Cocolat, Chocolate and Cherries

Molten Chocolate Cherry Cakes with Roasted Cherry Compote

Many years ago, in the city of my birth, there was a small chocolate shop and bakery. It was located about six or seven blocks away from the very house in which I came into the world, and naturally enough it formed a part of the daily fabric of my life from my earliest moments. A friend of the family worked there and often dropped off leftovers for us to enjoy; weekend mornings often found us taking our place among the hungry crowds waiting at the counter for something sinfully rich to start the day. Birthdays and special occasions were marked by the presence of a pink cardboard box that even today I associate with the sound of astonished gasps. From the enormous display case I remember ordering truffles so large I had to devote a good ten minutes to finishing one, and slices of tarts, tortes and gâteaus so rich and chocolaty they set my hair standing on end. When I was old enough to roam the streets alone, I would often stop in to spend my hard-earned babysitting money on a treat, usually lingering for half an hour or more in front of the display trying to decide which of all those glossy, shimmery, jewel-like concoctions appealed most. For me it was the quintessential neighborhood hangout. It was also an education in chocolate, and I grew up believing this was how chocolate should be.

The city was Berkeley, the decade was the 1980s, and the chocolate shop was the now-legendary Cocolat. At that time, of course, we didn’t realize we were sampling history in the making; we just went there because everything was so extraordinarily good. The woman behind Cocolat, Alice Medrich, is now often credited with single-handedly revolutionizing the way Americans eat chocolate, and thinking back, I believe it. Her creations were light-years ahead of what was available everywhere else; everything was dark, dense, elegant and seductively nodding towards Europe, at the same time that everyone else was trying to get their cakes as tall, and their icings as stiff and well-behaved as possible. Medrich is often referred to as the Alice Waters of chocolate, though considering my chocolate-tinged vision of the world I would rather say the opposite. Although she claims that she stumbled her way around her shop for its first few years, blindly concocting recipes and hoping for the best, no one seems to have any doubts now about her brilliance. Her original cookbook Cocolat, now out of print, sells for up to $100 on

Cocolat closed its doors for good in the mid 1990s, which freed up Medrich to concentrate on sharing her profound chocolate wisdom in the form of cookbooks. All her books are luscious, appetite-whetting feasts for the senses, full of unusual and imaginative recipes and breathtaking photographs. Her latest achievement, which I purchased recently in a fit of lustful reminiscence, is truly a thing of beauty. Titled Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate, it chronicles Medrich’s lifelong passion for chocolate and the way in which her appreciation of it evolved over time from the days in which the height of chocolate indulgence for her was a Milky Way straight from the freezer. One of the most amusing anecdotes I ran across in this book is the way in which she invented her insanely-popular golf-ball sized truffles which remained Cocolat’s signature item until the end: wanting to recreate some of the amazing chocolate truffles she experienced in France, she fiddled around with ganache and melted coverture until she had a size she could easily handle and a taste she thought would sell. What she didn’t know was that chocolate had to be tempered, and that not tempering her truffle mixture would cause it to liquefy at room temperature. How did she cope? Why, by selling the truffles cold, of course. She says she cringes at the naivety that went into that recipe; I do anything but cringe as I vividly remember the feel of cold shards of paper-thin chocolate coverture shattering in my mouth and the deliciously cool, velvety-soft ganache I would suck out of the shell in mouthfuls, desperate to finish before everything melted into a gooey puddle. It was, undoubtedly, a stroke of genius. Anybody can make little chocolate truffles and wrap them up in fancy boxes, but only Alice Medrich could make truffle-eating an event requiring one’s total concentration.

The last time I visited Cocolat was more than thirteen years ago, and when I later learned it had closed I felt a curious pang of sadness, despite the fact that I now lived hundreds of miles away. Luckily for all of us – those who were lucky enough to know the shop and those who weren’t – Cocolat lives on in Alice’s recipes, and all I need to do to be transported back to that display case is pick up one of her cookbooks. I never had the good fortune to meet Alice Medrich in person, but I can honestly say she has affected my entire food-based existence very profoundly –  after all, who could grow up down the street from Cocolat and not come away marked forever?

Molten Chocolate Cherry Cakes with Roasted Cherry Compote

Source: adapted from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich
Note: The original recipe calls for raspberry puree to flavor the ganache centers, but I was tempted by the first crop of cherries in the market, so I decided to improvise. If you want to stick to the original, just substitute 1/4 cup strained fresh raspberry puree and 1 tablespoon of sugar for the cherry preserves.
Serves: 6

For cakes:
Sugar for the ramekins

7 oz (200 grams) bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup cherry preserves, heated and strained (measured after straining)
1 tablespoon kirsch or brandy (optional)
5 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch salt

For cherry compote:
1 lb. cherries, halved and pitted
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kirsch or brandy (optional)

Put a pie plate in the freezer to chill. Liberally butter the insides of 6 small ramekins or custard cups, sprinkle with sugar, then tap out the excess.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in the microwave, heating on medium power in 20-second bursts until melted (or do this in a double boiler). Transfer 5 tablespoons of the chocolate mixture to a small bowl, and stir in the cherry preserves and liquor if using. Scrape this into the chilled pie pan and return it to the freezer for ten minutes to harden. W
hen it has, use a small spoon to form the mixture into six round truffles (they don’t need to be perfect). Return them to the freezer.

Stir the egg yolks into the remaining chocolate mixture. In a clean bowl beat the three egg whites with the cream of tartar and pinch of salt until they start to form soft peaks. Beat in the sugar a tablespoon at a time, until the peaks are shiny but not dry. Fold about one-quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten, then fold in the rest. Using half the batter, fill each ramekin about half-full. Press one frozen chocolate-cherry truffle into the center of each cup. Cover with the remaining batter, leveling the tops. The truffles should be completely covered. Cover the cups with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 3 hours and up to 3 days.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Combine the all the ingredients for the cherry compote in a baking dish and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is syrupy and bubbling thickly. Remove and set aside. Twenty minutes before you want to serve the cakes, remove the plastic wrap from the ramekins and place them on a baking sheet. Bake 10-14 minutes, or until puffed like little souffles and a toothpick inserted in the center meets no resistance. Let the cakes cool for about 3 minutes.

Run a knife around the inside of each cup. Holding with a potholder, invert the cakes onto serving plates. Serve with the roasted cherry compote and a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Note: When I inverted these, I found that I had inadvertently pressed all my truffles to the bottom, and they broke open as I unmolded the cakes, thus depriving us of the ‘molten center’ effect. To guard against this, I would reduce the amount of chocolate I used for the truffles to 4 tablespoons, to make sure I would have enough batter to cover them top and bottom. Of course, you could always serve them from the ramekins – then it’s like discovering a fountain of liquid gold at the bottom of each cup!