Before the Internet, before cellphones, before even CD players, there was Alice Medrich and chocolate. At her chain of California chocolate stores, Cocolat, she originated the American-style chocolate truffle (larger, less dense than the French version), and authored eight cookbooks after selling her interest in the shops. All this is why Medrich is sometimes called the “First Lady of Chocolate.”
“Seriously Bitter Sweet” is Medrich’s latest book, a revision of her 2003 “Bitter Sweet.” I wouldn’t have thought that the first version needed updating, but it’s 10 years later and Medrich is not one to surrender the quest for perfection. The biggest difference between the two editions is that Medrich now specifies exact cacao percentages, rather than simply stating “bittersweet” or “semisweet.”
That doesn’t matter for Medrich’s Best Cocoa Brownies, where the active ingredient is unsweetened cocoa powder. It’s still a great brownie, with a distinct thin layer of surface atop the dense but not fudgy interior and contrasting textures with a deep alluring, almost coffee-like, taste.
Seriously Bitter Sweet
She invented a chocolate mousse recipe for her lactose-intolerant brother, Albert. It’s a refreshingly light sort of mousse, and good enough to work as your go-to recipe.
A plate of chocolate-topped macaroons, dubbed Coconut Saras, gave me a bit more trouble. Despite carefully following the mixing instructions, I found myself with runny coconut batter, and my macaroons turned out looking a bit more like lumpy tuiles. Nevertheless, I persevered through the ganache and the glaze, and in the end I ate them all. That’s me, taking one for the team again.
The warm mocha tart has one of those melted-butter press-in crusts that seem so downright unprofessional when you’re making them, but turn out crumbly and delicate on the tongue. The espresso powder and cocoa combination — also easy, pretty much a melt-and-dump situation — is so persuasive that I went ahead and made it for company soon after.
There are some savory, stove-top chocolate applications, mostly including cocoa powder or cocoa nibs, which you may or may not fall for. I find Medrich’s pasta sauce with prosciutto, olives, and cocoa nibs a little eccentric and a little dry, but still enchanting. More confusing are whole asparagus spears, dressed and sprinkled with cocoa nibs. They taste fine, but the nibs used as garnish fall right off, forcing you to choose between piggishly scraping them on to your fork, or compulsively pinching them back onto the stalks.
Given Medrich’s meticulous ways, it came as no surprise that nearly every recipe worked exactly as written. The one exception was the Queen of Sheba, an almond flour-based torte (and a favorite of both Medrich and many ordinary French households). It took 45 minutes to set in the middle, as opposed to the prescribed 30. I double-checked my oven thermometer for funny business, but found none. Regardless, the almond-scented, light-textured result with its extra-long sojourn in the oven were more than worth the wait.
Do you already have the old edition of “Bitter Sweet”? This is not one of those situations (like the one we had with the 1997 “Joy of Cooking”), where you have to have both editions of the same book. The new edition has a more spacious page but smaller type (that’s the fashion these days), it’s a bit more exact, and has a few more recipes. But if your old “Bitter Sweet” works fine, there’s no need to upgrade. Or you can wait a few more years for the next one. It might be digital or it might be paper, but you can be sure that Medrich will never stop tinkering.