François Payard's Chocolate Meringue Tarts in miniature; photo courtesy of Deep Media.

When I was little, I took piano lessons to little success. Even though I could manage to replicate notes on the page, I never had the 'sense' for the keys that makes one feel in ownership of the music. Nonetheless, I would spend the requisite time practicing on the keyboard at home, repeating the disjointed notes over and over until I hoped I had mastered them.

It was during these practices that my father would sometimes wander into the room and take over the keys; though wholly self-taught, he had such an ear for music that he could easily reproduce my melodies in their entirety. What's more, he would infuse them with nuance and a character deeper than the notes themselves.

In that simple exercise I saw what it mean to be an artist.

I had a similar feeling of revelation when I had the opportunity to review François Payard's third book, Chocolate Epiphany (Clarkson Potter, 2008). Though a fairly-proficient home baker, I could not help but be awed by the chocolate creations featured within. From the straightforward to the fanciful to the elegant, Payard (with Anne E. McBride) presents confections as beautiful as they are delicious.

Though focused solely on chocolate, the book covers a surprising breadth of recipes. After the helpful introductory guide, breakfast and brunch dishes are offered first, followed by chapters highlighting specific dessert forms (cookies, cakes and mousses, among others). The recipes encompass both the traditional and the unexpected, with classic favourites placed alongside inventive combinations of flavours and textures. There is no prejudice regarding chocolate varieties, with white, milk and dark all given the opportunity to shine.

As to be expected with his pedigree, the acclaimed pastry chef, James Beard Award winner and owner of a collection of pâtisseries/bistros includes recipes that are somewhat intimidating at first glance. These require a good deal of patience, reasonable skill and, in many cases, specialty equipment.

For example, the American Opera Cake calls for no less than four separate component recipes and three pages of instructions. That said, the expertly-detailed steps allow for stunning results that merit the effort. Between the chocolate cake layers Payard ingeniously switches the classic coffee buttercream filling for a peanut version alternated with a decadent peanut butter ganache. If that was not enough, a dark chocolate ganache is finally poured over all. The finished cake is a masterpiece of textures and a show-stopping celebration dessert to say the least.

Equally impressive are the Chocolate Pavlovas with Chocolate Mascarpone Mousse. Here Payard innovates by reconfiguring the form from a simple flat base into a full sphere of meringue filled with liqueur-laced mousse and topped with a flourish of mascarpone cream. Again, this is a recipe that one should carefully read before attempting, but the instructions are well laid out, concise and easy to follow.

Amongst these rather grand recipes Payard sprinkles in some beatifully-simple ones. Triple Chocolate Financiers (recipe) are a perfect little treat alongside coffee, Chocolate Rice Crispies are a bit of kitchy fun, and Chocolate Blinis elevate breakfast to a whole new level.

I was particularly fond of the Chocolate Meringue Tart (pictured, above). A cocoa makeover of the lemon meringue version from his childhood, Payard creates a recipe that is easy to assemble but with outstanding results. His Sweet Tart Dough comes together quickly and is a joy to work with. It is baked until golden, then filled with a luscious dark chocolate filling and crowned with peaks of scorched Swiss Meringue. Absolutely delicious.

One caveat, I did end up with an excess of filling even though I followed the recipe to the specific weight measurement of each ingredient.

Rounding out the contents is an indispensable chapter of basics; buttercreams, Crème Anglaise, doughs, and often-used base cakes are explained here, with tips and tricks usually only learned with years of experience. For those wishing to replicate the exquisite decorations that adorn many of the desserts, there are also step-by-step directions to creations like chocolate fans, drops, sticks, and shards.

The sumptuous photographs by Rogerio Voltan are tempting to say the least; with tightly cropped images that beautifully convey the various textures and elements of the recipes. My only complaint is that I could not find photo captions for the desserts featured on the chapter cover pages. While this information is included in the general index, the omission of labels alongside the specific images might be frustrating to those who find it difficult to match the photos with the corresponding recipe.

Nonetheless, Chocolate Epiphany is decadence at its best; truly an opus of cacao bean, with a Maestro's passion and expertise leading the way.

