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CHOCOLATE DECADENCE HOLIDAY DESSERTS SOPHISTICATED, SIMPLE...SIMPLY SENSATIONAL.

Byline: Natalie Haughton Food Editor

Who can resist a show-stopping chocolate dessert, especially at holiday time? There are numerous possibilities for fabulous, decadent finales in some of the season's newest cookbooks.

``Chocolate is popular for the holidays and is favored over vanilla,'' says Gale Gand, a Chicago-based pastry chef, Food Network host of ``Sweet Dreams'' and author of the new ``Chocolate & Vanilla,'' with Lisa Weiss (Clarkson Potter/Publishers; $22.50). The book includes 30 chocolate and 30 vanilla recipes.

``Today, the annual worldwide consumption of chocolate is a whopping 60billion pounds,'' she writes.

There are more chocolate choices than ever now -- in shapes, flavors, textures, beans, percentages of cacao, places of origins, etc.

One of her dessert favorites -- an Almond Chocolate Upside Down Cake -- sports a chocolate cake base with a gooey-nutty caramel topping that looks decadent and tempting.

``The Mocha Panna Cotta is a killer,'' she notes.

It's served in small demitasse cups at Tru in Chicago, where Gand is a partner, and 60 percent of the desserts ordered are chocolate. ``It's rich and flavorful; bitter chocolate and coffee; sweet, salty, caramel; and crunchy fleur de sel set against the smooth, tangy cream.''

A fun dessert or snack for kids is Peanut Butter Cocoa Crisp Treats, a recipe that combines crunchy chocolate cereal with peanut butter and then a drizzling of melted chocolate.

Although Gand uses a variety of chocolates in baking -- Valrhona, Callebaut, El Rey and more -- she only occasionally recommends a specific brand in a recipe such as Valrhona's Guanaja, an intense, dark chocolate with a delicate, nutty, coffee-like flavor.

``People can bake with domestic as well as imported chocolates, as long as they are good quality. I don't want to be too dogmatic or scolding. I am trying to make baking accessible and successful for people,'' she says.When it comes to chocolate and cocoa powder, the more you spend, the more value you get for your money. But choosing a chocolate can be a little daunting, as labeling isn't standardized and doesn't include sugar and fat content.

In ``The Cake Book'' by Tish Boyle (Wiley; $39.95), there are lots of seductive chocolate desserts among the 100 recipes, but the dark Chocolate Guinness Cake stands out.

``The bitter, coffee-like flavor of stout marries marvelously with dark chocolate in particular, as in this ultra-moist, slightly earthy cake,'' writes Boyle, editor in chief of Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design magazines.

Chocolate maker John Scharffenberger's favorite dessert is a really good thick hot drinking chocolate served in demitasse cups.

``It is pretty spectacular. I serve it instead of eggnog at holiday parties. It is a great carrier for dark rum, brandy, Grand Marnier, Chambord or Courvoisier, too.''

If you like salt with your chocolate, try Chocolate Shortbread with Cacao Nibs and Sea Salt.

You'll find these creations among the 100 recipes in Scharffenberger's recently released ``The Essence of Chocolate, Recipes for Baking and Cooking With Fine Chocolate,'' written with Robert Steinberg (Hyperion: $35). It's the first cookbook from the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker co-founders, who started the Berkeley-based company, which makes premium, high-quality chocolates, in 1996.

For a simple but fun and festive finale that doesn't require much work, Scharffenberger suggests a chocolate tasting. Offer platters of different chocolates -- from milk to bittersweet -- along with a variety of fresh and dried fruits and nuts. ``Taste each chocolate with different flavors -- a milk chocolate with cherries, a dark chocolate with almonds, a bittersweet with figs or apricots -- to discover which flavor combinations work best.'' Serve fruity wines such as syrah and zinfandel -- or champagne or tawny port.

Although Scharffen Berger makes some single-origin chocolates, 95 percent of the chocolates the company produces are blended. ``The flavor notes come first of all from the beans we choose, but we can affect the notes in our chocolate by how long we roast the beans, how long we grind the nibs and by the proportions of the various beans we use in our blends,'' notes Scharffenberger.

