Chocolate Percentages

Since I wrote the book on chocolate I realize that I should be blogging more about chocolate, but all the answers to many of your chocolate questions can easily be found in The Great Book of Chocolate. This book is the ultimate guidebook to the world of chocolate and a wealth of information with delicious recipes. If you’re like me and can never have enough chocolate, this is the book for you.

Want to know the difference between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate? What’s the difference between Venezuelan and Ecuadorian cocoa beans? Which country produces the best chocolate? Which chocolatiers worldwide produce the most interesting and scrumptious chocolates? All the answers, and everything else you’ve ever wanted to know about chocolate, can be found in The Great Book of Chocolate.


One of the most common misconceptions about appreciating chocolate is that you should base your opinion on the percentage of cacao in the bar. The was reinforced this week when a close friend came to visit, and brought me a tablet of the fantastic chocolate from Cacao Sampaka in Barcelona, which I profiled for Saveur magazine last year in their 100 Best issue. Like everyone that I bring into chocolate shops, he was raving because the chocolate tablet that he graciously brought me (albeit half-eaten) was 71%! (…insert his enthusiasm here.) Like lots of people, everyone seems to expound upon the theory that the higher the better. (…insert everyone’s question here… “But what about anti-oxidants?…)


I like my friend very much and he may be reading this and if he is, I want him to continue to bring me care packages from Target and Trader Joe’s on his return visits so I don’t want to make him feel cuplable (well, maybe a little.) But I feel compelled to get folks to understand that the exact percentage of cacao in the bar is truly unimportant to the taste or even the bitterness. I’ve had chocolate bars that are 99% cacao that were palatable and other bars that were 80% cacao that were bitter and inedible (and I like very bitter chocolate.) I’ve had 90% bars that were amazingly good and smooth, while others were 60% and were crumbly and mushy.

So quit throwing your nose up in the air and saying, “I only eat chocolate that’s at least 75%.” To me, the numbers are, um, interesting, but not what I look for when evaluating chocolate, since by muddy chocolate-colored logic, that argument means that the 75% chocolate is inherently better than a 70% chocolate. It’s amazing with this analytical mind that I didn’t make my mother proud and become the lawyer (or better yet, the doctor) that she always wanted in the family.

Look what I have. Two Italian chocolates from Baratti & Milano in Torino:


One is 65% and the other is 80%. Does that mean the 60% is the worse of the two and should be avoided at all costs? You’ll also notice one is made from beans from Ghana and other from beans from Grenada. Quick: which one is better?

It means little to judge a chocolate based simply on a number (or origin, but that’s information that can be found in the book.)
The percentage doesn’t take into account…

The variety of beans,
The quality of the beans,
The careful roasting of the beans,
The blending of the beans by the chocolate-maker,
The sweetness of the beans themselves,
The acidity of the beans themselves.

I think part of the reason many of us Americans are hung up on high numbers (which is why we never adopted the metric system) because It sounds so much better to say, “Oh my gosh! It was 105 degrees today!” rather than, “Mon dieu, it was an unbelievable 40 degrees today!”

John Scharffenberger of ScharffenBerger chocolate says to pretend you’re Helen Keller when tasting chocolate; Don’t read the label and don’t listen to what others tell you. Taste the chocolate and judge for yourself. If you like it, it’s good chocolate!

Holy Pschitt!

As seen in a Paris café…


Kudos to Gideon for having the fortitude to try it.

Preserved Tomatoes Recipe (Confit of tomatoes)

tomato plate

Recently the proliferation of heirloom tomatoes at greenmarkets harkens back to the days of yore, when tomatoes were beautiful and irregular and presumably so full of flavor that after one bite you could boast about how good it was for the remainder of your life and try to make everyone feel like you know something that they don’t know and how much richer your life is than theirs because you’ve had this amazing tomato experience and they haven’t.


