T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.
NOTE: The recipe originally published with this story did not work for many readers — the dough rose too slowly and the crumb was too dense. In January 2011, the author took the recipe apart and built a new one from scratch. It will appear in her forthcoming book, A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories from a Well-Tempered Table (Globe Pequot, fall 2011).
It happened in winter, 10 years ago in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. I was walking down the cold, slush-laced street, dreaming of the fruity French custard called clafoutis. I walked into the Balthazar Bakery, whose warm, yeasty interior glowed with good things — flaky croissants, savory olive breads, adorable financiers, fetching little jam tarts.
As I hesitated, in a fit of indecision regarding pistachio or plain madeleines, I became aware of something extraordinary happening over my right shoulder. What appeared to be a pillowy but otherwise ordinary pumpernickel loaf was changing hands over the counter.
But the smell: It was sensational, as if the resident spirit of the cacao tree itself was ascending to its home in heaven.
"What is it?" I exclaimed.e If that was pumpernickel, then I was the Tooth Fairy.
It was chocolate bread, I was informed, and I was lucky — there was one loaf left.
I raced home as fast as the subway permitted, clasping the warm bag in my hands, giving it a furtive sniff from time to time.
When I got home, my husband and I set upon it without delay. The first slice or two we ate in a decorous way. But within minutes, we were tearing it apart with our hands, with a greedy, crazed, cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs glint in our eyes.
The texture was feathery yet rich, like brioche, with a soft, tear-apart crumb. The satiny-smooth finish was like butter (for good reason, I later found out). The delicacy of the loaf stood in stark contrast to the dense chunks of high-test bittersweet chocolate scattered throughout.
If you like your chocolate gooey and compliant, you could pop a slice in the toaster. If you like your chocolate firm, dark and potent, you could eat it as it was. Either way, the bread was mouth-filling, faintly decadent and addictive in both the short and long term.
There followed a period where I began inventing reasons to go to SoHo. For a few months, I went to every obscure gallery showing within several blocks of Spring Street, and I never left without a yellow Balthazar bag carrying one, even two loaves of chocolate bread.
But I knew that sooner or later I was going to have to learn to make it for myself, and finally I succumbed to the inevitable Internet trawl in search of a recipe. Many megabytes later, I found one on the Godiva Web site. I tried it that very day, and I've never felt the need for another.
Chocolate bread is one of those foods that falls between categories: It's not bread in the sense that you'd want to slice it up and make yourself a tuna sandwich. And it's not chocolate in the sense that you can take a little bite and let it roll around in your mouth for a minute or two. It's not lunch or dinner, and you'd have to be a real sybarite to call it breakfast. But because it's bread, it's not exactly dessert, either.
If you have to choose a perfect time of day to eat chocolate bread, it's probably snack time — time when you come home from school and your Mom puts out something warm and sweet to revive your flagging spirits, as a sort of warrant for good behavior until dinnertime.
But if you have put your school days far behind you, or if you are more used to snacks falling like cellophane-wrapped manna from the cafeteria vending machine, pretty much any time will do.
Once I learned to make chocolate bread, I began making it rather often. For a loaf of bread, it's very communicative. I made it to say "thank you," as well as "sorry" and "I love you." I once made it for the chef at the restaurant where I was interning, to say, "Why don't you wait a few more days before firing me?"
In fact, it's not a bad idea to make it whenever you have something to say, because the only possible response to a statement phrased in chocolate bread is to roll over and say "yes."
Chocolate bread could be one explanation for the mysterious behavior of my 18-month-old daughter, Zoe. She might be the only baby in history to learn the word "yes" before "no." She says it "yeshh!" as in: Would you like some milk now? Yessh! Do you want to wear your fancy shoes from Santa? Yeshh! Would you like some chocolate bread, Zoe? Yeshh! Yeshh!
When the days get short and dark and the cold settles in, I'll take all the "yes" I can get. So my advice is this: When you get around to making your own chocolate bread, make it a double and have someone you love over for a snack. Odds are, they won't say no.