Chocolate truffles are another sinfully rich dessert and gift-giving option, points out Dede Wilson, author of the recently released ``Truffles: 50 Deliciously Decadent Homemade Chocolate Treats'' (Harvard Common Press; $12.95). The easiest ones to make have an outer coating of cocoa powder or chopped nuts instead of a hard-tempered chocolate shell.

``A truffle at its most basic is chocolate and cream, so it's important to use a good-quality chocolate,'' advises Wilson, who favors Scharffen Berger and Valrhona.

After heating heavy whipping cream (with a 36 percent butterfat content) and stirring in the finely chopped chocolate until it is melted, Wilson allows the ganache to stand overnight at a cool room temperature. ``I think that gives it the best silky texture. But if you must chill it, it will be fine.''

The fastest way to shape a truffle is with a mini spring-loaded ice cream scoop. Once formed, coat immediately with cocoa powder, chopped nuts or other dry coatings. Centers to be dipped in melted chocolate should be chilled first until firm enough to hold their shape.

Store truffles in an airtight container, refrigerated, and enjoy within two weeks.

Natalie Haughton, (818) 713-3692

natalie.haughton@dailynews.com

CHOCOLATE SHORTBREAD WITH CACAO NIBS AND SEA SALT

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cacao nibs, crushed with a rolling pin

1 teaspoon fine OR coarse sea salt

12 tablespoons (6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Position racks in lower and upper thirds of the oven. Line 2 baking sheets with Silpats or parchment paper. Combine flour and cocoa powder in a small bowl. Combine nibs and sea salt in another small bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on medium speed about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy, stopping as necessary to scrape sides and bottom of bowl. Mix in vanilla. Add about 1/2 of flour mixture and mix on low speed. Add remaining flour-cocoa mixture, stopping as necessary to scrape bowl. Once incorporated, mix on medium speed 1 to 2 minutes. Mix in nibs and salt. (The dough can be refrigerated, well wrapped, for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 2 months.)

On a lightly floured board, or between 2 pieces of parchment paper, roll dough into a square 1/4-inch thick. Cut into 1x2 1/2-inch rectangles or other desired shape, by hand or with a cookie cutter, and place on the prepared pans about 1-inch apart.

Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven 15 minutes, rotating pans once halfway through baking. It is sometimes difficult to know when chocolate cookies are done. One of the best indications is the scent of baked cookies in the air. And when these shortbread cookies are gently nudged, they shouldn't feel soft, but the bottoms should seem crisp.

Remove pans from oven and transfer shortbread to a cooling rack to cool completely. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container up to 1 week.

Makes about 3 dozen 1 x 2 1/2-inch pieces shortbread

Recipe from Elizabeth Falkner from ``The Essence of Chocolate, Recipes for Baking and Cooking With Fine Chocolate,'' by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg.

PEANUT BUTTER COCOA CRISP TREATS

4 cups chocolate-flavored crisp puffed rice cereal

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup creamy OR crunchy peanut butter

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

Put puffed rice cereal in a bowl. Have ready 3 nonstick mini muffin tins or a greased 9x13-inch baking dish or pan.

In a saucepan, stir together brown sugar and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil 1 minute. Turn off heat and stir in peanut butter until combined.

Immediately pour hot syrup over rice cereal and quickly stir until thoroughly combined. Using your hands, while the mixture is still warm, press it into mini muffin tins or a baking dish. Let cool for at least 15 minutes, or until firm and set. Unmold from the tins or baking dish.

Using a spoon, drizzle lines of the melted chocolate over the top of the cooled treats. If you used a baking dish, cut into bars before serving.

Makes 3 dozen pieces

From ``Chocolate & Vanilla,'' by Gale Gand with Lisa Weiss.

CHOCOLATE-ALMOND UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

CARAMEL TOPPING:

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted, melted butter

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup honey

1 1/4 cups sliced OR slivered almonds, lightly toasted

CAKE:

1 1/4 cups cake flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 large eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Generously grease a 10-inch round cake pan. To make the Caramel Topping, pour melted butter into cake pan and swirl to coat bottom; then sprinkle in brown sugar.

Drizzle in honey and sprinkle almonds evenly over bottom.

