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Ganache

chocolate ganache

Ganache–the most versatile Valentine’s Day dessert in the world–takes about 5 minutes to make. If that.

This post started out being about Valentine’s Day 2013, if you can believe it,  and all the lame, anemic, inferior, chocolate-free pastries being touted in last year’s February food mags–Thomas Keller’s very, very plain beige custard tart without any decoration on it comes to mind as one of the worst offenders. He named it–get this–“Pomme d’Amour”. If you served me that as a Valentine’s date dessert, without so much as a raspberry or a mint leaf on the side, much less a caramelized-sugar top as for crème brulée, I’d be very unimpressed with it and probably with you. Especially at French Laundry prices. I’m not giving the link for it. If you’re genuinely hung up on Keller’s recipes, go away and don’t come back until you’ve convinced yourself that I’m right–a lot of fuss for so much bland. Because…..

Valentine’s was meant to be about chocolate. Or, if you’re very lucky, chocolate sauce. I don’t hear any dissent out there–except perhaps among the lovers of beige food. Takes all kinds…

So anyway, it should surprise no one that I’m late for this by an entire year. And dinner is tonight. In any case, you should know this post has morphed, thanks to time, tide, procrastination that knows no bounds, and my deep, deep love of chocolate ganache (because it is bitter and because it is my heart? Hell no: because it is unbelievably simple and quick and fun to play with and tastes damn good and impresses people who don’t know any better. Why else?)–Ahem! This post has morphed into a couple of ways to impress people who no longer cook. Including yourself if you’re one of those most of the time, and even if you’re not, because tonight you don’t want to spend a lot of time fussing over the food, you want to be taken out to dinner or else, if you’re snowed in, you want something delicious and very quick that takes only very simple, not too expensive ingredients you probably (hopefully) already have on hand somewhere at the back of the cupboard.

As I think I discussed in my post over the summer about the dangers of baking for one’s kid’s bat mitzvah (or other big celebration), many of these lost souls who never cook at all, to my great chagrin, can be counted among my close friends. To the point where making a cake of any kind, even from a box mix, is impressive.

Anyway, irritated by the selections I’d seen in all of last year’s February foodie magazines, I realized that most of my ideal recommendations, that is, the ones that I wasn’t seeing but wanted to, all relied on some form of chocolate ganache or fudge sauce–variants on a shockingly simple recipe. Even the French expert versions are just about this simple–mine’s better because I use a microwave and save washing a saucepan (always key), but the rest is history either way.

If you’re ready to mess around with the proportions until they feel and taste right, you’re my kinda cook. If you’re not, well, just consider that it’s “holiday season” (well, President’s Day, anyway, on Monday) and this is almost a free gift. Seriously, a five-minute (plus a little cooling time) recipe with two or at most five (fanciest variation) ingredients can win you a lot of unearned praise and maybe even a hot date.

All this is merely to point out that, if, like me, you have been tasked with dessert on short notice, you can skip the supermarket frosting horrors if you feel like it (and if your intended audience deserves it) and be amazed (and disturbed) as you flaunt instant and completely fictitious pastry “skills” that–and you don’t have to tell your heart’s desire or any of your friends this–rely almost entirely on some half-and-half and some dark chocolate chips or bars and a microwave. In short, I give you: Ganache.

. . .There is never a completely wrong time for chocolate ganache, except perhaps in the middle of a corned beef on rye with half-sour dills. OK, sorry I mentioned that. . .back to that romantic “cooking” thing. . . 

BASIC GANACHE

This proportion will give you a dark chocolate texture that’s like fudge sauce while still warm, spreads and sets up well at room temperature for a dense cake frosting (always good), and firms to solid scoopable truffle texture after a couple of hours in the fridge–where the formalities have occasionally been known to disappear along with the ganache.

  • 2/3 c. half-and-half (see tip below for alternatives)
  • 12 oz good-quality bittersweet chocolate bars, broken up,  or a 12 oz bag of dark chocolate chips–see tasting tips below…
  • flavorings optional (see below under “Truffles”) about 1/2 to 1 t is probably plenty

OR: Smaller amount for safety (to limit the amount of dietary badness if you get carried away and eat the whole thing): about 50 grams of good dark chocolate (1 TJ’s 72% bar) plus a little less than 1/4 c hot half-and-half, plus any flavorings in smaller 1/2 t. doses.

microwave-steamed milk or cream

Microwave the milk (minus the whisk) until hot.

