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A few months ago, I began hearing rumors about a new dessert craze — wine-infused ice cream. At first I was skeptical. Although I like both ice cream and wine, I’ve never felt tempted to swirl the two together for a Port sundae or Pinot Noir float.
But a chance encounter with wine ice cream at the Williamsburg Creamery in Brooklyn, N.Y., changed all this. While out working on an assignment, I ducked into the shop for a revitalizing scoop of plain old chocolate ice cream. Instead, I walked out with a cup of Chocolate Cabernet made by Mercer’s Dairy. Bold, rich and complex, it tasted as delightful as the pairing of a glass of good red wine and a chunk of high-quality dark chocolate should.
Mercer’s Dairy has been making and selling its wine ice creams since 2007. The inspiration for this creation came from numerous Pride of New York events where the Boonville, N.Y., dairy was showcased alongside the state’s Wine and Grape Foundation, said Roxaina Hulburt, co-owner and director of marketing at Mercer’s.
“People get burnt out on just vanilla ice cream. Marrying ice cream with wine seemed like an obvious fit,” Hulburt said. She added that the dairy tries to use as many New York state-produced wines as possible in its ice creams.
In 2007, Mercer’s released its first four wine ice creams — Peach White Zinfandel, Port, Riesling and Red Raspberry Chardonnay — in New York state. Today it exports these adults-only flavors as well as Cherry Merlot, Chocolate Cabernet, Strawberry Sparkling and the upcoming Spice to 15 countries, including the Netherlands, Japan and China.
Spiked ice cream has been around for decades
Although it may sound novel, adding alcohol to ice cream isn’t a new concept. Those who grew up in the 1980s with a hand-packed pint of rum raisin ice cream tucked into the back of the freezer know what I mean. This adult favorite featured raisins soaked in rum for a minimum of 30 minutes and up to 24 hours.
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“Our survey of historic USA newspapers suggests the ice cream flavor ‘rum raisin’ became popular during the 1930s. We find no single chef, restaurant or company claiming the invention,” said Lynne Olver, editor of The Food Timeline.
Olver added that rum raisin’s popularity peaked during the 1970s and 1980s. This may explain my parents’ passion for rum raisin. Today, though, they might not recognize their favorite frozen treat; mass-produced versions have replaced the rum with extracts and other flavorings.
Substituting extract for rum may sound like you’re skimping on ingredients. However, as I can attest from repeated attempts, freezing alcohol-laced goodies can be tricky. In my quest for vodka-laced sorbets, champagne sherbets and brandy-infused ice creams, I’ve created countless soupy, boozy treats.
There is a fine line between a frozen dessert and a cold, slushy drink. If I use too much alcohol, I end up with drunken milkshakes. If I add too little, my concoction lacks the flavor of that special ingredient.
Try gelatin as a stabilizer
To skirt this problem, artisan ice cream makers may add gelatin, which acts as a stabilizer, or keep the alcohol content low, to less than 0.5 percent of the total volume. The theory is that consumers experience the subtle taste of, but not the actual, liquor.
At Mercer’s Dairy, a different approach prevails. With its products, you get both wine and wine flavor in every luscious spoonful. Its ice cream contains up to 5 percent alcohol by volume and 15 percent butterfat, Hulburt said. How the dairy manages to freeze wine remains a secret.
Along with the issue of freezing alcohol, commercial ice cream makers face the problems of liquor laws and underage consumption. In the United States, you must be 21 or older to obtain and consume alcohol-infused ice creams. Even if you’ve hit that ripe old age of 21, you still may be barred from buying a pint or scoop of these desserts. Some states, such as Louisiana, strictly prohibit their distribution.
In May, Louisiana state legislators voted down a bill to permit the sale of wine ice cream. Concerns about residents driving while intoxicated from ice cream and minors buying alcohol-infused confections were among the arguments against it.
Fortunately, you can make alcohol-infused ice cream at home. The following recipe illustrates how to combine fall flavors, dairy products and liquor for a spectacular 21-and-over ice cream.