Nowadays the marketers and growers have gotten smart. It’s fairly easy to come across tomatoes sold ‘on-the-vine’ that look old-fashioned. But when you get them home and slice them open, they taste negligibly better than any of the other tomatoes at the supermarket…and cost twice as much. They just have a redder color and come with their stems attached.

campari tomatoes

Here’s an excellent recipe for encouraging flavor and sweetness from any tomatoes, even ones that are less-than-ideal, using a technique called making a confit. The slow roasting with olive oil concentrates and sweetens flavors, making ordinary tomatoes boast-worthy.


Confit of Tomatoes

Adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris

1. Buy some tomatoes, just about any variety will do. 2 pounds (1 kg) is a nice amount.

2. Wash and dry them, then slice them in half. Pour enough decent-quality olive oil in a baking dish so that it just covers the bottom of the dish, somewhere between 1/4 cup (60 ml) and 1/3 cup (80 ml) should do.

3. Sprinkle in coarse salt and freshly-ground black pepper, add a few branches of fresh thyme and/or a few sprigs of rosemary. Then line the bottom of the baking dish with the tomatoes, sliced-side down. Don’t be bashful; it’s okay to really pack them in.

4. Peel and slice 3 or 4 garlic cloves, slice them in half lengthwise and tuck them in the gaps between the tomatoes. Sprinkle the tomatoes with a bit more salt and a small sprinkling of sugar (less than 1 teaspoon) and add a few bay leaves.

5. Bake the tomatoes in a 350 F (180 C) oven until they are soft and cooked throughout (a paring knife should pierce them easily), which should take at least 45 minutes.

6. Once they’re soft, remove them from the oven and let stand until room temperature. You can scrape the tomatoes and juices and herbs into a container and refrigerate them for up to 4 to 5 days or use them right away. They will actually improve as they sit.

Use them to toss into pasta, slightly chopped, or warm them and spoon them whole onto hot garlic toasts, perhaps with a few filets of good anchovies, and shower them with lots of fresh herbs. They’re also nice served alongside a summer salad with some goat cheese, all drizzled with a bit of the tasty olive oil and juices.

Related Links and Posts

Canning Tomatoes (NCHFP)

Panzanella: Tomato & Bread Salad

Seville Orange Marmalade

Summer Tomato Salad

Cabbagetown Hummus

J’adore l’Ocean Spray

Look who’s come to Paris…
Cosmos… pour tous!

The Market in Le Neubourg

Just an hour or so from Paris is the medieval market at Le Neubourg where each wednesday locals crowd the market, choosing their fresh fruits and vegetable, regional raw-milk cheeses and just-churned golden-yellow crocks of butter, along with meats and hand-stuffed sausages from the jovial local bouchers, doling out crispy morsels of sautéed charcuterie.

It’s the kind of market where if you ask the poultry person for a quail, they’ll stick their hands in a box, there’ll be a flurry of activity within, the unsettling sound of ruffling feathers and squalking…then calm. A few seconds later, your dinner will emerge. The medival market at Le Neubourg is the real thing and has existed for hundreds of years and some of the wares are not for the squeemish.
Nowadays you’ll find vendors selling crisp frites sprinkled liberally with crystals of sel de Guérande, cheery Arabic vendors hawking frangant olive oil soaps, and rubber-booted fishermen presiding over piles of glistening mussels from nearby Brittany.

Being a baker, I think (and hope), has good karma. No animals have been harmed in the making of any of my desserts.
So aside from the live birds and furry bunnies for sale, what wowed me of course was the abundance of berries on display. Juding from the sweet perfume of the raspberries and the plumpness of the currants (as well as the stained fingers of the farmers) they’d obviously just been picked.

