As more local chocolatiers push the envelope with unexpected combinations, sweet-savory confections have become almost quaint.
It’s been seven years since Lillie Belle Farms’ lavender-infused, sea salt caramel wowed Martha Stewart, who ordered 250 pounds for her corporate Christmas gift. Since then, Lillie Belle owner Jeff Shepherd has combined chocolate with chilies, bacon and even blue cheese. That kind of prolific innovation has made Shepherd a mainstay at the annual Oregon Chocolate Festival in Ashland, where he usually erects an elaborate chocolate sculpture.
Yet there’s still plenty of room for creativity, as evidenced by the newcomers who have made their mark on the festival. A shortbread cookie filled with lemon-infused chocolate ganache and then dipped in white chocolate won Best in Show at last year’s Oregon Chocolate Festival for Love Bucket Baking Co. of Grants Pass. For this year’s festival, which starts today, Love Bucket owner Denise Padgett is turning to the dark side of chocolate with a toasted hazelnut-studded shortbread filled with a hazelnut-infused chocolate ganache and dipped in dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate’s high cacao content means festival goers can feel a bit better about the indulgence. Ongoing research supports the health benefits of dark chocolate, which has antioxidant flavanoids that combat the radicals that damage cells. Cacao beans also help reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.
Chocolate connoisseurs are familiar with the total cacao content listed on packages of chocolate. In addition to a more intense, bitter flavor, higher percentages of cacao mean more cocoa butter and chocolate liquor (pure ground cacao beans) in the product. The remaining percentage represents sugar and other ingredients.
There are no hard-and-fast guidelines, but a moderate portion of chocolate — 1 ounce — a few times a week is fine, with a plain, high-quality, dark-chocolate apparently the healthiest choice. If you have salted-caramel nostalgia, though, consider consuming your chocolate in this tart.
Salted Chocolate-Caramel Tarts
6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream, divided
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon, light corn syrup, divided
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 baked Rich Sweet Pastry shells (recipe follows)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped almonds (or other favorite nut)
1 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Maldon sea salt crystals or other coarse sea salt, as needed
To prepare caramel filling, place 3 tablespoons of the cream and the butter in a small, microwave-safe bowl; microwave on high power until simmering, about 15 seconds. Place the sugar, 1 tablespoon of the corn syrup and 1 tablespoon water and in a small, heavy saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring until sugar melts. Boil, uncovered, until mixture is caramel-colored. Remove from heat and immediately, but slowly, whisk in hot cream mixture with a long-handled whisk. (Mixture will splatter.) Whisk in the vanilla. Pour into the baked pastry shells. Divide the nuts and sprinkle evenly over caramel. Refrigerate until cool.
To prepare ganache, place remaining 3 tablespoons cream and 1 teaspoon corn syrup in a small, microwave-safe bowl; microwave on high power until simmering, about 25 seconds. Stir in the chocolate until smooth. Stir in 1 tablespoon hot water until blended. Pour over caramel in tarts, dividing evenly. Let stand until chocolate is set, about 1 hour. Sprinkle lightly with the sea salt and serve.
Makes 2 tarts.
Rich Sweet Pastry
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup confectioner s’ sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter, softened
Softened butter or cooking spray, for preparing the tart pans
Place the egg yolk in a small cup and beat lightly with a fork. Measure out 2 teaspoons and set aside for pastry; save rest for another use.
Sift the confectioner’s sugar, flour and salt into work bowl of a food processor. Add the butter, reserved 2 teaspoons egg yolk and 1 teaspoon ice water. Cover and pulse on and off until dough just begins to come together. Add more ice water if dough is dry.
Turn dough out on a piece of plastic wrap and divide in half. Shape each half into a disk and wrap individually in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
Position a rack in oven’s center and preheat to 325 F. Lightly butter or mist with cooking spray 2 (4-by-4 1/2-inch tart pans. Place tart pans on a baking sheet.
On a lightly floured surface, roll each pastry disk into a 6-inch round. Fit each round into a prepared tart pan, pressing it into bottom edges and up sides. Tuck any overhang into sides of pans for extra reinforcement, gently pressing the pastry into grooves of pan sides.
Pierce bottom of pastry all over with tines of a fork. Place shells on a baking sheet and freeze until firm, about 15 minutes.
Line pastry shells with aluminum foil, pressing it into corners and edges, and fill with pie weights, rice or dried beans. Place tart pans in preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully take off foil and pie weights. Return pans to oven and bake until tart crusts are just beginning to turn lightly golden, about 5 to 8 minutes.
Makes 2 tart shells.
— Recipes adapted by the Detroit Free Press from “Small Batch Baking for Chocolate Lovers,” by Debby Maugans (Thomas Dunne Books, $21.99).