Tres leches, move over. There’s a new cake in town with three iterations of the same component: tres (or maybe it should be trois?) ganaches chocolate raspberry cupcakes. Sounds decadent, right? Well, they were. Decadent, extravagant, and definitely delicious…if possibly slightly unnecessarily complicated.
Not only that, but I used expensive eating chocolate for all of them. Bars and bars of the $3-$5 for two frickin’ ounces kind of eating chocolate. Valrhona raspberry ganache fills both the raspberry inside the cupcake and the one on top. Around the interior raspberry is a Scharffen Berger ganache. Finally, Michel Cluizel ganache frosting swirled on top crowns it all. The only reason I said that it was possibly unnecessary was that while eating the cupcake it wasn’t necessarily apparent that there were three different chocolates in play. But you definitely could tell that the chocolate involved was really, really good chocolate.
Now, before you think that this is a completely inappropriate post for the current economic climate, let me explain: I’ve been using up ingredients in my pantry, one of the thriftiest ways to save money in the kitchen. Let me introduce you to my secret source of unending shame: my chocolate collection.
Now, I know I’m not the only one who has chocolate hidden in her kitchen cupboards–in my younger and sneakier days, I used to liberate sweets from a hiding spot or two that I knew about. But I’m not ashamed of my collection for the usual reasons. No, I’m ashamed because I’ve had bars and bars and bars of high-quality chocolate in my possession for ages and never got around to eating it. I’ve meant to rectify the situation for a long time now, but somehow the enormity of this crime against chocolate and checkbook makes it even harder to do anything about it. I was saving these bars for a purpose, so it seemed like eating them for the sake of eating them rather than for some grander reason was doing them yet another disservice.
It all started in pastry school. In one of the few actual take-home assignments they ever gave us, we were assigned to write a paper on a single ingredient used in the pastry kitchen. At that point, I’d taken a three day workshop on chocolate work and gotten a glimpse of the world of high-quality chocolate, so I picked that as my subject to investigate. My research led me to a fantastic book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, that not only told the history of chocolate and explained how it was processed in greater depth than I’d encountered before, but went into detail about the three different types of trees–criollo, forastero and trinitario–and the different chocolate-producing regions of the world and how those differences affected the chocolate’s flavor and quality.
The book also shows you how to properly taste chocolate, and while that’s a fairly common foodie thing to do now, back then the specialty chocolate craze was just getting started. Our favorite grocery store–the Shoreline Central Market–was stocking a lot of single-origin bars at the time, so we’d pick a couple up every time we went shopping. That’s when I fell in love with Michel Cluizel’s chocolate. The package for one of his single plantation chocolates claimed that you could taste the flavor of green olives, and when that flavor spread over my tastebuds as the chocolate melted on my tongue, I was hooked.
I started buying one of every chocolate bar that I saw, justifying it as part of my education as a future pastry chef. We had a few friends–and most of Chris’ extended family, once–join us in tastings where I’d share both my collection of chocolate and my collection of chocolate knowledge with them (if only I’d started teaching chocolate classes professionally back then…I would have been ahead of all of the ones that have popped up since!), but for the most part, I would taste one or two squares of the bar and save it. Why? Because at some point I wanted to sit down and do a real chocolate tasting. I was asthmatic and used an ventolin inhaler so it was safe to taste chocolate. I wanted to taste them all side-by-side (this was before wine tasting taught me that your palate gets exhausted if you try to taste the subtleties of too many products in the same day), I wanted to take notes, I wanted to do it right. And any time I want to do something right…well, the odds of me actually doing it go down considerably. It’s the curse of the perfectionist: why bother doing something if you aren’t going to do it better than anyone else ever has?
So, I kept buying chocolate, and I kept collecting bars, many of them not even opened to taste my usual two squares because I was saving them for my tasting to end all tastings. In a way, it did end all tastings, because I stopped indulging in my informal little chocolate explorations, in my informal chocolate classes with my friends. And my chocolate languished, waiting to be liberated.
So, what does this have to do with cupcakes?
The answer is simple: I am liberating my chocolate.
Yes, it’s on the old side. Believe me, I got a good, hard time about that from some of the cupcakes recipients this weekend. It’s served most of a life sentence and had given up hope of parole.