Microwave the half-and-half for a minute on high in a microwave-safe mug or bowl. Or bring just to a boil on the stove in a saucepan. Add broken-up chocolate or chocolate chips to the hot milk

Remove from heat and add the chocolate bits, let sit a few seconds to start melting, then start stirring gently, preferably with a hand whisk.

little chocolate shreds appear in the cream or milk when you start to stir the ganache

Little chocolate shreds stage…

At first you’ll see little shreds of chocolate in the cream, then the mixture will darken to what looks like badly mixed chocolate milk, and finally you’ll get a glossy dark thick sauce that keeps thickening up as it cools. You may decide, based on a necessary taste test, that it needs something more–vanilla, a little sugar (if you use high-percentage chocolate, it might), or even some cocoa powder for oomph. You want oomph. But add slowly so you don’t oversweeten it, and add these things with a whisk while the mixture’s still hot.

hot ganache mixture--taste to see if it needs more sugar, vanilla or cocoa powder

Hot ganache–this particular batch could use some doctoring, so I added a little vanilla, a spoonful of cocoa powder, and two tablespoons of sugar, tasting as I went and mixing in the additions while it was still hot.

Grated tangelo peel in the ganache

Then…I decided what the heck. Sabra truffles, maybe? Organic tangelo peel from my stash in the freezer, grated and a little more sugar, about a teaspoon, to clean the grater and get more of the flavor into the chocolate.

NOTES

♥About chocolate chips: Always taste these before using. Not just “on general principles” but because, especially for the store brands, you may be buying very sub-standard chocolate. This goes even for “Fair Trade, Organic, Vegan” chocolate chips sold as the 365 store brand by Whole Foods. It’s amazing what they’ll try and sell as chocolate if it’s supposed to be for children’s consumption, as in chocolate chips.  If the chips are sweeter than they are chocolate, if they’re gummy, waxy, mushy or crappy in general, in short, if they’re just brown stuff that isn’t tasting seriously chocolate, you don’t want ’em. Use decent dark chocolate bars instead.

♥Your chocolate doesn’t have to be hideously fancy or expensive to be good enough. Trader Joe’s makes pretty decent varieties of both bars and chips, though the chips are a little less chocolate and could frankly use a boost from an added spoonful or so of cocoa powder. I recommend TJ’s red-labeled 3-pack of 72% dark chocolate (at $1.99, up at the checkout counter) for a basic version of ganache, or fancier-quality chocolate at your wallet’s and palate’s insistence, but taste whatever chocolate you use  first to make sure you like it straight, and if it’s really good, save that for later and use the less expensive chocolate for the ganache.

♥About the half-and-half: You can make richer ganache with heavier cream, and then get fancy by beating the mixture with a hand mixer while it’s still warm, but I don’t generally see the need. There’s plenty of fat in the chocolate itself, and the basic fudge sauce version for ice cream and profiteroles will work deliciously even with skim milk.

♥Microwave Tip: If you’re using milk or if you’ve miscalculated and the mixture doesn’t get thick enough after stirring it and letting it cool a bit, microwave the mixture again about 20-30 seconds, being ready to stop it if it looks like it’s surging up the sides of the bowl or mug. Restir and renuke cautiously if it’s not thick enough, but microwaving a little in short intervals seems to thicken it nicely.

Fudge Sauce:

Stop while the basic ganache is still warm and pourable, and put it over profiteroles or ice cream right away. Or sliced ripe pears. Or spread it on one side of a batch of florentines. Or dip the edges of catspaws, shortbread or other butter cookies into it. Or coconut or almond macaroons. Or drizzle it over something like crêpes filled with sweetened ricotta or apricot jam inside.

