BOSTON — CHOCOLATE truffles, tortes, gateaux....
I was in Vienna in a sweet shop gazing at beautiful chocolate pastry, my eyes wide before a glass casing, fixed on intricate icing. The workmanship was so delicate, so precise.
Then a little voice inside of me sounded off like TV's Homer Simpson: "M-m-m-m, choc-late, m-m-m-m choc-late." Just short of drooling, I ordered a small bonbon, bittersweet.
What I saw - and tasted - was extraordinary to me but nothing new to Vienna. Craftsmanship in chocolate is a refined tradition in Europe. Think of fine chocolate and your mind is apt to travel to Switzerland, where chocolate consumption is highest in the world (close to 20 pounds per person a year). You might also think of Belgium, Austria, Germany, France, or Holland.
But the United States also has a tradition in chocolate - beyond commercialized candy bars and boxed brownie mixes. Despite a somewhat utilitarian image melts in your mouth, not in your hand American chocolate has fostered unique and delicious recipes. "We shouldn't have such an inferiority complex," says Nancy Baggett, author of "The International Chocolate Cookbook" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40).
European and American chocolate traditions simply evolved differently, says Ms. Baggett, whose beautiful and detailed cookbook offers 125 recipes, from Swiss Tri-Color Chocolate Terrine to American Fudge. Chocolate paths diverge
First, there was a major difference in the way chocolate was made. "In the European tradition, the idea was that the master chocolatiers would produce the finest product that they could," explains Baggett, who spent several years in Europe researching and studying chocolate. Today, that tradition makes it virtually impossible to find unsweetened chocolate in Europe.
"The other major difference is that all cocoa powder has been alkalized at the factory," she continues. Neutralizing the powder makes it darker, "takes the rough edges away," and mellows the flavor.
In the United States, however, chocolate developed along different lines. It was made unsweetened, just like the squares you buy for baking at the supermarket today, explains Baggett. Also, unlike the Europeans', US cocoa powder was made non-alkalized - and still is. "Our devil's food cake is based chemically on the fact that our cocoa powder is non-alkalized," says Baggett. "It is a uniquely American product, and it couldn't have been invented in Europe," she explains.
Some classic American recipes are often overlooked, she adds. "To me, fudge is an excellent candy. It's a uniquely American product. Our tradition in chocolate work is cruder, but it doesn't mean that the recipes are any less appealing."
The elitist image of European chocolate makes sense because chocolate work, like pastry, evolved as a serious art and science in Europe. It still is. "There's no question that they make fine chocolate, especially eating chocolate," says Baggett. "They're very concerned about the blend of beans and careful processing that makes good chocolate."
Certainly Europeans have refined and technically improved chocolate-making and developed classic recipes. The French and also the Swiss, Belgians, and Austrians have been prominent internationally in baking. Many pastry teachers in the US are European-born and trained, or American-born and European-trained, Baggett points out. She studied with White House executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier.
Another difference between European and American chocolate traditions is the attitudes toward bought desserts and homemade ones. The tradition in Europe is: Let the master make the wonderful desserts.
"The notion is, if you want it really done right, you go to the master pastry chef and have him do it," says Baggett. "Many of the standard recipes that [Europeans] enjoy are things they buy at the local pattisserie." 'Pioneer' dessert tradition
But the standard notion in the United States grows out of a pioneer spirit: ll do it myself." If dinner guests in America are served a store-bought dessert, they may assume that the hostess or host didn't have time to make a "fresh" dessert at home. In Europe, such a dessert may be perceived as a slight. Hosts might make something simple at home, but if they were having a fancy meal, they would feel obliged to go to the best pastry shop in town and buy something exquisite, something they would never atte mpt to make at home, says Baggett.
But these days, as Americans become more international, they are latching on to that European tradition, she suspects. "Especially in cities where we have access to fine bake shops, people are more likely now to buy dessert for a meal and take it home."
Are Americans cutting back on chocolate? Baggett says no.
"There seems to be a trend toward less-sweet chocolate, and people seem to be buying less chocolate candy," she says, but "they're still treating themselves to delicious chocolate desserts. If anything, people are holding out for that ultimate dessert," a practice Baggett shares: "When I want a dessert, I want it to be wonderful. If it's not, I would rather not have a dessert at all."