To make the Cake batter, sift cake flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt together three times (this is to make the cake extra light). Beat butter in a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until smooth and fluffy. Add sugar and mix. One at a time, add eggs, mixing after each addition. Beat until fluffy and light, about 3 minutes. With mixer running on low speed, add 1/3 of dry ingredients and mix to combine. Mix in 1/2 of buttermilk, and then another 1/3 of dry ingredients before adding remaining buttermilk and vanilla. Finish with remaining dry ingredients and mix until smooth. Pour batter into pan.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven 25 to 35 minutes, until set in the center and springy. Run a knife around edge of pan and immediately invert pan onto serving platter. Let it sit with pan still on top 5 minutes so caramel can soak into cake a bit before removing pan. If topping is sticking to pan, warm pan surface over a low burner to loosen caramel and then pour it over cake. Let cool completely. Cut into wedges with a serrated knife.

Makes 1 (10-inch) cake;

10 servings

From ``Chocolate & Vanilla,'' by Gale Gand with Lisa Weiss.

COCOA-DUSTED CLASSIC BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

When making any truffles, you should use the very best chocolate you can find and afford. For these, I like Scharffen Berger Bittersweet and Valrhona Manjari. The informal outer coating of cocoa powder makes these particularly easy to prepare and gives them a visual similarity to ``real'' truffles.

1 2/3 cups heavy whipping cream

1 pound bittersweet couverture chocolate, very finely chopped

Dutch-processed cocoa powder

Natural cocoa powder

80 small fluted paper cups (optional)

Place cream in a 2-quart wide saucepan over medium heat until it just comes to a simmer. Remove from heat and immediately sprinkle chocolate into cream. Cover and allow to sit 5 minutes; the heat should melt the chocolate. Stir very gently until smooth.

Pour mixture into a shallow bowl. Cool to room temperature, cover with plastic wrap, then allow to sit, preferably overnight, until firm enough to roll. (Or you may refrigerate ganache until firm, about 4 hours.)

Coat your hands with cocoa powder and roll ganache into 3/4- to 1-inch balls. Toss truffles in one of the cocoa powders. Place in fluted paper cups if desired. Enjoy at room temperature. Store, covered, in refrigerator.

Makes about 80

From ``Truffles: 50 Deliciously Decadent Homemade Chocolate Treats,'' by Dede Wilson.

CHOCOLATE GUINNESS CAKE

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup natural (not Dutch-processed) cocoa powder

1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

21 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 1/2 cups Guinness stout (do not include foam when measuring)

1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

Powdered sugar for dusting

To make the cake: Position a rack in the center of the oven. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9x3-inch round cake pan or springform pan. Dust pan with flour.

Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon into a medium bowl. Whisk to combine, and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using paddle attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until creamy, about 1 minute. Gradually add brown sugar and beat at high speed until very light and creamy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and add dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with stout in 2 additions and mixing just until blended. Add pecans and mix just until combined. Remove bowl from mixer stand and stir a few times with rubber spatula to make sure batter is evenly blended. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top.

Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven 70 to 75 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack 20 minutes. Invert cake onto rack and cool completely. Just before serving, dust top of cake lightly with powdered sugar.

Makes 1 (9-inch) cake; 10 servings

NOTE: Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

From ``The Cake Book,'' by Tish Boyle.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Indulge!

Celebrate the season with fabulous chocolate desserts

(2 -- color) PEANUT BUTTER COCOA CRISP TREATS

Photo by Jeff Kauck from ``Chocolate & Vanilla,'' Clarkson Potter/Publishers

(3 -- color) COCOA-DUSTED CLASSIC BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

Photo by Brian Hagiwara from ``Truffles: 50 Deliciously Decadent Homemade Chocolate Treats,'' Harvard Common Press

(4 -- color) CHOCOLATE GUINNESS CAKE

Photo by John Uher from ``The Cake Book,'' John Wiley & Sons Inc.

(5 -- color) CHOCOLATE SHORTBREAD WITH CACAO NIBS AND SEA SALT

Photo by Deborah Jones from ``The Essense of Chocolate, Recipes for Baking and Cooking With Fine Chocolate,'' Hyperion
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Dec 19, 2006
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