- 2⅓ cups apple cider
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 3 tablespoons Calvados or other apple brandy
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 3 cups whole milk
- Place the apple cider, sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger and nutmeg in a medium saucepan and bring the ingredients to a boil over medium heat. Simmer, whisking periodically, until the liquid thickens and reduces down to a generous ¾ cup, about 25 minutes.
- Pour the mulled cider through a fine mesh strainer and into a glass measuring cup, checking to ensure that it has reduced to the correct amount.
- Pour the cider back into the pan. Leaving the pan off the heat, add the apple brandy and stir to combine. Add the cream and milk and stir until well-combined.
- Pour the ingredients into a shallow bowl or pan and place in the freezer for 20 to 25 minutes, or until chilled and just starting to freeze.
- If using an ice cream maker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for making ice cream. If doing this by hand, leave the cream mixture in the freezer, removing at 30- to 45-minute intervals and stirring to break up the ice cream. Continue freezing and stirring until a thick yet fairly soft ice cream has formed.
- Keep frozen until ready to serve.
Main photo: Spiked Apple Cider Ice Cream. Credit: Kathy Hunt
For fans of seasonal seafood, summer’s end is an eagerly anticipated event. This is the time when oysters recover their former glory and plump wild char return to northern rivers and lakes.
Not familiar with wild or even farmed char? You’re not alone. Although more than five years have passed since U.S. News and World Report ranked char No. 2 among the “11 best fish” to eat, this eco-friendly creature has yet to hit its stride with consumers.
I suspect the snub is inadvertent. When browsing supermarket display cases, shoppers tend to gravitate to what they know. They see fat, pink slabs of salmon and immediately reach for them instead of the coral-fleshed fillets and steaks labeled “Arctic char.” Unfortunately, by grabbing the old standby, they’ve deprived themselves of a versatile and delicious omega-3-rich fish.
Char pairs well with many flavors, can be cooked in endless ways
Those who take a chance and replace their usual purchase with char will find striking similarities. Like salmon, char possesses bright, silvery skin and flesh ranging in color from pale pink to ruby red. Its firm, juicy meat calls to mind a mild salmon or a bold trout.
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In terms of cooking, char responds well to a host of techniques, including baking, broiling, braising, grilling, pan frying, poaching and cold or hot smoking. I find that it goes beautifully with a wide range of ingredients. Basil, chervil, chives, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, barbecue sauce, cream, curry, ginger, lemon, sesame, mushrooms, spring onions, shallots and white wine all complement its pleasant taste.
Flexible. Flavorful. Good for you. Sound a bit like salmon? It does to me. However, unlike salmon, which has a complicated track record with sustainability, char is an environmentally sound seafood choice.
Several varieties of char exist. Of these, I most often see Arctic char in markets and on menus.
How Arctic char gets its name
If you’re a stickler about nomenclature, you may think the name Arctic char is a bit misleading. Char comes not from the North Pole but 500 miles south of it, from lakes and rivers in Alaska, northern New England, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Great Britain, Scandinavia and parts of Russia. Its remote homelands make it the most northerly freshwater fish species in the world. These locales also provide it with the “Arctic” in Arctic char.
Most often the char I buy has been raised on land in tanks. This method of aquaculture releases little pollution or parasites, making farmed char a safe seafood choice. For the same reason, it is also a good alternative to farmed Atlantic salmon, whose aquaculture pollutes waters and contains a large amount of toxins.
Although I’m a big advocate of farmed char, I still look forward to wild char’s brief fall showing. After a summer spent gorging on cod, shrimp, snails, salmon eggs and other aquatic life, these char return to their cold, freshwater lakes 50% fatter than when they left. Thanks to their rich and diverse diets, some reach up to 34 pounds in weight. Meanwhile, farmed char only grow to between 5 and 15 pounds. The added girth helps the wild species survive brutally harsh winters. It also makes them quite rich and delectable.
For centuries, native people have relied upon fat, hearty, wild char for sustenance. The Inuits of North America and the Arctic are especially indebted to this fish. They eat it in raw and cooked forms, smoking, drying, curing and grilling the meat.
