Book Review: Mast Brothers Chocolate

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

Feeling uncool in the kitchen? Need a lot more hipster at your stove? With its painstakingly retro design, bearded Brooklynites, more-artisanal-than-thou essays, and too-hip-to-give-you-much-detail recipes, Mast Brothers Chocolate has you covered.

None of which is to say, if that description turned you off, that the book isn’t worth reading. If you can get past the requisite photos of chocolate milk in—of course—a mason jar, or the mason jar of bourbon next to the bourbon balls, or the yogurt and chocolate granola in—deep breath now—a mason jar, and you read the essays in small bites to keep from gagging at the authors’ ever-adorable and self-deprecating descriptions of themselves and their adventures . . . well then, this book actually is interesting.

The background: Two brothers raised in Iowa eventually find themselves together and scraping by in New York, with Rick working in restaurant kitchens and Michael in film production. Of course (this being a Brooklyn story) they throw many dinner parties (“Rick bought a roasting pan and loved cooking a whole leg of lamb after proudly marching down the street with it slung over his shoulder”).

At one dinner, they realize that though, like good Brooklynites, they make their own beer and bread and ice cream and cake and pie, they don’t know how to make chocolate. So, like good Brooklynites, they must march forth to figure it out (“Our heads were pounding the next day with the excitement of discovery on the horizon.”) Along the path to enlightenment, they discover with horror that North American chocolatiers melt down chocolate, rather than making their own from scratch. Of course, being good Brooklynites, they cannot let that stand.

And so they become “craft chocolatiers,” opening a factory and retail store in Brooklyn to sell their chocolate bars wrapped (of course) in custom papers they designed.

After all the essays detailing this journey, the pared-down recipes come as a pleasant surprise (at least to experienced cooks—to fit with the look of the book, presumably, these are not hand-holding recipes; rather, they trust that you are not an idiot/enjoy DIY’ing it like a good Brooklynite).

Alongside the obvious chocolate drinks of all sorts, cookies, brownies, ice creams, candies, and truffles sneak in scallops topped with cacao nibs and browned butter, and a savory chocolate cream sauce for pasta or meat. Few of the sweet recipes will surprise readers—chocolate blueberry pie and peanut brittle made with cacao nibs are about as unusual as they get—but for readers with a canister of those nibs stuck on a pantry shelf, the authors have a host of ideas, from steak or salmon covered in nibs, a meat dry rub, homemade pork sausage, cranberry sauce, pate, coq au vin, butternut squash soup, and nibs in a salad with a cocoa balsamic vinaigrette. All far more interesting than the ending recipe of chocolate Rice Krispie treats.

Still, for cooks accustomed to sweet and bland American milk chocolate or chocolate chips, these recipes, with their emphasis on using good, dark chocolate, all the way to the Krispie treats, should awaken taste buds to the delights of rich chocolate—spicy, citrusy, winey, or floral, enhanced but not hidden by sugar.

Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook, by Rick and Michael Mast (Released October 22, 2013, by Little, Brown & Company; 288 pages)

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

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Book Review: Caramel

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

Depending on a reader’s teeth, the reaction to Carole Bloom’s Caramel will be either “Sweet!!” or “Seriously, this sweet?” If the former, this will be a book worth buying.

For these recipes are not for the faint of tooth. Many, starting with caramel sauce, cry out for a counterbalancing dash of salt or acid. But Ms. Bloom stays true to the sticky sweetness of a chewy caramel square, and she provides a compilation of caramel standards, plus unexpected ones such as caramelized white chocolate. Within the category of caramel—which, she says, is best defined as a flavor—she includes butterscotch, dulce de leche, toffee, brittles, thick caramel sauce, and classic candies.

The solid sugar hit of caramel, whether derived from melting and browning white or brown sugar, cooking sweetened condensed milk, or slow-baking white chocolate, will strike the palate first as pure sweetness—then, Ms. Bloom layers on much richness. A Bundt cake calls for 2 sticks of butter, a half-cup oil, five eggs, and 3 cups of light and dark brown sugar—plus caramel sauce poured over top. An angel-food cake loses a bit of its ethereal texture with more than a cup of sweetened coconut, 1 ½ cups dark brown sugar, and a bit of white sugar—again lapped with caramel sauce.

A sticky mix of caramel sauce and a touch of apricot jam fill a rich Linzertorte dough; chocolate tartlet shells hold caramel sauce topped with chocolate ganache; and a thick caramel fills chocolate sandwich cookies.

Ms. Bloom includes caramel ice creams, caramel whipped cream-filled cream puffs, cakes, tarts, and a host of caramel puddings and mousses, including pots de crème, crème brulee, crème caramel, and homey butterscotch pudding. She caramelizes pineapple chunks to go in parfaits of mascarpone mixed with caramel sauce, tops shortbread with a chocolate-caramel sauce, and covers dense brownies with caramel sauce and chocolate ganache.

Ms. Bloom writes reliable, straightforward recipes, but bakers should read through them carefully before beginning—always useful, but crucial here, as she gives no warning that a recipe may include unexpected delays. Even experienced bakers will be surprised by a seemingly ordinary recipe for a caramel pecan snack cake batter that requires 12 to 24 hours in the refrigerator, or pecan butterscotch slice-and-bake cookies that call not for a couple of hours of chilling, but 12.

The recipes do include helpful end notes that discuss keeping or freezing the desserts, substituting some ingredients, and cooking some elements ahead of time. Rustic photographs of many recipes enhance the clean layout.

As the author of 11 cookbooks, Ms. Bloom knows baking—and her audience. For true caramel lovers, these recipes will hit the sweet spot.

Caramel, by Carole Bloom (Released September 1, 2013, by Gibbs Smith; 224 pages)

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

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