Holidays, Pairings, Recipes

Dark chocolate bark with Grana Padano & pink peppercorn for your Valentine

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Valentine’s Day is an intersection of cheesiness. Yes, there’s the metaphorically-cheesy love you forever-ness and pandas holding candy hearts (okay, no, even commercialized pandas are adorbs), but cheese itself is also gussied up for a romantic meal. Fondue? Baked Brie? C’MON.

Melty cheese is an obvious gimme, and make no mistake, I will be roastin’ up an oversized hunk of Brie this evening with all the trimmings. But, if I may, cheese shouldn’t be limited to the main event. It’s also an unexpected, welcome twist to dessert.

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Enter my dark chocolate bark, studded with sweet, salty, crumbly Grana Padano.

Now, hold your pitchforks, ye suspicious souls. Have you ever had dark chocolate with sea salt? (If the answer is no, run out immediately. I’ll wait.) Well, dark chocolate crumbled with salty cheese is even better, like sea salt’s sexy, hipster cousin.

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I was first introduced to the combo by Nadège, a heaven-on-earth bakery and treat shop in Toronto. They’re known for their macarons, but they also have a line of “chocolate tablets” marked with all the letters of the alphabet. Each letter represents a surprise, unexpected ingredient, and their “P” bar has parmesan! It’s amazing.

So when I thought about what to make for my Valentine – best guy ever, and an excellent excuse to tuck into something cheesay – I decided to put my own spin on the chocolate-cheese bar.

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It isn’t the first time I’ve tried. And if you remember correctly, the last experiment did not go so well. But I got some sage advice from MasterChef Canada judge Claudio Aprile himself when I told him of my failed chocolate-bocconcini truffles at a work event: “Try a hard, old cheese next time.”

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I started with the cheese (as one does, duh). Parmigiano-Reggiano would do nicely, but Grana Padano sat up to greet me so nicely in the cheese case that I changed my mind. As a borderline-fetishist of bold, tangy, hard cheeses, it’s one of my ol’ faithfuls.

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It’s sweeter than Parmigiano-Reggiano, with a nutty fruitiness that pairs nicely with the shots of saltiness that hit you at the tip of your tongue, and a sour bitterness that fills your cheeks with floating crystals after a few crumbly chews.

Salt on chocolate is like a red rose on Valentine’s: a classic, no-fail pairing. But the sweet-saltiness of Grana Padano with the layered bitterness of dark chocolate? That’s like a bird-of-paradise dangling next to a steaming hot cup of espresso in bed.

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Mmmmmmhmm.

But why stop there? To complete the trifecta – sweet/salty-bitter/spice-ay – I added some pulverized pink peppercorns. I’ve talked at length about my fascination with pink peppercorns here before, and the light, citrusy spiciness was a perfect addition to the bark.

Plus, it’s pink! Hi hello, Valentine’s Day!

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This was dead-simple to make. If you’re feeling nurturing, here’s how to whip it up.

1.Start with about two bars of the best dark chocolate you can find. 75% or higher.

2. Put it in a double-boiler (that’s a bowl over a pot of boiling water – I didn’t have a heatproof bowl on hand, so I MacGyver’d a Pyrex in a strainer) and stir until melted.

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3. Pour the melted chocolate over a baking sheet or a few layers of folded tinfoil in an even layer.

4. Immediately sprinkle crushed pink peppercorns (you can smash them in a zipper bag if you’re feeling dexterous, but I used a mortar and pestle) and crumble Grana Padano on melted chocolate.

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5. Lay flat in fridge to cool. Once hardened, break into bite-sized bark deliciousness.
Optional: If you’re a chocoholic, repeat the chocolate-melting step and drizzle onto the cooled layer to build on the chocolate.

6. Receive grateful kisses; enjoy!

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Recipes

Faux-baking: Cheddar & pepper jelly thumbprints

Baking brings everyone together. Even if you can’t bake – or, more accurately in my case, won’t bake properly, due to a falsely-but-pridefully-held belief that mixing the dry ingredients separately makes no difference – you can enjoy the laborious fruits of those with more respect for stupid rigid instructions.

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If my petulance didn’t already give the game away, I don’t bake much. But I signed up for an office bake-off thinking that it would force me into productivity after Halloween (although gorging on Mars bars and three of the finest chip flavours money can buy mixed together also counts as productivity in my books, because using up leftovers is important, guys) and cheer me up after my favourite holiday was over.

I may prefer my cookies in dough form (both for taste and lack of effort) but I’ve managed to master two solid go-to recipes that happen to be baked in the oven. This is one of them.

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I love these cheddar red pepper jelly thumbprints for three reasons:

  1. The element of surprise. They masquerade easily as ordinary shortbread cookies, so the standard reaction is one of impressed confusion, but I choose to focus on the “impressed” part.
  2. Not everyone likes sweet stuff. I lean toward the savoury side of the street as well. When fellow savoury-lovers at the bake sale find out there’s a non-chocolate option, they get pretty excited before they even taste the thumbprints. An automatic vote of confidence is always a bonus.
  3. They look like Peek Freans, whose name is extra fancy, but instead of lemon cream, they’re stuffed with CHEESE!

Like a true petulant faux-baker, I didn’t follow the original recipe I found, from Canadian Living. My spin’s pretty close, though, I just swap the nuts for rosemary.

The dough is super easy to make. It would almost make more sense to call it “cheese-butter” than dough, actually, because that’s mostly what it is.

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If you’re here, you’re a cheese nerd, so you know that picking the cheese is half the fun. The recipe calls for sharp cheddar cheese and parmesan.

I used my favourite old cheddar, Balderson, but any cheese strong and petulant enough that it might challenge you to a fight after one-too-many at the pub will do. St-Albert’s Extra Old Cheddar is another great Canadian choice if you’re looking for recommendations. You don’t have to take my word for it – it won its category at this year’s Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.

There’s obviously only one parm to rule the roost if you want to go big: the OG – uh, PDO (little cheese acronym humour for you there, God I’m cool) Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you really want to knock people’s socks off with your faux-baking prowess, that’s the way I’d go. But that sh-t’s expensive. So you can also use “parmesan” petals, like I did, which work just fine.

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When I was shopping for my ingredients, the store was licked clean of red pepper jelly. And not because they were out of specialty jellies. They had all kinds I’d never seen or heard of before, but no red pepper. Weird. So I used jalapeño jelly, which is an easy sub in a pinch. You can sub for most jellies with a bit of a kick. I wouldn’t go for a straight-up sweet one, but as someone who enjoys the taste of chocolate and pickles in consecutive bites, I would never dare to judge you.

It would also be cute to alternate red and green jellies for the holidays, if you’re feelin’ jolly. (Yeah, we’re going to just slide on by that chocolate-and-pickles thing.)

I’ve found the thumbprint part to be a bit tricky when I make these, maybe because everything about me is miniature compared to a normal-sized adult. You’re supposed to make the indent before you bake them and fill with jelly after, but I find that the cookies expand while baking and kinda fill out the thumbprint. So I might try it with something a little heartier, like a mini flashlight or a hefty dad’s thumb. If you’re the type to have stamps lying around, that would be fun, too. But if you’re the type to have stamps lying around, you probably already made like, four batches of artisanal baked goods while I was writing this. You don’t need this! Make me these cookies.

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