Char roe is high in protein
They consume char roe, which is high in protein and Vitamin B, and leaving nothing to waste, Inuits have been known to use fish bones for knitting needles. They also turn the skin into a waterproof material for sewing pouches and coats for kayakers.
Because I am nowhere near as resourceful as the Inuit, I just stick with cooking char. When I’m lucky enough to come across wild char, I broil, pan sear or grill the fillets or steaks. Juicy and flavorful, wild char needs nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a drop of olive oil.
Should I crave a flashier preparation, I make the following dish. As with salmon, char has finished cooking when it reaches an internal temperature of 137 degrees F or its flesh has become opaque and flakes when probed with a fork.
- 2 tablespoons tamarind paste
- 2 tablespoons boiling water
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon sugar
- Salt to taste
- ¼ cup sesame seeds
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 4- to 6-ounce char fillets, skins on
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- 2 teaspoons water
- In a small bowl, mix together the tamarind paste, water, lime juice, sugar and salt, stirring until the tamarind paste has dissolved completely into the liquids.
- Place the sesame seeds in a flat, shallow dish.
- Heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. As the oil is heating, whisk together the egg white and 2 teaspoons water. Brush the mixture over the char fillets.
- Coat the skinless side of the fillets with the egg white and then dredge them through the sesame seeds. Place the fillets, seed side down, in the frying pan. Cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the fillets with tongs and cook on the skin side until just done. The fish should be pale pink and tender. Depending on the thickness of the char, this could be anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes.
- Place the fillets skin side down on four dinner plates. Drizzle the tamarind sauce over top of each. Serve immediately.
Photo: Pan-seared char. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Midway through summer I start craving a bit more excitement from my grill. Sure, I keep the usual burgers and kebabs on the menu. However, for a flashy, festive meal that’s a snap to create, I add bivalves to my barbecue.
Bivalves, a class of mollusk, possess two hinged shells, or valves, held together by a single muscle. Sound familiar? It should. This group consists of oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. Of these, clams, mussels and scallops all receive invitations to my cookouts.
Why aren’t oysters included on the guest list? It’s because of the “no R” rule — don’t consume oysters in a month without an “r” in its name. This is not an old wives’ tale. During the months of May through August, oysters spawn and become watery and unpalatable. Not even a smoky grill will improve their state.
Bivalves provide a chance of pace on the grill
Of the bivalve trio, the clam, specifically the East Coast littleneck clam, is a particular favorite of mine. Less than 2 inches in diameter, these are the smallest hard-shell clams. They are also the tenderest and one of the eco-friendliest.
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Along with its sweet, somewhat briny taste, what I love about the littleneck clam is that it cleans itself, siphoning water into and out of its shell, pushing out debris as it goes.
Keeping this self-cleaning trait in mind, about a half hour before placing them on the grill, I lay my littlenecks in a bowl filled with cold water and pour a generous amount of salt over them. The clams immediately begin to push out the salted water and any sediment that has collected in their shells. You can watch the grains of sand and dirt float to the top of the bowl.
After 20 to 25 minutes have passed, I arrange the debris-free clams on a sheet of tin foil. Although this may seem like a mundane task, I stay on my toes, looking out for fastidious or feisty clams among the bunch. These invariably spit water at me.
Placing the foil on my preheated grill, I cover and cook the clams for five to eight minutes. They’re finished when all their shells have opened. Any that don’t open I discard.
The grilled clams, with their juices pooling in their shells, can be topped with a dollop of hot sauce, squeeze of citrus juice, drop of butter or pinch of ground black pepper. Juicy and mildly salty, they’re equally delicious without any adornments.
Mussels require a smidgen more effort. Look at a mussel and the first thing you’ll notice is a cluster of scruffy threads attached to it. Known as a beard, these fibers allow the mussel to cling to and grow on rocks and other substrate. Although useful to the mussel, they’re of no value to me and must be scraped off with a knife.