Perky sour cherries, which they’ve dubbed for some reason ‘cerises anglaise’.
Unusual crispy white cherries, a variety I’ve never seen before.
Black currants, red gooseberries and loganberries, which I’ve never found in France. The vendor told me they were framboises americain (American raspberries).
Tiny white and black currants, called cassis. Black currants have heavy tannins when eated raw, and but are unctuous and deeply-flavored when cooked. They’re widely used (and best known) for the syrupy crème de cassis.
A jumble of juicy and vibrant summer melons.

Lord ‘O The Memes

Beginning with choosing teams for third-grade Dodgeball to food blog memes, I’m accustomed to being the last one picked. But then I get tagged twice in one week! Along came my new gal-pal Meg, from Too Many Chefs, who snagged me for the cookbook meme that’s been going ’round.
Here goes….

1. Total number of cookbooks I’ve owned:
Well, er, when I moved out of San Francisco, I packed them all in boxes for storage, and there are about 18 per box. And, um, there were about 30 boxes, so that would make around 540. And that number was considerably higher before I sold a few off prior to the ‘big move’. In my petit Paris apartment, I have about 35 cookbooks.

2. Last cookbook I bought:
Fine Chocolates, Great Experience by Jean-Pierre Wybauw.
Jean-Pierre was my teacher in Belgium when I went to chocolate school at Callebaut and he’s one of the great talents in the world of chocolate. He worked deftly (and never got a drop of chocolate on him…ever) and was so patient with all his students. His book explains much about chocolate including how to make chocolates, enrobing them, and extensive information about the fabrication of chocolate. Much of it is geared towards professionals, who are distraught, since many are having a hard time finding this book in the United States.

3. Last food book I read:
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. Harold spent 10 years updating his original book (which no one initially wanted to publish…but eventually went into 17 printings!) This book answers every question you could have about food and cooking. Every cook should have a copy of this revised edition in their library. I read it cover-to-cover.

4. Five cookbooks that mean a lot to me:
In the last meme, I mentioned food writers who I admire, so I’ll list here 5 cookbooks that I actually use for everyday cooking…

Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Shere
Naturally, I’ve made more desserts from this book than any other and my kudos were echoed by Claudia Fleming, who I considered the best pastry chef in the US while she was at Grammery Tavern in New York. She told me it was her favorite dessert book of all time.

From Tapas to Meze by Joanne Weir
This is one book that I cook from often. The Feta-Cucumber Salad is the greatest recipe, in my humble opinion, although there’s lots to choose from. I love serving all the salads and vegetables and small-dishes from the regions represented: Spain, Italy, Morocco, Lebanon, and more.

French Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Loomis
Since moving to France, this cookbook helped immensely with the transition, as I learned about French ingredients and the way food is prepared here. Interspersed are informative stories about food production across France, as well as easy-to-follow recipes from farmhouses across the countryside, where the best traditional cooking is found.

Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts by Alice Medrich
Stop snickering. Just because the desserts are low-fat, doesn’t mean they aren’t fabulous. Nobody but Alice Medrich, the chocolate-guru, could create such amazing chocolate-rich desserts with reduced amount of butter and cream but no icky ingredients. It was here I learned when you adjust the amount of fat in desserts, you let the other flavors shine through. Everything I’ve made from this book, all these desserts, are winners, and not just the chocolate ones. The Chocolate Buttermilk Pound Cake is moist and has rich-tasting chocolate flavor and texture, and the Apricot Vermouth Cake is exceptional too. And that lofty Chocolate Souffle!

The Zuni Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
Someday I will get around to making the justly-famous Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad, but I have made many other things from this book with grand success. Judy has the rare ability to explain something like it’s never been explained before, sans the fluff. Her instructions for salt-brining have changed the way I cook; I’ve learned so much about food and cooking just leafing through this book. When Judy worked at Chez Panisse, she made me the best thing I ever ate in my life. Truly.
And you gotta love a book that starts off the dessert chapter with… “Dessert has the interesting duty of teasing out the last gasps of your appetite.”

