The Minimalist’s Dessert

Confectioner Alice Medrich talks about simple, artisanal sweets

Long before chocolate truffles hit the mainstream, Alice Medrich started making them in her Berkeley shop, Cocolat, in 1976. Over the next several years came 14 retail stores, widespread distribution (including at Macy’s), and several award-winning chocolate cookbooks. Medrich, who sold Cocolat in 1993 (it has since closed), is good at spotting trends: After truffles, it was low-fat desserts. Now she’s going in an altogether new direction. Medrich’s Pure Dessert (Artisan, 2007) is as unusual for the things she left out as those she included. The cakes have no frosting or heavy sauces. Instead, artisanal ingredients move to the forefront in simple desserts like whole wheat sablés and olive oil–sherry pound cake. CHOW talked to Medrich about the inspiration for the new book, her sweet history, and her love of unusual pairings in desserts, like chestnut flour and tarragon. Jessica Su

Which is your favorite recipe in the book?

I love the Italian chocolate torte. I love the labneh cheese tart. I’m crazy about all the buttery, thin, crisp tuiles, the thin cookies that are flavored with a lot of different things, like jasmine tea, fresh thyme, or fresh tarragon, ground-up vanilla beans, Meyer lemon zest. I loved using chestnut flour and finding out that chestnut flour makes some of the most magnificent meringues, and then pairing the meringues with vanilla ice cream and strawberries.

How did you decide on the theme ingredients (dairy, fruit, grains/seeds/nuts, spirits, and chocolate) for your chapters?

I wanted to use a lot of alternate flours and starches, like the chestnut flour and the corn flour and some of the ancient forms of wheat, so that naturally created a grouping around the grains. I wanted to have a chapter on wine, beer, and spirits, do some desserts that included those things. I wanted to make a cheesecake that wasn’t made with Philadelphia cream cheese—not that I have anything against that, but I think there’s a lot more interesting cheeses out there. So that created a chapter around milk and butter and cheese products.

Your cakes are pretty unadorned in this book. What do you have against frosting?

I have nothing against frosting in the right place at the right time. We’ve all eaten boring cakes that are actually saved by their frosting—because you can always eat the frosting and leave the boring cake, right?

But in Pure Dessert, I specifically focused on cakes that were really flavorful in themselves: cakes with toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds or … with tons of ground-up chocolate and nuts. This type of cake stands on its own.

One time I took a cooking class with teacher Michael Krondl at the New School in New York, and we made a soufflé from your cookbook Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts. The teacher said you wrote that book because someone bet that you couldn’t make low-fat desserts. Is that true?

Once I was at a dinner party, and a colleague of mine, who is a very well-known cooking teacher and pastry chef, had heard I was working on a book of lower-fat desserts and said to me, “Well, dear, you can do some lovely things with cocoa.” I’m sure he didn’t mean it to be condescending, but I took it as a challenge. And I thought to myself, “Well, OK, I’m not only going to do it with cocoa; I’m going to do it with chocolate, and I’m going to do it with butter and eggs, and all the real ingredients.”

Your book has recipe titles like New Classic Brownie. It implies that this recipe is the best after much refining. When you get to that point, can you ever make a new recipe that can’t be improved upon?

Absolutely not. When you publish a book, you publish your newest, most interesting find, [but] that doesn’t mean that the next time you publish a book, you won’t have discovered 88 million other ways to make brownies. And I’ve published a lot of brownie [recipes]. They’re all a little different.

Could you talk a bit about the minimalist trend in food?

Some of the trend started with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, and I think that she’s had an enormous impact. I think that even if you didn’t know about her, you would have noticed how many more fabulous ingredients there were out there. If you were paying attention to this, you would be almost naturally going toward more simplicity. If you go and buy a really expensive, wonderful olive oil, maybe you spent $30 on a bottle of olive oil, are you going to go home and make a salad dressing that has 38 different herbs and spices and Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and all this nonsense in there? Or are you just going to pour it on your salad with a little good salt and some good vinegar?

In the ’70s, we had this movement of making everything with whole wheat flour. How is the minimalist trend different from the ’70s, when it was hippie?

Oh, it’s extremely different. That was all about turning your back, not wanting to eat any refined things and sugar. It was an extreme health food agenda. You had a lot of heavy, tough pie crusts, things that weren’t very pleasurable to eat. For me, it’s all about flavor and indulgence and beautiful, tender texture and butteriness. I’m using those grains for their flavor. I’m often using them with white flour, and I have no problem using sugar.

What inspired you to open Cocolat?

I was living in France for one year [in 1973]. We were living in a very unusual flat in a private home. The elderly lady who lived there rented out portions of it as little apartments. At Christmastime that first year, she asked me if I would help her make chocolate truffles. … When it came time for us to come back to Berkeley, I asked her for the recipe.

I came back to Berkeley, and in the year that we had been away, Chez Panisse opened. There were all these interesting food things starting to happen that year. I started to go to graduate school, but just for fun I developed this recipe with American ingredients and made changes necessary to make it taste like I remembered her truffles. I went over to a little shop across the street from Chez Panisse called the Pig by the Tail, which was probably the first charcuterie in this country, and said, “I made these chocolate truffles. Do you want to buy them?” And they said, “Yes!” Suddenly I was in graduate school making dozens and dozens of these little tiny chocolate truffles.

Then I went back to France for a week and did a stage at the Lenôtre pastry school outside of Paris, and I came back all motivated to do these desserts and pastries. After a couple years … I decided to open up a shop. So that’s kind of the medium-long version of the story.

Do you ever think you would go into making your own chocolate, like Scharffen Berger?

No, I don’t think so. Uh-uh. That doesn’t interest me so much.

Why not?

Starting a company of that kind is just not where my interest lies. I love to use chocolate as an ingredient. I love to make food out of it. But I don’t think I have the exact mentality to make chocolates from bean to bar. In a way it’s like winemaking. I don’t think it’s where my talent lies.

Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe

Jessica Su is a baking enthusiast who blogs about dessert at Su Good Sweets. She has written for the Associated Press and Ladies’ Home Journal online, among others.

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