Beards removed, I scrub the mussels under running water with a stiff brush. If they seem heavy or dirty, I soak them in a bowl of cold water for an hour before draining and washing them off again.
Cleaning finally completed, I follow the same cooking steps used for clams. As for dressing the grilled mussels, I consider what complements their sweet, moist meat and adorn them with such ingredients as chives, shallots, mustard, lemon juice, tarragon vinegar or garlic-laced butter.
Scallops differ from the other two in that they’re shucked at sea immediately after being harvested. As a result, I don’t have much cleaning to do. I just rinse the meat under water and move on to cooking.
Unfortunately, the lack of shells means I have an increased risk of the scallops drying out on the grill. To combat this possibility, I generously coat the scallops with olive oil before laying them on a hot grill. After seasoning each with salt and pepper, I cook them for two to three minutes per side or until the translucent flesh has turned a beautiful pearl color. I immediately remove the scallops to prevent overcooking.
Similar to clams and mussels, scallops require few, if any, extra ingredients. A dusting of cayenne, scallions, shallots, and vinegar or lemon or lime juice will balance out their sweetness, while a splash of cream or white wine will enhance it. Chervil, parsley or thyme likewise pair well with these plump and flavorful bivalves.
The next time that you fire up your grill, add some bivalves to your barbecue. Simple, quick and flavorful, they’re a welcome addition to any summer feast.
From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013). If you don’t have an outdoor grill, you can make these on a grill pan.
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Grated zest of 2 lemons
- 3 tablespoons fresh basil, minced
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 5 dozen medium-sized hard-shelled clams such as top neck or cherrystone, scrubbed
- Preheat the grill on high.
- In a glass bowl in the microwave or in a small pan on the stovetop, melt the butter. Allow the butter to cool slightly, about 10 minutes, and then add the lemon juice, zest, basil and pepper. Stir together and set aside.
- Place a layer of tin foil on the grill and then place the clams on top of the foil. Cover the grill and allow the clams to cook for 8 to 10 minutes.
- After tossing out any unopened clams, place the grilled clams in a bowl or on a platter and drizzle the lemon-basil butter over the top of them. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Clams on a grill pan. Credit: Kathy Hunt
As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.
Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.
Eating invasive fish aids sustainability
Think that the need for invasivores – people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.
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This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.
Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.
Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.
In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.
Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.
Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”
Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.
Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.
Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.
Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.
With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.
Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon
As a lifelong sweets lover, I think of summertime as the season where I cast aside my beloved rich, wintry desserts for light, fruity treats. One dish that always tops my list of summer offerings is the trifle. Composed of layers of liquor-doused sponge cake, fruit or preserves, custard and whipped cream, this heavenly British original is far from trivial.
Although it may sound unfamiliar to many Americans, this creamy creation has wowed Britain since the Middle Ages. Trifle first appeared in print in T. Dawson’s 1596 book “The Good Huswifes Jewell” and consisted of spiced, sweetened and boiled cream.
The trifle has grown more elaborate more tasty over time
During the 18th century, the trifle became much more elaborate. So did its presentation. In order for guests to see the ingredients, sponge cake or macaroons were placed into a clear glass bowl. They were then wetted with wine, brandy or sherry. Blanketed by custard, they were ultimately topped by the frothy milk and wine or fruit juice combo known as syllabub.
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The city of Cambridge specialized in several trifles, one of which was known as “the duke’s custard.” Here, brandied Morello cherries were slipped between the sponge cake and custard. Cambridge also had “the dean’s cream,” which incorporated candied fruit, and “chapel trifle,” which substituted jam for the alcohol.
The addition of fruit turned the trifle into a sophisticated confection. No longer was it just a bowl of velvety custard, cream and dampened cake. Now diners encountered distinct textures and flavors. With this, the modern trifle was born.
Fruit added complexity and sweetness to the dessert. It also increased its exquisiteness. When viewed from the side, the contrasting bands of gold from the cookies, orange, violet or ruby from the fruit, blond custard and white cream were striking. It’s not surprising that 18th-century cookbook author Hannah Glasse said that, with burning candles placed around it, a fruit preserve-laced trifle made a beautiful centerpiece.
