If you were asked to name a food that is perfect just as is, a good piece of chocolate might come to mind.
But pair chocolate with one of four particular flavors -- mint, orange, hazelnut or coffee -- and you have a first-class food-world paradox: perfection enhanced.
And there's a bonus to doing a little flavor matchmaking: The perfect thing called chocolate has in fact evolved and gotten even better over time. A new and international generation of chocolate now graces specialty and even some grocery store shelves. Valrhona, from France, Scharffen Berger made in San Francisco, and Callebaut, from Belgium, lead the pack, and there are the equally good but less ubiquitous El Rey, from Venezuela, and E. Guittard, also San Franciscan. These brands boast their cacao content and sometimes the source of their cacao beans on elegant labels.
The rule when cooking with these chocolates is much like the rule for cooking with wine: Use what tastes best to you. Which of course means you must sample as much as you can. No, really, you must. For science. Just know that as long as you avoid the harsh, gritty baker's chocolate squares of a decade ago and choose the kind of bar that might accidentally be devoured in the car before it gets to your kitchen, you'll be fine.
Here's a cooking rule of thumb: The higher the cacao content, the more serious the chocolate. White chocolate has no cacao mass at all, and milk chocolate must contain at least 10%. Bittersweet and semisweet are interchangeable terms that mean at least 35% cacao presence, although these days 50% to 60% is standard. Chocolates with 60% and higher cacao mass are generally referred to as high percentage, although they can be used in recipes specifying semisweet or bittersweet to marvelous effect. The terms "sweet" and "unsweetened" refer to the amount of sugar added (or not); with these, cacao percentages can vary.
A great way to spotlight these terrific chocolates is to dip something wonderful in them. A staple in French confiseries, chocolate-dipped orange peels are the perfect little something to serve with after-dinner Cognac or coffee, or to give as a gift.
Candying orange peels distills the essence of the orange oil into sweet, tender, slightly chewy little treats. But before transforming an inedible peel to a marvelous candy, you must blanch it three times, progressively reducing the bitterness of the pith. Next you'll cook the peels in sugar syrup until they become translucent and tender. Choose the most delicious chocolate you know to dip the orange peels in: Valrhona Pur Caraibe 66%, with its fruity sweetness, minimal sugar and well-balanced deep chocolate flavor, is an excellent choice. If you wanted to go truly deep, dark and sophisticated, try a chocolate with, say, a 71% cacao content.
In our quest for the finest high cacao-content chocolates, we sometimes overlook the pleasure of milk chocolate. It's not just kid stuff. And nowhere does it show to better effect than in gianduja, a felicitious blend of chocolate and pulverized hazelnuts. A well-known Swiss concoction, gianduja is also claimed by the Italians, who harvest a great many hazelnuts in the Piedmont region. (They go so far as to say that gianduja or giandujotto takes its name from a popular Turin-based folk character, Gioan d'la Duja, or "John the jug," who apparently enjoyed his wine quite a bit.)
From whatever country it comes, a gianduja truffle is divine. Creamy hazelnut butter, milk chocolate and cream create a silky-smooth truffle center. Crunchy toasted nuts and semisweet chocolate on the outside emphasize the caramel undertones of milk chocolate.
Finally, a perfect chocolate cake is like a perfect black dress; once you find it, you stick by it a long while. My favorite recipe -- one layered with whipped chocolate mint ganache -- is borrowed (and simplified somewhat) from Alice Medrich's book "Bittersweet" (Artisan, 2003). By heating fresh peppermint leaves in cream and allowing them to steep, you will infuse the ganache with pure mint bliss. The texture of this cake is amazing, but the mint takes it out of this world.
Chocolate cake with whipped chocolate mint ganache
Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes plus
7 to 8 hours chilling
Servings: 14 to 16
Note: Adapted from "Bittersweet" by Alice Medrich. The ganache and glaze can be made up to four days in advance and refrigerated until use.
Chocolate mint ganache
4 cups heavy cream
2 cups lightly packed coarsely chopped mint leaves
16 ounces semisweet chocolate (50% to 60% cacao)
1. Combine the cream and chopped mint leaves in a saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mint leaves to steep 20 minutes. Strain and discard the mint leaves. Clean the saucepan and return the cream to the pan. Heat the cream to a gentle boil.