Guest Author - Deborah Markus
Christian Teubner's The Chocolate Bible is a great gift idea for the chocoholic in your life, because although it's packed with valuable information and stunning illustrations, it's not the kind of book a home cook would think to buy for herself.
It's big, almost imposing-looking. But once you get past that daunting cover, this is a very readable book.
It begins with a lively and concise history of chocolate, starting with the Toltecs and Aztecs (sorry, no mention of the Olmecs) and following the magic bean's trip to Europe via the Spanish conquistadors.
Chocolate's journey from beverage to food is equally fascinating. It's hard to conceive of a time when one couldn't simply reach for a bar of chocolate. But for most of its history, "chocolate" meant the drink, not the candy.
After the history (lavishly illustrated, as is the entire book) comes a detailed portrait of just what has to happen to a very strange-looking fruit pod before it can become our familiar sweet.
And then -- the recipes. If you're looking to dazzle, this is the place to find the chocolate concoction that is not only delicious, but gorgeous. Presentation is definitely emphasized.
I have a sneaking preference for function over form. If I take the time to cook from scratch, I want no one quibbling with the fact that I didn't sculpt my brownies into the shape of Rodin's "The Thinker."
But I may go too far in this direction. We look at food before we taste it, and can be biased for or against it on that basis alone. It was wonderful for me to have a chance to see what food can look like when artists are at work.
This book is a visual masterpiece. One longs to leaf through its pages unhurriedly, sharing particularly striking photo spreads with whoever may be near enough to admire them.
In the recipe section, this emphasis on the aesthetic is fine. In fact, I always appreciate knowing what exactly I'm supposed to be aiming for when I cook. The book often takes the time to photographically illustrate as well as give a detailed explanation of each step along the way to a particular chocolate creation -- a real help to those of us who may have some experience in the kitchen, but aren't professionals.
However, when it comes to the beauty of the pages versus readability, aesthetic value wins in this work. The history pages have the type laid on a marble-looking pattern with a lot of lines and shadows. It's pretty, but it's an effective black hole for legible type.
I also had some difficulty with the index. For instance, there is a wonderful recipe for a chocolate-blackberry cake. If you look under "blackberry," there's only one listing, and it's for blackberry-cream candies. If you happen to remember exactly what it's called, you still won't find it -- at least not anywhere useful.
"Chocolate and Blackberry Slices" is listed right after "Chocolate Souffle with Chocolate Sauce and Cognac Prunes" and right before "Chocolate Spongecake," and it's not the only misalphabetized entry in an index that takes up a mere four pages of the entire book.
It's a fantastic recipe for a dessert that manages to be at once sublime and eminently makeable, and it's a shame not to be able to prepare it unless you're willing to look at each page of the book and hope you find the right one some time before your guests arrive.
It's also a shame that many of the recipes require ingredients that the civilian may not be able to get easily, such as glucose syrup.
On the other hand, where else are you going to learn how to make your own chocolate noodles?
(Other than my house, since I intend to make them part of my repertoire and the recipe is simple enough for even my postcard-sized kitchen.)