In Victorian England, trifle became the dessert to be served at festive occasions. It was a staple of the banquet table and served as a light alternative to another British classic, Christmas pudding.
Over the decades cooks have experimented with this lovely sweet, occasionally transforming it into something far less pleasing. I think specifically of the 1890s savory trifle. In it fried bread took the place of sponge cake, chunks of lobster replaced the fruit and mayonnaise stood in for the custard.
In recipes aimed at England’s working poor, early 20th-century British food lecturer Florence Petty tried to inject some whimsy and fun. To that end, she refashioned the trifle into a main dish made from leftovers. Dubbed “beef trifle,” her creation consisted of meat mixed with horseradish and breadcrumbs. Topped with layers of beaten eggs and gravy, Petty’s beef trifle was baked and served in a glass bowl as the evening entree.
Another less radical take was the Indian trifle, which included rice and cinnamon. Closer to the original are those recipes that replace the alcohol used for softening the sponge cake with coffee, coconut milk or liqueur.
Because of my nagging sweet tooth, I stick with tried-and-true dessert trifles, with a few tweaks, or course. Instead of the traditional sponge cake, I substitute Italian ladyfingers or amaretti cookies and pour Madeira or other sweet, white wine over them. If I’m serving this to children as well as adults, I use the fruit’s macerating liquid or orange juice in place of the alcohol.
As for the colorful, fruity layer, some cooks insist on using preserves rather than fruit. Not me. Although this dessert tastes magnificent with virtually any fruit, I like a mixture of macerated raspberries and blueberries, mangoes and kiwis, plums, apricots, strawberries or passion fruit. In the winter, canned peaches or pomegranate seeds are equally divine.
Regarding the final two tiers, custard and whipped cream made from scratch are musts. Neither takes long to prepare, yet both taste so much better than what you’ll get from a box or an aerosol can. To add a bit of zing, I sprinkle chopped pistachios, toasted almond slivers, citrus zest or pomegranate seeds over the whipped cream.
This summer cast aside the usual pies, cobblers and ice creams for British trifles. They never fail to please both visually and gastronomically.
You can make this in one large, clear glass bowl or small, individual glass bowls.
- 12 ounces fresh raspberries
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons cranberry juice
- 12 to 14 ladyfinger or amaretti cookies
- ½ cup white wine
- 3 large eggs plus 2 egg yolks
- ½ cup sugar
- Pinch salt
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups milk
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons sliced blanched almonds, toasted
- Toss the raspberries, sugar and cranberry juice together in a bowl and allow the ingredients to steep for 30 minutes or so.
- As the berries are macerating, make the custard. Place the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, almond and vanilla extracts and pinch of salt into a saucepan and, over medium heat, stir the ingredients until combined. Slowly pour in the milk and cornstarch, stirring continually. Keep cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick and the custard can coat the back of a spoon and it reaches a temperature of 180 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and allow the custard to cool.
- In either a large glass bowl or smaller individual bowls, line up the ladyfingers until the bottom is covered. So that I can fit more cookies in the bowl, I like to place them on their sides rather than bottoms.
- Using a strainer, strain the berries, reserving their juices. You should end up with roughly ¼ cup of liquid. Add the wine to the juice and pour the mixture over the ladyfingers so that all are coated.
- At this point make the whipped cream. In a medium bowl beat together the cream, almond extract and sugar until stiff peaks form.
- To assemble the trifle, evenly spoon the raspberries over the ladyfingers. Pour the cooled custard over the berries. Spread the whipped cream over the custard and then top it with the toasted almonds. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Main photo: A raspberry trifle. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Most of us have experienced this scenario once in our lives: You travel to a new region, sample the local cuisine and fall head over heels for a unique food or drink. Perhaps you ask for the recipe so you can re-create this amazing repast in your own kitchen. Maybe you buy every box or bottle you can find and stuff your suitcase with liquor, pastries or cured meat. Then again, you might have a case of the delicacy shipped to your home.