But, fortunately, chocolate doesn’t exactly go bad, not in the spoiling sense of the word. Mine doesn’t look so hot, but it still tastes like expensive chocolate. A good chocolate bar stored in a cool, dark environment won’t start to lose its quality and flavor for at least a year. Over a more extended period, that bar will eventually fall out of temper, especially if it’s storage location is less than ideal. The flavor will probably lose some of its potency and complexity, like dried herbs left in the cupboard for too long. A speckled white coating might form on the chocolate, which may look like mold to the uninitiated but is really just “bloom”, formed by the cocoa butter separating out and rising to the surface. Or the chocolate may just turn dull, losing the shine that it had (hopefully) when it was in temper. If you try to break it, it won’t have the well-tempered snap that you look for, either.
To a certain point, you can put it back in temper if you know how. I know how to temper chocolate, but with chocolate as old as mine…well, there really is only one thing to do: bake with it. I did this first with the Rainbow Cookies I made last Christmas, where the wonderful flavor of Michel Cluizel’s chocolate elevated the colorful little bars to something truly on another level of deliciousness, and since then I’ve decided to dispose of the rest of the chocolate in the same way. These cupcakes made a huge dent in the collection.
I’ve been with the same writing critique group for almost four years now. One of the members has a birthday coming up, and we planned to surprise her with a celebration at our most recent meeting. I volunteered to make the cake, and I wanted to do something really special for my friend. I saw some beautiful fresh raspberries while I was out shopping, and the idea for these cupcakes was born. I was hoping they’d turn out to be as glamorous as I envisioned them, and I think, for once, they did.
So, that’s the story behind the trois ganaches. These cupcakes could easily be made with any decent dark chocolate, and in the future I’d only make two different ganaches–a raspberry one for the inside, and a plain one for the top. I’d go entirely with raspberry ganache except that it doesn’t have quite as smooth of an appearance as regular ganache, so it’s more suitable for filling cupcakes.
After all that chocolate talk, let’s start by looking at the most important part of a truly good cupcake, the cake itself. In my opinion, it’s easy to make cupcakes look pretty or cute, and a lot harder to master baking them.
If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you may remember that I’ve had some difficulties with baking cupcakes in the past. Since then, I’ve learned my lesson and stuck to recipes intended specifically for cupcakes from books that are all about cupcakes. To that end, I picked up a copy of Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes and this was my first attempt at one of the recipes.
I tend to trust Martha Stewart recipes, and Martha definitely didn’t fail me this time. I used the Devil’s Food Cupcakes recipe for these, and they were perfect for the purpose: not so chocolatey that they’d just seem like an extension of all the ganache I was planning to utilize, but not watered down like so many chocolate baked goods are. The texture was so soft and moist–in the recipe’s description, they attribute this to sour cream–and they were divine both warm from the oven and cooled down and decorated. (For reference, the recipe yielded 18 normal-sized cupcakes and 24 mini cupcakes. The baking time was spot on for my oven, with a five minute deduction to the time when baking the mini cupcakes.)
I baked them Friday night and then set about decorating them Saturday morning. First thing, I washed the raspberries and laid them out to dry on a cooling rack covered in paper towels, making sure that there was no water inside or out because the raspberries were going to be surrounded by ganache and water is a great way to invite mold into your chocolates. I made my raspberry ganache, so it would have a little time to set up to a pipeable consistency before I started filling the cupcakes. I improvised the recipe, and the formula is easy to remember: 8 oz. of dark chocolate (Valrhona in this case), 8 oz. of cream, and 8 oz. of raspberry preserves. I put the preserves straight into the cream as I heated it to simmering, mixing to combine the two, and strained it over the chocolate to keep the seeds out of the ganache.
You can make the ganache the traditional way and pour the hot cream over finely chopped chocolate, wait five minutes and then whisk it until smooth, or–if you feel confident in your ability too melt chocolate in the microwave without scorching it–you can use the cheater’s method I figured out to save my injured shoulder: melt the chocolate in the microwave, let the cream cool down a little bit from simmering before you add it, and whisk them both together right away. That allows you to leave the chocolate in bigger chunks rather than do all of that fine chopping. You just have to be careful with chocolate in the microwave: zap it for a minute, then stir, then stir after every additional thirty seconds. You want to stop while there are still a few unmelted chunks. Residual heat will melt those the rest of the way.
I set that to the side and stirred it from time to time as I prepared the cupcakes to be filled. I certainly didn’t invent this method, but I figured I might as well take photos of how I did it as I went:
First, I picked out the size of round cutter I wanted to use and measured it against the height of the cupcakes. The cupcake was taller, so that meant that I could push the cutter all the way down without worrying about punching through the bottom of the cupcake.
