SHF #27: the el Bulli sampler
There's nothing like entering a quality chocolate shop. Whoosh! Open the door and, without even having to cross the threshold, an alluring panoply of scents reaches out to envelop you. I always focus on that moment, inhaling every roasted, spicy, and sweet note I can before the sheer volume of sensation leaves me numb.
Cacao Sampaka is like that. A short walk from the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, Cacao Sampaka is the brainchild of Albert Adria, Ferran's brother and the pastry chef at el Bulli. Minimally decorated in shades that echo its product, Cacao Sampaka shows off its wares in display cases that call to mind a visit to Tiffany's or the Museum of Natural History rather than a chocolate shop.
Given Adria's pedigree, it should come as no surprise that the chocolates at Cacao Sampaka push limits. True, this chocolatier offers many traditional bonbons, but the brothers Adria have never shied away from risky flavours and combinations.
For the most part, these risks pay off. A hazelnut and anchovy bonbon can seem either intriguing or repellent, or both, depending on your perspective; surprisingly, it works. Occasionally the risk fails miserably. Rachel and I were both disgusted by the parmesan bonbon, which I described as "almost gaggingly awful" in my travel journal.
On the whole, we enjoyed the chocolates, though they were not the best we ate on the trip. Spending an afternoon wandering around Paris sampling chocolate really helps to put things in perspective, and ultimately our perspective was that Jean-Paul Hévin makes one hell of a ganache.
We've come full circle making these chocolates. Our first exposure to molecular gastronomy -- not to mention el Bulli -- was that casual visit to Cacoa Sampaka almost two years ago. Working on this blog has also exposed to numerous molecular gastronomy chocolate preparations, from Heston Blumenthal's white chocolate and caviar to el Bulli's chocolate and wasabi. We've even sampled a set of chocolates from Canada's pre-eminent molecular patissiers, DC Duby (click here for part one, and here for part two). Now we're making many of those same bonbons in our own kitchen.
SHF #27: Chocolate by brand, hosted by David Lebovitz, the Paris-based chocolate expert and cookbook author is the perfect opportunity to assemble what I like to think of as "The el Bulli Sampler." Rachel and I picked six promising bonbons from el Bulli: 1994-1997 and el Bulli: 1998-2002: lavender, saffron and lemon, Szechuan pepper, chicory, lime, and rosemary. Each bonbon is a flavoured ganache enrobed in chocolate. Callebaut chocolate, that is, both seventy percent dark and milk chocolate.
El Bulli's ganache recipe is fairly straightforward. Boil thirty-five percent cream, infuse it with the desired flavour, then pour the reheated cream over a mixture of dark and milk chocolate, butter, and invert sugar. Process it all in a blender then pour it into a mold to cool. The use of invert sugar (aka Trimoline) is intriguing. I gather it's for its characteristic, unique among sugars, of not crystallizing. This ensures a smoother, richer ganache.
Dipping ganache was quite the challenge, as it was our first time. Chocolate needs to be held within a narrow temperature range for tempering purposes, but we quickly learned the the ideal range for dipping is even narrower. Chocolate that was too cool resulted in misshapen Franken-lumps: delicious but ugly. We eventually hit upon the technique of spearing a square of ganache with a toothpick, dipping its sides in a spoonful of chocolate, and then smoothing over the toothpick holes.
The results are impressive. The chicory bonbon appears to be the most popular amongst our chocolate-loving friends. It's a flavour we've used before in DC Duby's pan-fried bread pudding with chicory ice cream. We enjoyed its subtle, roasted coffee flavour so much then that I commented we would "certainly revisit it." I'm glad we did, because this pure milk chocolate bonbon is a delight.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the rosemary and saffron-lemon bonbons. Rosemary ganache has a powerful herbaceous taste which marries well with the complex flavours of Callebaut's dark chocolate. The saffron and lemon bonbon has two distinct flavour profiles: the metallic notes of saffron dominate the front of the palate at first, then the sensation soon gives way to the bright acidity of lemon.
The lavender and Szechuan pepper bonbons were good, just not especially memorable, and our lime ganache was not a complete success -- I screwed up somewhere, because the finished ganache did not set properly. Having said that, lime bonbons are a ray of sunshine on the palate even when made with sub-par ganache (I screwed up the texture, not the taste). We will certainly try it again.
So we need a bit of practice with the lime bonbons, and some more work on our dipping technique. Oh well, I'm sure even Ferran and Albert made a mistake or two along the way. In the meantime, we can close our eyes, inhale the scent, and pretend we're in Barcelona -- with the added benefit of being very popular with our friends.