If you’re anything like New York City restaurateur Pepi Di Giacomo, you don’t stop with a case of your favorite, Tuscan-made chocolates. “I wanted the chocolate for myself. How can I get it? I open up a shop,” she says.
In January, in a jewel-box-sized storefront a few blocks north of Manhattan’s Union Square, Di Giacomo opened America’s first Amedei chocolate shop.
There she sells a variety of velvety chocolate pralines, bars, truffles and drops; a rich, silky chocolate-hazelnut spread known as Crema Toscana; and luscious hot cocoa. Most of these treats contain a minimum of 70% cocoa. All pack a powerful flavor punch.
Amedei chocolate made by master chocolatier
The sweets at Di Giacomo’s well-appointed shop come from the Tuscan town of Pontedera, Italy. Home to the dashing Vespa scooter and sustainable Castellani wine, Pontedera is where the world’s first female master chocolatier, Cecilia Tessieri, and her older brother Alessio produce Amedei.
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Named for Tessieri’s maternal grandmother, who, according to Cecilia Tessieri, “loved chocolate and was the heart of the family,” Amedei came out with its first chocolate, Toscana Black, in 1998. Cecilia Tessieri worked for eight years on this nuanced dark chocolate bar before deeming it ready for the public. Like fine wine, exceptional chocolate takes time.
Toscana Black possesses a clean, refined flavor. It comes from a blend of Venezuelan Criollo and Trinidadian Trinitario beans.
While Toscana features only two varieties of beans, the “9” chocolate bar includes beans from nine cacao plantations. All nine had been on the verge of closing when the Tessieris encountered them. The siblings saved, restored and put the plantations back into production, growing the beans used in Amedei’s award-winning chocolates.
As Di Giacomo points out, Amedei is “a true bean-to-bar company.” She adds, “They oversee plantations, work with farmers’ cooperatives, collect the beans, and roast, grind and mix them. They source the best ingredients and make their chocolates very pure and complex in flavor.”
Like many Amedei devotees, I first became hooked on its bar chocolate. A bite of aromatic Chuao or creamy milk chocolate flecked with toasted Piedmont hazelnuts proved to be the perfect afternoon pick-me-up or after-dinner sweet. After I progressed to the rum-laced, dark chocolate praline Passione and ginseng-infused, milk chocolate praline Equilibrio, I understood why Food & Wine contributing editor Pete Wells called Amedei “the world’s best chocolate.” Smooth, well balanced and mature flavored, Amedei’s filled chocolates, or pralines, are divine creations.
Considering how heavenly Amedei’s filled chocolates are, I wasn’t surprised to learn Cecilia Tessieri started her confectionary career as a praline maker. She trained and worked in small chocolate laboratories and large factories across Europe. She also apprenticed with European bean-to-bar masters, learning firsthand how to craft exceptional chocolate and pair unusual ingredients.
Inspiration, she says, comes from her travel experiences as well as her emotions. “Much also depends on whom the chocolate is meant for,” she says.
Each year Amedei introduces one or two new chocolates. The small number is a result of the large amount of time spent perfecting the chocolates. “Pralines and tartufi — Italian truffles — need one year of study and tests before they are released,” she says.
These are chocolates worth the wait. Past newcomers include such delicious goodies as the cinnamon-walnut Toscanello and the cherry- and maraschino-liqueur filled Badia. Inspired by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence’s renowned Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the dome-shaped Badia is sublime.
Thanks to Cecilia Tessieri’s creativity and Pepi Di Giacomo’s initiative, we all can enjoy sumptuous, otherworldly chocolates any time, anywhere. Along with selling Amedei at her shop on East 18th Street, Di Giacomo offers the same products online at the Amedei website.
“It makes me happy to feed people and feed them good food,” she says. With Amedei, Di Giacomo has made not only herself but also countless chocolate lovers quite happy.
Main photo: Chocolates for sale at Amedei in Manhattan. Credit: Kathy Hunt