Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Seattle Chocolate Scene: I am SO there

We all know that there's a pretty happening music scene in Seattle. There's also a huge following for green and natural living. And some of the best seafood in the country can be found in this region. What I was unaware of, until recently, was just how big chocolate is becoming out here. And not just fancy creations at top restaurants and bakeries, but the entire process of making delicious artisan confections, many times from bean to chocolate box.

Speaking of chocolate boxes, one particular epicenter of Northwest chocolates is the Chocolate Box, located on Pine Street just across the street from the famed Pike Place Market. It is here that one can find the entire range of local chocolates from a selection of both renowned and up-and-coming chocolatiers.

To me, the shop is slightly Willy Wonka-esque in the variety of chocolate products to sample: there is everything from the elegant truffle to Aztec spicy hot chocolate to the grand red velvet cake. Even those in need of a gluten-free sugar fix can find something for their fancy here, and the crowd at any given moment ranges from delighted children who, incidentally, are excited to be in a candy shop, to curious tourists interested in picking up a piece of Seattle to bring back to their hometowns, to the local businessperson whom the baristas recognize and greet with a familiar smile and their regular mocha espresso order ready at the counter.

Once the initial overload of chocolatey sensation passes (first there is the smell, then the sight, then – inevitably – the taste), one is able to calm salivation and bring focus to what each local chocolatier has to offer. And that selection is vast.

Here's a brief rundown of some of the Chocolate Box mainstays.

Theo Chocolate: the first roaster of Fair Trade Certified cocoa beans and the only roaster of organic cocoa beans in the United States, conveniently located in the Fremont section of Seattle.

Fiori Chocolatiers: Specializing in the truffle chocolates, they create unique Italian-style confections in small, carefully tended batches.

Chocolate Vitale: Using old family recipes, they manufacture startlingly decadent chocolate drinks like European sipping chocolate and Chocolate crème tea.

Oh! Chocolate: Beautifully made artisan chocolate pieces made with premium chocolate, in the French tradition.

In browsing the shelves, one will find a variety of other local chocolates in bar form, nib form, powder form...nearly every form imaginable. There are sea-salt caramels and actual sugar plums and white chocolate made from San Francisco goat's milk. Novelty chocolate box sets sport Barack Obama's face, and one can sample chocolates with names like “burnt brown sugar” and “Sri Lanka Curry.” Of course, there is also a veritable mountain of plain, old-fashioned chocolate, in nearly any cacao percentage one can dream of, all the way to Theo's incredibly earthy 91% cacao chocolate bar.

It's not simply that I love chocolate or that I might as well build a shrine to sugar in my apartment; a place like the Chocolate Box goes beyond offering rain-dampened customers with a warm drink or satisfying chocolate bar. This chocolate shop is a celebration of a very local, very fine market of chocolates that oozes the character of the Pacific Northwest. Sampling a confection here is not merely eating a piece of chocolate, but it truly is partaking in a piece of Seattle.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wait, one more cookie recipe!

Okay, so I lied a little. I presumed that I would be so wrapped up in preparing for my move that I would have no time to put aside to do any baking whatsoever. Well, given my tendency to over-plan, I should have realized early on that I would, in fact, have a few minutes between the packing and organizing and cleaning to relax in the company of a warm oven. More than a few minutes, of course. So after looking through Better Homes and Gardens' selection of all-time favorite cookie recipes, I found one that sounded both delicious and slightly familiar: Peanut Butter Munchies. What these are, are chocolate cookies with a creamy peanut butter filling, and they reminded me of the Tagalongs that I sold as a girl scout, and later consumed as a layperson.
I had always been slightly hesitant to try baking filled cookies, because similar to pie or cheesecake recipes, I have been burdened with the preconceived notion that they are difficult, complicated, and take much too much time to put together. Of course, I'm very wrong in that assumption, and I'm glad that I had this recipe around to set me straight.

The cookies and the filling are pretty straightforward to create and assemble. The recipe also has the added benefit of getting my hands dirty with dough in order to put together the final product. If I can stick my hands in it, and work with the dough myself without the aid of a spoon or mixer, then I know I've given a little bit extra to my cookies, and likely that I enjoyed the preparation even more. And it was fun to put together these cookies. It helped, of course, that they yielded scrumptious results. I refrained from over stuffing the cookies with peanut butter filling, but I used just enough so that every bite would deliver at least a tiny amount of peanut butter, which is what really makes the cookies stand out. Though the chocolate part is also delicious, it is a basic dough, and really benefits from a little something extra. The granulated sugar added at the very end, on the bottom of a glass or spoon, also gives the cookies an air of holiday festivity, which makes them a perfect addition to the Christmas Cookie Lexicon.

Peanut Butter Munchies


1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup peanut butter
1 egg
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup sifted powdered sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons granulated sugar


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium mixing bowl stir together flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda. In a large mixing bowl beat together butter, the 1/2 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, and the 1/4 cup peanut butter with an electric mixer until combined. Add egg, milk, and vanilla; beat well. Beat in dry ingredients with mixer. Form chocolate dough into 32 balls about 1-1/4 inches in diameter. Set aside.
2. For peanut butter filling, in a medium mixing bowl combine powdered sugar and the remaining 1/2 cup peanut butter until smooth. Shape mixture into 32 (3/4-inch) balls.
3. On a work surface, slightly flatten a chocolate dough ball and top with a peanut butter ball. Shape the chocolate dough over the peanut butter filling, completely covering the filling. Roll dough into a ball. Repeat with the remaining chocolate dough and peanut butter filling balls.
4. Place balls 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Lightly flatten with the bottom of a glass dipped in the 2 tablespoons granulated sugar.
5. Bake cookies in preheated oven for 8 minutes or until they're just set and surface is slightly cracked. Let cookies stand for 1 minute. Transfer cookies to wire racks; cool.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

On hiatus for the big move

December is normally my favorite baking month, for all the obvious reasons: Christmas tortes, Christmas fudge, Christmas cakes, Christmas candy, Christmas cheesecake...and of course, Christmas cookies. Every year, I spread my own variety of buttery, chocolatey holiday cheer with an assortment of confections, many of which are old favorites that have already built a following amongst my friends. I make Chocolate Crinkles, Peanut Butter Blossoms, Coconut Meringues, Gingerbread People, Russian Tea Cookies: so many of the standard holiday favorites. And naturally, I love to try one or two new recipes to try out.
This year, however, there is a significant change in plans. Instead of cheerfully cloistering myself in my kitchen, I'm packing up my belongings and moving to Seattle. In just a little more than a week, I'll officially give up my identity as a Brooklynite and begin the transformation into a Seattlite, a change for which I'm thoroughly thrilled. But, because a cross-country move is quite...involved, I won't be able to bake my treasured array of Christmas cookies, and therefore, will not be able to blog about them.
Once everything comes together, I'm hoping to have a fully stocked kitchen and a new assortment of taste-testers for my recipes, but in the meantime, the best I can do is report on the Seattle bakeries that I fully intend on patronizing. That, and offer some links to the cookie collections that I would be creating if not for this change of scenery.

Happy baking!

The Food Network's 12 Days of Cookies

Martha Stewart's Cookie of the Day

Betty Crocker's Cookie Exchange

Epicurious' 25 Days of Christmas Cookies

Better Homes and Gardens' Cookie Exchange Favorites