5. Which 3 people would you most like to see fill this out in their blog?

Well, considering that last 3 people who I tagged with the previous meme aren’t speaking to me anymore, I’d better hit some ‘fresh meat’…

Lisa, aka the Amateur Gourmette

Stephanie, from Adventures of Pie Queen

The fine folks at Becks & Posh who may have already been tagged, but I like corresponding with them…so there!

Too Much (Recipe) Information?

Recently, I was thumbing randomly through cookbooks and came across a recipe. Here was the first ingredient in one…

“One Octopus, cleaned

That’s it. No explanation.
It’s like saying…

“One Whale, de-boned


“Three Puffins, feathers and beaks removed

I think those actions require perhaps a modicum of an explanation.
Yes? No?

On the other hand, if a recipe says…

“1 cup almonds, chopped


“8 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated

…I don’t think chopped or grated need further explanation. And indeed adding those instructions to a recipe would make it unnecessarily long and daunting. Honestly, any recipe longer than one or two pages freaks me out.

Is it worth the real estate on the page to say…

“Lift the almonds from the bag or storage container and distribute them in an even layer on a clean and dry wooden or plastic cutting surface. Be sure the surface is flat and preferably waist-high. Use your hand to grab the wooden handle of the knife, being sure to avoid the sharp blade end. Lifting from your elbows, direct the knife over the almonds on the cutting board and press downward while gently rocking the knife back and forth, moving the knife as necessary over the almonds, to cut them evenly. If some almonds fling across the counter, set down the knife and retrieve the errant almond pieces. Add them back to the mound of almonds and continue chopping.”

Now wasn’t that a mouthful?

A few years back a very talented pastry chef from New York came out with his first book. In the book was a three-page recipe for brownies, complete with full-color step-by-step photos. Holy Mother of Betty Crocker! Is there anyone in America who doesn’t know how to make brownies? It’s one thing to present a recipe, and to show how neat and fabulous they look when stacked on a lovely white Crate & Barrel plate, but do we need to see what the nuts look like when scraped into the brownie batter or an instructional photo of the bowl of melted chocolate and butter?

A writer recently went on a bender about cookbook authors that don’t list water as an ingredient. Often that’s not up to the author, but an editorial decision based on space (space=money, especially in magazines.) Believe it or not, one or two sentences can throw a whole page off-kilter. I’ve had copy editors direct me to go through a page and get rid of 7 words (in editor-speak, the “widows and orphans”.)
But Kate’s right, it is annoying to be making a recipe and find that the 2 cups of water that your supposed to divide between the chocolate cake batter and the frosting, you’ve just added to the mixture, which now looks like a muddy lagoon instead of a smooth, luscious glossy chocolate batter.

While Adam’s on vacation, Lisa’s been dubbed the Amateur Gourmette by Pim and was making a recipe for Butterscotch Pudding and it didn’t come out right.

The recipe calls for “2 cups milk”, but there in her photo is a carton of 2% milk. She is so busted. The recipe turned out to be a disaster. In her defense, the main reason the recipe didn’t taste good is it only calls for ¼ cup of brown sugar, which would add negligible butterscotch flavor. But did the recipe indicate “whole” milk or just say “milk”? Whole milk is normally critical to a pudding recipe. In that case, the recipe writer is so busted.

I decided to let her slide by on this one since she’s just the substitute and everyone likes to pick on the substitute, but I’m sure when Adam gets back, there’s gonna be hell to pay.

So here’s a concise, and photo-free, recipe for Butterscotch Pudding:

Butterscotch Pudding

1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter (salted or unsalted), melted
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 1/4 cups whole milk
½ teaspoon salt
3 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons dark rum or whisky
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. In a large bowl, make the butterscotch base by mixing the brown sugar with the melted butter (note the lack of a picture here.) Set aside.

2. Put the yolks in a small bowl and stir briefly (no photo here eith…Huh? ok, I’ll stop…it’s getting obnoxious.)

2. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch with a small amount of the milk until smooth. Pour the rest of the milk into a heavy saucepan and scrape in the slurry of cornstarch and the salt.