NOTE: This recipe did not work for many readers — the dough rose too slowly and the crumb was too dense. In January 2011, the author took the recipe apart and built a new one from scratch. It will appear in her forthcoming book, A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories from a Well-Tempered Table (Globe Pequot, fall 2011).
It's difficult to stop yourself from tearing into chocolate bread the moment you take it out of the oven, but restrain yourself. If you allow the loaf to cool in the pan for 15 minutes and on a rack for another 15, it will hold its shape and be much, much easier to slice. The recipe is adapted from one Godiva Chocolatier once provided.
Makes 2 loaves
1 1/2 cups warm water, divided (or, if not using espresso powder, 1/2 cup warm water and 1 cup warm coffee)
2/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
2 teaspoons dry yeast
4 1/2 cups bread flour
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup cocoa powder, sifted
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder, optional (see above)
2 teaspoons salt
1 large egg, at room temperature
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, chopped into 1/2-inch chunks
1 large egg
1 teaspoon water
In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup of the warm water with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and set the mixture aside for 10 minutes, until foamy. If the mixture doesn't foam, the yeast might be inactive and you should try again with fresh yeast.
In the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer, place the flour, the remaining 2/3 cup of granulated sugar, the light brown sugar, the cocoa, the espresso powder (if using) and the salt. Using the paddle attachment, mix at low speed for 1 minute, until combined. If mixing by hand, use a whisk and combine thoroughly.
Add the remaining 1 cup warm water (or warm coffee, if not using the espresso powder) and the egg to the yeast mixture. Add this to the flour mixture while continuing to mix at low speed. Increase the speed to medium and continue to beat the mixture for 2 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. At low speed, beat in the softened butter 1 tablespoon at a time, until it is incorporated into the dough. Remove the paddle attachment and replace it with the dough hook. (Alternatively, you can knead by hand. Just make sure the butter is well softened.) Knead the dough at low speed for 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and knead the dough for 2 minutes longer.
Add the chocolate chunks and knead just until incorporated. Transfer the dough to a buttered bowl (the dough will be quite moist). Cover the dough closely with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and allow to rise in a warm, draft-free place for 2 hours (or until almost doubled in bulk).
After the chocolate dough has risen, punch the dough down and cover again with plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or up to 2 days.
Butter two 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pans. On a lightly floured work surface, divide the chocolate dough in half. Divide each dough half into 6 equal pieces so that you have 12 equal pieces in all. With lightly floured hands, shape each piece into a smooth, round ball. Place 6 dough balls — two by two, at a diagonal (see photo above) — in each prepared pan, pressing them lightly together if necessary. Cover the pans with a tea towel and allow the dough to rise at room temperature for 1 hour.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and water until blended. Using a pastry brush, brush the egg glaze over the tops of the loaves.
Bake the loaves for 10 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake the bread for an additional 30 minutes. Cool the bread in the pans set on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Unmold the bread and cool the loaves on the rack completely.
Sometimes you want your choco-fix without having to wait around for the yeast to do its thing. This recipe, from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin 2007), uses buttermilk and eggs to keep the crumb nice and moist. She uses melted chocolate as well as cocoa in the batter, which results in wonderfully assertive cocoa-dom. Muffins have the added advantage of coming in single servings, which reduces — though it does not eliminate — squabbles over who has had more.
Makes 12 muffins
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter or spray the 12 molds in a regular-size muffin pan, or fit the molds with paper muffin cups. (Or use a silicone muffin pan, which needs neither greasing nor paper cups). Place the muffin pan on a baking sheet.
Melt the butter and half of the chopped chocolate together in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, or in a microwave. Remove from the heat.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large glass measuring cup or another bowl, whisk the buttermilk, egg and vanilla extract together until well combined.
Pour the liquid ingredients and the melted butter and chocolate over the dry ingredients and, with the whisk or a rubber spatula, gently but quickly stir to blend. Don't worry about being thorough — a few lumps are better than overmixing the batter. Stir in the remaining chopped chocolate. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.
Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes before carefully removing each muffin from its mold.