One of the benefits of reviewing cookbooks is that it stretches my cooking horizons, often taking me into new territory that I probably wouldn’t have explored on my own. Recently, for instance, I made a dish called Cod Fillets with Cacao Nib Crust from Pierre Marcolini’s wonderful new book, Chocolat: From the Cocoa Bean to the Chocolate Bar. Before I reviewed this book I never even knew there was such a thing as cacao nibs, let alone where to get them and how to use them in cooking. You can read about this dish in my review—it was an overwhelming success and it will make its way into my permanent repertoire (as long as I can keep a steady supply of good cacao nibs going).
But what really struck me as I was working with the book was the way that it unspooled so many chocolate memories from my time living in Brussels. I suppose it is why I agreed to review the book in the first place. When I lived in Brussels, Pierre Marcolini was my favorite chocolatier. And like many new discoveries/experiences I have enjoyed during the last fourteen years, I have my husband to thank for it.
Before we moved to Brussels from New York in 2005, my standard for what was considered good chocolate came down to Teuscher’s Champagne truffles after I was introduced to them by a co-worker and friend from London. That was in the late 1980s and my forays into the world of chocolate didn’t go much beyond that point. (Funny how some experiences get stuck in time for such a long while.)
Then, in 2004, my husband started flying back and forth to Brussels on business. He has a kind of internal GPS that helps him navigate the world of sweets, most especially ice cream and chocolate. He always manages to find the best places to go no matter where he is. So when after his first or second trip he came home and presented me with an elegant box of Pierre Marcolini assorted chocolates, they were a revelation to me. In fact, they were so good and so sophisticated with their subtle herbs and spices and varying percentages of cacao content, that when he forgot to bring some home after one of his many trips, he substituted a box of chocolates from a satellite store of the French chocolate maker, Maison du Chocolat, located in Rockefeller Center where he worked. I took one bite, looked at him and declared, “Don’t ever bother buying these again. If you’re not bringing home Pierre Marcolini chocolates, don’t bring home any chocolate at all.”
I have no idea how Belgians became known for their chocolate. Given that they import their cacao beans just like any other country where you will find chocolate makers, it has to be their particular technique. I’m guessing it has a lot to do with the machines that grind the beans into cacao paste. The finer the grind, the smoother the chocolate.
In any case, Belgians are absolutely mad for chocolate. Before Nestle’s bought them, Côte d’Or, was a national Belgian brand that was carried in all the supermarkets. In Belgium, the chocolate aisle is a wonder to behold with Côte d’Or still being the most prominent brand (even if it is no longer strictly Belgian). After experimenting with a few different varieties I eventually settled on Côte d’Or Noir de Noir as my preferred bar. Just like the locals, I’d buy one or two bars every week and eat an ounce or two every night after dinner. There was no mystery to unravel in that local custom.
But what I was curious about was the chocolate sauce that was served in a little pitcher next to the bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream whenever we ordered a Dame Blanche in a restaurant. Belgians must consume more Dames Blanches than any other nationality. I’d seen Dame Blanche on menus in France before, but in Belgium they are ubiquitous. And far, far, better than an American chocolate sundae. Of course, it’s all about the chocolate.
In Belgium, they use dark chocolate and the consistency of the sauce is just a few shades thicker than hot chocolate. In other words, it pours more like heavy cream than honey. (And I appreciate the way it is always served on the side, acknowledging that some people like more chocolate sauce than others.) And the whipped cream on top of the ice cream? Well, it’s what you call gilding the lily, I know, but the cream serves to soften the collision of the warm sauce on cold ice cream. I wouldn’t do without it.
Being a novice chocolate consumer and used to—dare I say—the bottled or canned American chocolate sauce from my childhood put out by Hershey’s or Smucker’s, I wasn’t sure how to make chocolate sauce the Belgian way. It took an afternoon discussing sauce au chocolat with a group of Belgian women to set me on the right course.
When you think about it, cooking is always a collaborative endeavor. From old family recipes to those you find online or in a favorite cookbook, you are never alone in the kitchen (to borrow from Julia Child). Recipes are meant to be shared and each of us has something to contribute to a dish. And we certainly all have opinions.
Which brings me back to the chocolate sauce. When my husband and I moved to Brussels I had spent the previous twenty-four years working and living in New York. Suddenly I found myself untethered in a foreign country playing the role of a trialing spouse with no job, no children and no social network to anchor my days.
It didn’t take long before I found a conversation group to join. The Group (Le Groupe) was made up of roughly half Belgians and half Anglophones (mostly Brits whose spouses worked at the European Commission). We met once per week at a member’s home and spent one hour speaking French and another speaking English, taking turns helping each other perfect her foreign language. My husband called us The Ladies who Talk.
The Belgian women were the anchors of The Group. They had been meeting continuously for over thirty years by the time I joined them and had seen a lot of Anglophones come and go over that period. What struck me, of course, was the long arc of their friendship. They had seen each other through children, the death of spouses, illnesses, retirement and divorces and still they carried on. As with any group, though, there was the occasional tension between some of the longtime members. I mostly found their squabbles amusing.
One week I asked the Belgians to explain to me how to make chocolate sauce. It was quite a spirited debate. One said to melt the chocolate with butter, one preferred to mix in some cream and a third insisted that all you need is a little water to thin out the melted chocolate. When I asked the woman how much water she shrugged her shoulders and then said “psshht”, mimicking the sound of the water from the tap that is added to the bowl of chocolate for as many seconds as required. I tried all three versions and much to my surprise (given my penchant for fat) I preferred the one with water.
Long after we returned from Belgium I still make my chocolate sauce with water. And every time I do I hear the sound “psshht” in my head as I stand at the tap adding water. For me, chocolate sauce will always be a Group project, with all of the Ladies who Talk in my kitchen.
3 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao or less depending on your taste)
2 – 4 tablespoons tap water
Best vanilla ice cream
1 cup heavy cream
Beat 1 cup heavy whipping cream with 1 teaspoon powdered sugar and ½ teaspoon vanilla extract until it forms soft peaks.
Break up the chocolate into medium-sized pieces and place in a microwaveable small bowl.
Add the water and then heat for 30 seconds in the microwave on high. Mix with a spoon until smooth. Heat another 10 seconds if the chocolate is not yet fully melted and add more water as needed until it is the desired consistency.
Scoop ice cream into individual serving bowls, top with a generous amount of whipped cream and then pour over the chocolate sauce.