3. Cook over medium heat, stirring with a whisk constantly, until the mixture thickens and begins to boil. Whisk a small amount of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks and then scrape the warmed egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan.

4. Keep cooking and stirring the custard until it comes to a boil again. It will become quite thick and mound up like mayonnaise. Remove it from the heat and pour it into the butterscotch base. Add the rum and vanilla and whisk until the butterscotch has dissolved into the custard. Pour into large serving bowl.

Chill (…in the refrigerator, duh!)

Note: I’ve updated the recipe since several readers thought there was too much butterscotch flavor. Feel free to use light brown sugar in place of the dark brown for a milder flavor.

Fromagerie François Olivier

When people ask me the rather silly question, “Why do you live in France?”, I simply direct them to the nearest fromagerie. Yes, there’s great food to be found everywhere: Spain has great ham and crisp, almondy turrone, Italian olive oil and gelato in Italy are the best anywhere. And when in New York who can resist the chewy bialys and bagels? But there is nothing comparable to the cheeses of France…


In the small city of Rouen, in Normandy, is one of the few remaining affineurs in France. As you may know, once milk is formed into molds, it needs to be properly ripened to become cheese. The ripening can be for just a few hours or can last up to several years for a hard grating cheese such as Parmegiano-Reggiano. There’s just handful of affineurs left in France, who ripen cheese in caves just below their shops. The last time I visited François Olivier with my friend Susan Loomis, he welcomed us into the caves. This time, he told us that as of a few months ago, European Union regulations forbid visitors. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the French voted against the constitution.


Of course, I was immediately attracted to the butter that François salts himself. While I was there, a steady stream of customers came in for a large block of it.


But I also came for the camembert, since François carries one of the few artisianally-made camemberts left in Normandy. Although camembert is the unofficial symbol of France (there was a giant wheel of camembert balloon ‘float’ to lead off the parades at the commencements of the Tour de France recently) but there are few remaining true camemberts left. Like Brie de Meaux, true camembert is actually called Camembert de Normandie and will be labeled au lait cru (raw milk) so if you come to France, be sure to choose a cheese labeled as such, not simply ‘camembert’.


The French are a famously stubborn lot and are refusing to compromise the integrity of their cheeses (as well as a few other things…) But why not? They make the best cheeses in the world. And Normandy is arguably the most famous cheesemaking region here in France. At François’ fromagerie, you’ll find the elusive Maroilles, a hulking square of cheese aged for 100 days and weighing in at a hefty one-pound, with a powerful, pungent fragrance that cheese-expert Steve Jenkins describes as “…about as subtle as a bolt of lightening–get out a clothespin.” One whiff, and I agreed.

More subtle was the soft, dewy-white wheels of Delicor. When sliced open, the pleasantly chewy rind gives way to a soft, milky cheese that is sweet and slippery on the tongue. This is the one cheese that François makes entirely himself and is justly proud of it. Another famous cheese of the region is represented here, Neufchâtel (not to be confused with the low-fat cream cheese in the United States) which is often heart-shaped since the women cheesemakers would often make them for their sweethearts. You’ll find Graval, a mound of bulging Neufchâtel, enriched with extra cream with a velvety yellow mold on the exterior. The nutty, complex vieux Comté, aged for 2 years, was the best I’ve had. And I’ve had a lot of Comté.

Properly made raw milk cheeses have been consumed for centuries and he noted that raw milk that’s less than 1½ hour old is full of natural antibodies. He compared cheeses made with cooked milk to wine made with cooked grapes.

When reflecting on the new changes in cheese making because of EU regulations and strict US importation laws, François sadly noted that in most of the world, quality means hygienic, whereas here, quality means good taste.

Fromagerie François Olivier
40, rue de l’Hôpital
tel: 02 35 71 10 40

French Cheese Archives