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Flash in the Pan

The making of a savory truffle



“The first time I smelled garam masala, I thought it lent itself to sweet things,” says Chef Jason Willenbrock. That was during his first cooking gig, and his boss was a big fan of Indian foods, including garam masala, the ground spice mixture similar to curry but without the turmeric or chili pepper. All of 15 years old at the time, the young chef was assigned the task of making a cheesecake every week.

A garam masala version was inevitable.

“When the waitress explained to customers that the cheesecake was flavored with a mixture of cumin, cinnamon, clove, coriander, black pepper and cardamom, many were turned off,” he recalls. “The adventurous types who gave it a try absolutely loved it.”

Jason’s early explorations into the sweet applications of this normally savory spice lived a brilliant but short life. For the next 15 years, he says, he outsourced the sweet side—working in top-end kitchens in the U.S. and Europe, Jason always had a pastry chef to handle desserts. One of them, Ana, became his wife.

Last year the couple opened Chocolat, a downtown café showcasing the sweet and savory extremes of chocolate.

“For centuries, chocolate was used as a savory ingredient,” says Jason. While Ana pumps out succulent éclairs, edible chocolate cups filled with chocolate and other sweet somethings, Jason’s truffles explore chocolate’s wide spectrum of potential partners.

Alongside the Grand Marnier and hazelnut truffles there are truffles of wasabi, lavender, smoked Spanish paprika, fennel, mojito, white truffle oil with Tahitian vanilla, 10-year-old balsamic vinegar with strawberry and, of course, garam masala.

Jason removes a truffle from the case and lets it warm to room temperature, which he says will allow my taste buds to best experience the flavor—90 to 110 degrees, he says, defines the range of optimal taste bud sensitivity.

I sip on a cup of molten chocolate while Jason explains the finer points of infusing truffles with spice.

First he makes a tea, steeping his spice of choice to extract the flavor. The tea is then incorporated into the ganache, which is a mixture of primarily chocolate and cream that forms the soft chocolaty center of the truffle. Each tea is different. To lavender tea, for example, he adds honey, whose flavor he says complements the spice extraction. For fennel tea, he toasts and crushes fennel seeds and adds them to a water bath at exactly 110 degrees. Any hotter, he says, “and the impurities will come out into the tea.”

“Some people think I’m crazy,” he acknowledges, “because they’re not tasting the subtleties I am. And then, some people don’t see the point in spending $2.75 for a truffle at all when they can get a Hershey bar for 60 cents. But if it’s not enjoyable to me, I don’t want to sell it.”

I bite into a fennel truffle. The fennel is there, ever so slightly, a whisper in my ear as my mouth explodes in chocolate. It works.

“There’s a fennel seed on your upper lip,” points out Jason. I nab it with my tongue and take another bite. The potency of that single seed takes me into the realm of black licorice, but this is much blacker, much richer.

My eye catches the lavender truffle, which looks dangerously cute in its lavender-colored cup, sprinkled with lavender seeds. Nearby, the garam masala looks regal in its yellow corrugated cup, sprinkled with what looks like gold dust.

“I describe the garam masala truffle as a combination of non-spicy curry and Turkish coffee,” says Jason. It tastes vaguely of Mexican chocolate, but more subtle, and more complex.

I’ll leave you where Jason began his journey, with a garam masala version of Ana’s Tahitian vanilla cheesecake, served in little cups.

Let all the ingredients come to room temperature, then preheat oven to 325°F. Using a paddle, or a mixer on low speed, mix together, one at a time, the following: 8 ounces cream cheese, 8 ounces sour cream, two eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/2 cup sugar, and the finely grated zest of half a lemon. Mix until each ingredient is incorporated, scraping down bowl between additions. Then mix in 1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala and a pinch of salt.

“You want to taste the masala,” says Ana, “but still be eating cheesecake.”

Pour the filling into six glass or ceramic serving cups and place the cups in a baking pan with about a half-inch water. After about 25 minutes, check on them.

“There should be a spot at the center about the size of a quarter that’s unset when you take it out of the oven,” says Jason. “It will finish setting up as it cools. And if the cheesecake is a little undercooked…all the better!”

Let the cheesecake cool to room temperature—right where your taste buds like it—and serve.

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