Some recipes from the book can be found online here and here.


Cover image courtesy Clarkson Potter.

This past weekend, I was going to do a lot of things. I was going to deal with that pile of laundry. I was going to read a bit more of that book on my nightstand. I was going to wax rhapsodic, again, about the gorgeousness of the season. I was even going to make tremblingly pretty Gewurztraminer gelées, studded with plump blackberries.

You will note, I was going to do those things. In fact, I did not end up checking any of those tasks off my list. The weekend turned out to be a fabulous one, and I was taken with other diversions. Come Monday my mood was so bright that I felt the need to celebrate the weekend's end; it was that good.

The aforementioned berries were glorious specimens of Loch Ness blackerries from the kind folks at Schouwenaar Orchard and Vineyard. Large and glossy black, the pine cone shaped bundles were simply addicting. Starting out with a full flat of these babies, we'd munched our way through the majority by Sunday evening.

Too perfect to mar with cooking, too pretty to hide under mounds of cream, the crowning glory of a fruit tart seemed destiny for the last of the tempting fruits. Wanting something as special as the weekend had been, I decided upon Martha Stewart's pistachio pastry crust for my base. More of a shortbread than a traditional pie crust, butter is even more enriched by the addition of ground nuts. The pistachios in turn tint the pasty a delicate chartreuse. My buoyant mood was not one that allowed for the patient stirring required for a pastry cream, so I turned to a simple alternative; thick mascarpone whipped to luxurious lightness, barely sweetened and scented with vanilla.

The perfect backdrop to the blackberries, the perfect end to the perfect weekend. No agenda needed.

Blackberry tart with pistachio crust

Ingredients
Pistachio crust
1/4 cup heavy (35%, whipping) cream
All purpose flour, for dusting
3 ounces (85 grams) white chocolate
2 tablespoons icing (confectioner's) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
9 ounces (275 grams) mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
2 pints blackberries
1 tablespoon black currant jelly or blackberry jam
1 tablespoon unsalted, hulled pistachios

Prepare pistachio pastry dough as per recipe. On a lightly-floured work surface, roll out chilled dough to a 1/4" thick, 12" round. Lightly press dough into a 9" fluted, removable bottom tart pan, then chill for 10 minutes. Using a paring knife, trim excess dough. Scraps and leftover dough can be rerolled once and then baked as shortbread cookies.

Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Prick (dock) pastry all over to prevent puffing during baking. Line with parchment paper, leaving an overhang over all edges. Weigh down with pie weights, uncooked rice or dried beans, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove parchment and bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the shell is lightly browned all over.

Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove tart ring to cool completely.

Melt chocolate using a double boiler or microwave, then set aside to cool slightly. Once cool, use a pastry brush to thinly coat the inside of the cooled shell with chocolate. Chill for 10 minutes or until set.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the heavy cream, vanilla and sugar until soft peaks form. Remove from mixer and set aside. Switching to the paddle attachment, cream the mascarpone until light and fluffy. On low speed, gently stir in half the whipped cream until just combined. Using a spatula, gently fold in the remaining cream.

Fill the prepared shell with the mascarpone mixture. Chill the tart for 20 minutes to firm up the filling or prepare to this point up to 3 hours ahead of time.

Melt the jam, with a scant 1/2 teaspoon water, using low heat in the microwave. Remove from oven and stir. Set aside to cook slightly. Top the filled tart with blackberries, then lightly brush lightly with glaze. Scatter with pistachios and serve immediately.

Makes one 9" tart.

Notes:

• This filling is not particularly sweet; you may want to adjust the sugar to best suit your tastes.
• Neufchâtel, blended ricotta or cream cheese can be substituted for the mascarpone. In these cases, amount of heavy cream may need to be adjusted accordingly.
• The pistachio crust I used is not available online, but I would think that Martha Stewart's Pistachio Graham-Cracker Crust would be a fine substitution, as would a classic pâte sucrée.
• It hardly needs saying, but this pastry and filling can be used as a basis for almost any fruit tart.

Epilogue: It has just come to my attention that the lovely Béa
had similar notions this week; two tastes of the same theme!