Truffles:

Some truffle recipes include additional butter or heavy cream and claim that it makes everything incredibly smooth. I don’t see the need for diluting chocolate flavor any further and besides, chocolate plus half-and-half has more than enough of its own fat. For the best flavor, use the best dark chocolate you can afford (if it’s too good or expensive to dilute with cream, then get standard good dark chocolate for this…)

Flavorings: The basic recipe can be flavored more exotically by heating a bit of orange or lemon rind, an earl grey tea bag, fresh (not dried!!!) mint leaves, crushed raspberries, toasted coconut, crushed hazelnuts, coffee beans or what have you in the  half-and-half and then straining before pouring it over the chopped chocolate. Or you can add a spoonful of amaretto, creme de menthe, Frangelico, Kahlua, rum, brandy, madeira, triple sec or other liqueur to the mixture. Or stir a little bit of marmalade or raspberry jam (strained first to remove seeds) into the ganache mixture once it’s turned glossy dark brown but is still warm.

Refrigerate the ganache for an hour or two to let it set up hard enough to scoop. With a couple of teaspoons or a small melon baller, you can scoop and roll the ganache into 3/4″ balls and roll them in cocoa powder or toasted coconut flakes or crushed toasted pecans or whatever. Refrigerate the truffles (covered) so they don’t melt or spoil. Keep them away from onions and the like!

Serve with dry-as-a-bone champagne or cava or with a thick, velvety zinfandel or the like, depending on your mood.

Or you can sneak a spoon into the ganache bowl every so often and eat it straight in very occasional therapeutic doses.

Sour cream or Labaneh Dark Chocolate Ganache Spread for Cakes:

This ganache is a little softer and more spreadable than the standard. Once it sets it’s not quite as chewy as the basic but it’s still deep, smooth, substantial and flavorful with a subtle tang that sets off the dark chocolate. It’s not fluffy, too-sweet or oily the way commercial frostings are. And it’s NOT BLUE. Or yellow. It’s what I used for the gigantic Sacher torte I made for my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I can say that the natural antidepressant qualities of this ganache in combination with devil’s food cake and apricot jam far surpass those of the commercial pharmacopeia.

NOTE: Make a double recipe of the standard ganache to guarantee you can cover the whole cake:

  • 1 1/3 c. half-and-half, microwaved about 2 minutes to heat just to the boil
  • 2  12-oz. packs of dark chocolate chips (or 8 3-oz. bittersweet bars broken up)

Stir it and once it’s glossy and dark brown but still hot, taste it and use your judgment to whisk in:

  • 2-3 T cocoa powder (if it doesn’t taste dark enough to you as-is)
  • 1-3 T sugar (to taste; you want it just sweet enough, and you add the sugar while hot so it dissolves in and doesn’t make the frosting grainy)
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1-2 heaping T dollops of cream-and-cultures-only sour cream (no gelatin or starches or other junk) or (better, in my view, because it’s slightly thicker and all-milk-and-cultures-only) labaneh

Let the ganache spread cool to room temperature, whisking occasionally. This will let it set up enough not to be runny. When it’s thick enough to stay where you put it, spread it on the top cake layer and sides (or 1 inside layer and the top if you want to divide it and don’t care about being able to cover the sides of the cake).

OK? so those are the Ganache Variations.

Then, when all seemed to be over and I’d calmed down slightly, I accidentally ran into David Lebovitz’s Chocolate Sorbet, from his book The Perfect Scoop, which turns out to be excessively simple and…basically a sugar syrup-based, rather than milk- or cream-based, ganache that starts out like my microwave version of hot chocolate. Only frozen (okay, so maybe not a good call on the East Coast tonight. Save it for summer). And kind of addictive, so don’t whatever you do look it up unless you’re prepared to share (reducing your take of the damage and earning innumerable hot chef points) and basically swoon. And it’s nondairy, non-egg if that helps (only your chocolatier can tell for sure if the chocolat du jour was processed in a facility that etc. etc. etc., but I suppose it’s possible to select chocolate bars and cocoa powder that are vegan or at least pure enough for your own requirements).

And lastly, remember: sample ganache in moderation. Save some room for everything else at dinner first, and save a little of the ganache for tomorrow, because you’ll probably want to sneak some later…

Skim-milk based ganache sets up nicely in the fridge even without cream or butter added

This batch of tangelo-flavored ganache, which I made with skim milk, just to see, set up beautifully after an hour in the fridge, with a texture and flavor that aren’t far from the sublime truffle ideal even without the traditional extra cream or butter. Maybe you really can have your truffles and keep your svelte!

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