I am a home cook. My meals will never pass for restaurant fare, nor are they meant to. I use simple, solid, basic ingredients to feed my family and please the neighbors with the scent of constant cooking coming from my postcard-sized kitchen.
And so I've become rather jaded when it comes to large, glossy, gorgeous cookbooks. Especially chocolate tomes. They seem like travel guides to remote and slightly frightening parts of the world: interesting, but nothing to do with me.
This was my experience, for instance, with The Chocolate Bible. It's a beautiful book, and some of the recipes tugged at my sleeve. But I know it's more likely that I will buy a chocolate factory and begin to produce my own chocolate than that I'll ever be tempted to pull this book out to use on a regular basis.
I expected to have very much the same feeling about the Scharffen Berger book The Essence of Chocolate. I figured that any book written by the founders of a high-end chocolate company would be snooty, difficult, all flash and no staying power.
I opened it skeptically. Three hours later, my family was threatening to go on strike unless I stopped squealing, giggling, and reading whole pages to them.
This is an unusual reaction to a cookbook. But Essence is a most unusual chocolate cookbook. It speaks to the home cook without cutting any corners or stinting on quality.
I expected to flip through the recipe section, pausing briefly at occasional points of interest. Instead, I read the introduction to almost every recipe, and usually ended up reading the directions as well.
These are recipes that an ordinary human being can make, and that a practiced cook would be proud to create.
The food looks wonderful. I don't just mean the fabulous photography, although that certainly helps. The recipes themselves read beautifully. They're not just appetizing; they're exciting.
And by exciting, I mean kid-with-a-new-toy fun. I read page after page gleefully saying, "Hey, I can do this!" More than that, I wanted to do this. I drew up a week's grocery list based pretty heavily on Essence recipes.
I don't just mean the desserts, either. This book has a really decent section for savories, including a vegetarian chocolate chili recipe that's enough to give you hope in February.
The recipes are skillfully divided into three sections: "Intensely Chocolate," for those who have yet to find a brownie rich enough to suit them; "Essentially Chocolate," which includes such lovelies as PB&C cookies (my son immediately started screaming for these); and "A Hint of Chocolate," which I didn't expect to find too riveting but which I'll probably be referring to on at least a weekly basis.
The recipes are sprinkled with terrific "Quick Fix" suggestions, such as the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Panini (think grilled peanut butter sandwich with a difference), and wonderful snippets of chocolate lore.
I would dearly like to know if the origin story of devil's food cake has been documented, since it sounds almost too good to be true; but it's such a terrific tale that part of me doesn't much care.
The book is solidly grounded in the story of the Scharffen Berger company itself, as told by the two founders. The men take turns "talking," and reading these sections is like listening to two exceptionally resourceful but thoroughly down to earth friends chat about how they got where they are today.
This book is inspiring. I want a little pepper mill for my table now, filled with cacao nibs rather than peppercorns. I want a microplane to grate chocolate with. And I hate gadgets.
To sum up: if you're looking for just one great chocolate cookbook, get this one. If you weren't planning on buying a chocolate cookbook, get this one.