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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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I’ve spent the past five days in the house with a skin infection, slipping out when the sun goes down to breathe fresh air and wander under cover of darkness. It sounds more superhero cool than it actually is.

Still…I’ve been worn out from the inside out for a long while, and needed some down time. It’s probably good that I was forced to stop. And there have been some happy by-products: I revisited some of my vintage cookbooks and baked new stuff.

With the contents of my larder reducing each day, especially fruits and vegetables, I opened up the last of the mulberry-Petit Syrah compote that I made last June. Then I pulled out The Food Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places, clearly titled by someone paid by the word, and looked for a muffin recipe I could use with the mulberries.

I found one from The Crescent Hotel in Arkansas, which is still in operation (and apparently is haunted. Someday I am going out there to eat their ghost cookies and to go on their ghost tour.). Their huckleberry muffins looked easy. I followed the recipe to the letter, except I used butter for the fat instead of shortening; and I live in New Jersey, and hence don’t have any huckleberries lying around. I love that it says to bake the muffins in ‘a moderate oven’ (350 F), plus this mid-century charm: ‘Pop a batch into the oven for a Sunday morning breakfast surprise.’

Verdict: They could have used another egg or two; the recipe called for just one. As pretty as they are (see above), they’re so heavy that when I put them on a plate you could actually hear them land. I probably chipped half my counter. Hope I didn’t lose my security deposit.

Oddly, and also, the recipe also didn’t call for sugar. (Maybe huckleberries are very sweet?) But this I didn’t mind; my compote was made with brown sugar and wine, which came through like little troupers. Unless something I make is completely burned*, I can always salvage it. Treated the muffins the same way as I did my mattress-like chocolate sponge cake in April: I cut a couple of muffins into pieces, tossed them in a bowl, chipped the other half of the counter, and doused them with plain yogurt. It was a great, if chewy, breakfast.

Today I climbed down from the walls long enough to leaf through The Williamsburg Cookbook (1975) that I dug out from under a folding table at the Ocean Grove Ladies’ Auxiliary book sale a few years ago, and made a loaf of something called manchet bread. It dates back to 14th-century England, so they say, because it calls for unbleached flour. Back in 1975 that wasn’t very easy to come by, is my bet. Today, thank goodness, it’s fairly commonplace. I used a mixture of unbleached all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flour. This recipe maker also had the sense to use butter. No salt, though.

Verdict: It mixed up easily; and baked, has a crusty crust and nubbly, tender insides. Despite the sunken center. And it needed salt. So I buttered some slices and sprinkled on some dukka, an Egyptian spice mix I made of cumin seeds, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, hazelnuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and salt, all toasted and ground up with a mortar and pestle. On the bread, it was freaking glorious.

So here’s what I learned this week: 1) Resourcefulness is key, even when you’re tired and worn out and moderately itchy 2) There are times when the present becomes just too darned much, and the past offers a sweet refuge. Even if your muffins end up like Timberlands and your bread shows signs of economic collapse, it’s kind of heartening.

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*If you burn a slice of toast, grab a butter knife. Hold the toast over the garbage bin and use the knife to scrape off the top burnt layer. It’s golden underneath. Little trick I learned from reading Louise Fitzhugh’s 1970s comic jewel, Sport. Go Young Adult lit!

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Ready for action: chocolates in background, toothpicks and drop cup in foreground.

I’m a lifelong sweet-maker/eater, which in my case means I grew up making Duncan Hines cakes and somewhere along the line had a bite of homemade (the cold-truth wallop I needed). Today, a local specialty bakery sells my homemade candy, and occasionally I cater desserts for parties—with everything scratch-made. I can tell if a cookie has butter in it or shortening. I can tell Hershey’s from Mama Ganache*.

But there’s a whole lot I didn’t know, like, just for starters, that Japan has a taste-bud-blowing way with chocolate. Where did that come from? They know from fish, yes; delectable noodles, yes; immaculate presentation and technique, for sure. Chocolate…?

Well, first things first: all quality products start with a mindset of caring. You have to care; and if you do, the product will follow.