Next, I centered the cookie cutter on top…
…pushed it down into the cupcake evenly…
…and then pulled it out, giving the cutter a slight twist as I did so. The center of the cupcake came out whole most of the time, but when a large crumb or two did stick in the bottom of the hole I’d created, I’d flick them out with the tip of the paring knife.
Then, I carefully cut away the very top of the cupcake’s center, saving it as a little lid for the filling. The rest when into a bowl of cake crumbs, which never got very full because the cake really was too good to not eat.
Once I had the centers cut out, the raspberry ganache seemed to be thick enough to pipe, so I made up a simple ganache with 8 oz. of the Scharffen Berger chocolate I had (a combination of semisweet, dark and extra dark) and about 1 1/4 cups of cream. I poured that into a pie plate so it would cool faster as I worked with it, but it was pretty much fine for filling the cupcakes by the time I was set up and ready to go. I wanted it to be pretty fluid so that the raspberries could settle in properly.
It went something like this:
One cupcake, with its lid.
Add a small scoop full of the plain ganache.
Fill a raspberry with the Valrhona raspberry ganache, making sure not to leave any air pockets inside. (Like the water I mentioned above, air also encourages mold to grow inside of chocolates.)
Set the raspberry open-end down in the center of the other ganache.
Top the raspberry with another scoop of the plain ganache, making sure to fill the hole all the way to the top.
Press the cupcake’s lid down onto the ganache to seal it up and hide the treat waiting inside.
At that point, I put them straight into the fridge because I didn’t want to leave that raspberry surrounded by lukewarm ganache for very long. That gave me time to make the ganache frosting out of the Martha Stewart book with the Michel Cluizel chocolate and cool it in a pair of pie plates in the fridge–a trick I remember from pastry school when we were bringing ganaches and other fillings for molded chocolates down to room temperature. In retrospect, I wasn’t as fond of the ganache recipe as I was of the cupcake recipe–it dulled too easily, and set up too quickly as I was working with it, even in the summer heat, which means it might have benefited from more cream or corn syrup–but I made it work. All there was left to do was decorate the cupcakes, which is the fun part.
Like I said before, I wanted them to look glamorous, so I sprinkled them with some shiny “chocolate flakes” I picked up at Central Market a few weeks ago in the bulk section and painted the raspberries with a mixture of a few drops of Grand Marnier and a quarter teaspoon of a berry-colored luster dust I’d bought for another cupcake project and then never used.
What I was really excited about, though, was opening the raspberries up and using them flat against the top of the cupcake. I’m sure I’m not the first to do this, but I’ve never seen it before. The idea came to me when I was checking out the raspberries I bought and noticing how strong and firm they were, how they even stayed together if I opened them up along one side. I’m always looking for any fondant alternative I can find that has a better taste and texture, and fresh fruit definitely fits the bill. I think it not only looked cool but heightened the raspberry-to-chocolate ratio, which is always a good thing.
I thought they looked a little like dragon scales with the luster dust…
…but my critique group thought they looked like brains. I’ll forgive them. We’re all writing novels somewhere along the scifi/fantasy continuum, so we have conversations about various supernatural creatures currently popular in the urban fantasy market on a regular basis, zombies included.
Here’s a bunch of them all together. I have to recommend the 3 Tier Snapware Snap N Stack Cupcake, Cookie and Cake Carrier. We picked one of these up at Costco a month or two ago. I’m not sure if they still have them, but after using mine for the first time this weekend, I’m going to buy another one if they do, just in case I need to transport a lot of cupcakes to an event. What I like about this one is that it’s extremely versatile: each of the tiers has a reversible tray insert–one side is flat, and the other has rings to hold cupcakes in place. The trays have handles that also allow you to suspend them halfway up the tier, either for carrying two layers of cookies or other flat baked goods (giving you a total of six layers with all three tiers) or for serving the cupcakes in the tier so that people don’t have to reach all the way inside and risk bumping the frosting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to scramble for shallow, flat containers to carry baked goods to parties and holiday dinners.
Finally, here’s one of the mini cupcakes I mentioned. They were too small to stuff with raspberries, and I used up the Scharffen Berger ganache on the bigger cupcakes, so I filled them entirely with the raspberry ganache. This made them a little different from the big cupcakes, sort of like a tasty little truffle surrounded by cake. I love how small they looked in comparison to the big raspberries.