

DARK CHOCOLATE BACON CRUNCH SORBET

for the sorbet, adapted from The Sweet Life by Kate Zuckerman
3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp. sugar
2 1/4 cups water
3 tbsp. corn syrup
6 oz. dark chocolate (we used two Valhrona chocolate bars, one 55% and the other 66%)
1 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

for the bacon
app. 8 slices of bacon (more or less depending on the meatiness of your bacon)
1/2 cup white sugar

Chop the chocolate into small pieces and combine it with the cocoa, which you have sifted into a medium stainless steel bowl.

On the stovetep, combine  2 1/4 cups water, sugar and corn syrup. Bring the mixture to a boil and then remove it from the heat.

Whisk 1/3 of the sugar syrup into the waiting bowl of chocolate. The chocolate will make you nervous at first, as it seizes a little. Add another 1/3 of the syrup, whisking all the time. By the time you add your last 1/3 of sugar syrup, the mixture should be smooth and silky. Continue whisking this mixture for about five minutes, until you think it’s smooth and silky. If you notice any chunks of cocoa in your sorbet base, you can pass it through a fine-mesh strainer. Cool the mixture over an ice bath (fill a bowl larger than the one your base is in with ice cubes and water. Place your bowl inside the icy bowl, and continue to whisk it until it is cool). Place your base in the refrigerator to cool completely and thicken. Zuckerman recommends at least four hours.

While your sorbet base is cooling, prepare your bacon. First, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Next, coat your bacon slices with sugar. I did this by pouring a small amount of sugar onto a plate and then pressing the bacon into it. Next time, I might try just sprinkling it over the bacon, like this method. Place the bacon on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and bake it for 8 minutes. After 8 minutes, remove it from the oven, and turn it over, baking it for another 8 minutes. Keep a close eye on it, because it burns fast. When the bacon is done, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool before dicing it into small pieces. You should have about 1/2 cup of bacon bits to add to your sorbet. If you have any extra, reserve it for garnish.

After the sorbet base has cooled for a few hours, freeze it in your ice cream maching according to manufacturer’s instructions. It is done when it has gained volume and it holds the marks of the stirring mechanism, like stiffly-whipped cream. Now you have to work quickly. Remove the sorbet from your machine to a storage container, quickly stirring in your bacon bits in batches as you fill the container. Store your sorbet in the freezer for a couple hours to harden it. Or, if you’re like us, just ignore the last instructions and eat super-soft sorbet.

From http://www.supperinstereo.com’s Album
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