When I tried Royce’ Chocolate’s candies in the Village recently and was asked to come back to their Madison Avenue location for a more comprehensive tasting—well, at first I dilly-dallied, right, like you just met me, no, I was stunned at the luxurious mouth feel of these candies, and I couldn’t wait to learn more. Asian chocolates. I’m in.

The story of Royce’ Chocolate starts on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island. Do you need a daydream worthy of usurping your job for an hour? Here: the island looks like the landscape beneath the snow-capped Alps, but carpeted in flowers. Google image Hokkaido because I’m not doing it justice. There really are places on earth that look like this. I kind of want to go now.

Here live the cows that produce milk and cream that are the basis of this chocolate. They get to eat what grows on Hokkaido. And I’ve also been lucky enough to spend time with artisanal cheesemakers who will tell you that what cows eat factors immeasurably into the final product, and which sounds obvious because it is. Look at a Hokkaido photo. I figure anything that ate what grew out of that ground would produce something akin to rainbows.

A final and groovy note: Royce’ Chocolate is easily more stringent about cleanliness than the Mayo Clinic. Workers must wear special uniforms and then go through fans that blow extraneous dust off of them as they enter work areas. Not impressed yet? The factory was deliberately designed without right angles, where dirt and dust can collect. Thank you very much.

Okay. So.

What we ate (my sister came along. Oh, the belabored arm twisting. You can tell we’re related.)

Potato Chip Chocolate Fromage Blanc–I’m open-minded, and I love chocolate, and potato chips, and cheese, but this threw me. I thought it would taste okay, tops. No. Awesome. Addictive.  Each chip is coated in white chocolate and fromage blanc cheese. Salty, crunchy, sweet, creamy.

Potato Chip Chocolate Original–Coated on one side with milk chocolate. This keeps the chips from becoming flabby; they were good and thick, and had a great crunch.

Maccha Almond Chocolates–Roasted almonds coated in white chocolate and then with green tea chocolate. (An obligatory word about white chocolate. Many hate it; to me, it’s always been just okay. I tried theirs, and forgive me for sounding like a QVC commercial, but it’s nothing like I’ve ever tried. It tastes like homemade vanilla fudge.)

Baton Cookie Hazel Cacao–A fragile, crisp hazelnut cookie, coated on one side with dark chocolate and infused with cacao nibs.

Marshmallow Chocolate Milk Coffee–I love these cuties. Tater-tot-sized marshmallows coated with coffee chocolate. Soft and lovely.

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Pure Chocolates Venezuela Bitter & Ghana Sweet–Simple medallions that showcase several different chocolate varieties, from white all the way to 90% cacao (that’s 90% cacao to 10% sugar). I love dark chocolate, but don’t usually go above the upper 60s because it usually tastes like dirt, to put it plainly. I tried the 80% and then the 90%, and was genuinely surprised that no matter how high the percentage, it remained smooth and complex. Not bitter at all. How did they do that? I’ll always be a 60s girl, but this was delicious.

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Prafeuille Chocolat Maccha–Green tea sauce sandwiched between green tea-infused chocolate. Very delicate and aromatic.

Duo Praline–Soft, white Maccha chocolate with ground green tea, covered with fragrant green tea sauce, and further covered in a milk chocolate shell.

Chocolate Wafers Hazel Cream–A really good-quality version of the wafer-and-icing cookies we grew up devouring. These have hazelnut cream between the wafers and are coated with chocolate.

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And these tasted like chilled chocolate butter cream.

Many thanks to Athena Pappas, who did the gracious inviting, serving, and question-answering. She’s at the Madison Avenue store. (They have three locations—here as well as in Bryant Park and the Village.)

I’m happy to chirp about a company I like, so please take this as an emphatic chirp: this chocolate is exquisite for holiday gifts, unlike any your giftees have tasted. Royce’ Chocolates made with cream need refrigeration, and the stores provide a complimentary ice pack and insulating bag for them.

Have a creamy Christmas.

Royce’ Chocolate

New York, NY

royceconfectusa.com

 

*Then again, so can a lemur.

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