7 Questions for Baking Guru Alice Medrich

Cookbook author, Alice Medrich

Oh, Alice. I've got big love for you!

Dubbed "The First Lady of Chocolate," Alice Medrich is an award-winning baker with deep understanding of ingredients, and how to coax the very best out of them. Her clear, thoughtful recipes yield memorable desserts. Pros-in-the know point to Alice as a guiding influence in their work. More than an author, she is a mentor...of the very best kind.

The launch of Alice's new blog traveled like wildfire and no wonder. This post on her creative process still resonates with me.

On a personal note, Alice was my very first interview. Over the phone, she patiently guided me through art of tasting chocolate. Before long, our conversation touched on everything from molecular gastronomy to sources of inspiration and artisan foods in Europe.

Alice has a new book coming out this fall, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunch Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies, which is organized by texture. Got a love for chewy cafe cookies? Or do you like your cookies on the crispy side? This brilliant book has it all.

In preparation for my upcoming interview, I asked folks on my favorite chat forum..."Got any questions for Alice Medrich?" Responses ran the gamut--from tweaking a favorite recipe to swapping out chocolates with different cocoa fats. Alice surprised me with a lightening fast response, so here goes:

1. (Sandi in Hawaii) Sometimes, when I make a brownie with melted butter, the batter seems to separate during baking, as if the butter is oozing out, and pooling around the edges of the pan. The brownie ends up being dry and crumbly, instead of fudgy and chewy. What causes this?

This "butter leakage" also happens sometimes when baking cookies. The cookies start to spread like crazy, and end up being flat and greasy, instead of buttery and crunchy. It happened with a cookie recipe that called for melted butter, but it's also happened to other recipes that don't call for melted butter.

I can't predict when it happens - most times it doesn't. It only happens when I'm short on time, and have to take something somewhere!

I know the problem well, Sandi. Brownies batters (and cookie batters too) that have loads of chocolate and melted butter but not too much flour in them must be mixed vigorouly enough to emulsify the batter in the first place, before you pour it into the pan--otherwise the butter weeps out, exactly as you described. I have a couple of tricks to help the emulsification process, first, when making brownies, I usually add my eggs cold. Don't worry if the chocolate and butter mixture is hot; after you stir in the sugar, it's safe to add the eggs, stirring vigorously after each one. But, the most important tip is about mixing: after you add the flour, stir vigorously until the batter comes together into a smooth mass and actually pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If you are not strong enough to stir a heavy batter by hand, use a mixer. I write all about this problem in the new book...I hope you'll have a look.

2. (Sandi in Hawaii) How do you create a "new" recipe? Or are they all variations on old ones?

Someone once said that there is nothing new under the sun. The implication is that everything new had probably been done somewhere by someone...so it is quite possible that a bright new idea you might wake up with one morning, or even something you "discover" in the kitchen might have been thought of or dicovered by someone else as well. That being said, why worry about it? For me, sometimes new recipes are simple or elaborate variations on other recipes and sometimes they seem like brand new ideas discovered through experimenting or even (sometimes) by making a mistake. Voila! Something new and interesting.

For, example, in the new book, "Chewy Gooey Crispy"......., I include a recipe for Coconut Sticks, which I invented several years ago, but I've added several fantastic flavor variations, one with sesame seeds, one with coffee, one with hazelnuts. A great recipe deserves to be used as inspiration. Similar, I experimented with adding peanut butter to meringue and the result was so divine that I created several more "new" recipes by riffing on the concept, substituting almond butter, or tahini for the the pnb. That lead me to think about adding other flavors to meringue, such as pulverized freeze dried bananas....I even got a great recipe for fruit filled cookies called Meneinas, from a Facebook friend. I loved it so much that I created some brand new fruit fillings for it. They are in the book as well. One thing leads to another. New recipes are born...I hope you'll check out the book,

3. (MarilynFL) How do I adjust a recipe based on chocolate percentage? Say I want to make a recipe that calls for unsweetened chocolate. That recipe calls for "x" amount of unsweetened chocolate and "y" amount of sugar.

If I only have 55% semisweet chocolate or 70% bittersweet chocolate, how do I adjust the amount of chocolate AND sugar to make the recipe? I know the sugar amount has to go down. Does the fat (butter) amount change? Is there a basic rule of thumb?

Honestly Marilyn, and I don't mean to be self serving, the only book with this kind of information, charts, and discussion about percentages is my book "Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate". Check out the back of the book and the section on brownies where I address the very thing you are talking about...It's exciting information and once you get the hang of it you will love being able to switch from one percentage chocolate to another....

Just to give you a clue: 70% bittersweet contains 30% sugar, about 40% fat (this varies from brand to brand) and thus 30 percent dry cocoa solids. 55% semisweet chocolate contains 45% sugar, maybe 35% fat (again it varies) and only 20% dry cocoa solids. Unsweetened baking chocolate is approximately 50% fat and 50% dry cocoa solids and not sugar. If you are good at math, you can make some calculations about how to modify the sugar and butter in the recipe....! Otherwise, check out my book!

4. (MarylinFL) I actually ran into this problem [substituting chocolates] when I wanted to make chocolate fudge; the result was Dyslexic Chocolate Sauce. I had looked in both Alice's "Cocolat" and Fran Bigelow's "Pure Chocolate" books first to see if there was a chocolate conversion table.

"Cocolat" came out at a time before we had percentage chocolate in this country...most all of the bittersweet and semisweet chocolate available to us was contained only 50%-60% cacao, except of course for unsweetened baking chocolate. So, while "Cocolat" is still a great book and great reference, you shouldn't try making the recipes with chocolate that exceeds 60% cacao (or sometimes 62% ) without making some adjustments, or your results may not be quite what they should be. Some of the Cocolat recipes are updated in my book, "Bittersweet" and there is tons of info about making adjustments for chocolate in that book as well.

5. (Sandi in Hawaii) Will you start adding weight measurements in your cookbooks? I just love my scale, and wish more books had weights.

Some of my books already have weights in them, but I assure you that any new book that comes out from me will definitely include weights! Thanks for asking; I hope you'll encourage every baker you know to get a scale!!!

6. (Sandi in Hawaii -- obviously a big fan!) Any chance you'll reprint "Chocolat"?

No chance! I'd rather do new work. But I will give you a tip: many of the recipes from "Cocolat"appear again in "Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from A Life in Chocolate", updated to reflect new chocolates and percentage chocolates, and new information. I suggest you check it out.

7. (cheezz) Why do these (otherwise yummy) macaroons 'weep'? They are oozing even before going into the oven and often make very unsightly looking bottoms.

You'll see Alice recommends:
- Amount of coconut is now cups
- Lower the amount of sweetened condensed milk
- Let the batter sit for an hour before baking
- Mound your batter in 2 tblsp portions
- Notes about the chocolate (a double boiler works, and it's likely you'll have some left over)

Original recipe + Alice's adjustments:

Jumbo Black Bottom Coconut Macaroons
From Big Fat Cookies by Elinor Klivans
Makes 16 small cookies or 10 large cookies

One 7-ounce bag (2 2/3 cups) shredded sweetened coconut
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk [use 1/3 cup]
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg white
Pinch of cream of tartar

Chocolate Coating:
9 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and butter the paper.

Make the cookies. In a large bowl, use a fork to stir the coconut, condensed milk, salt, almond extract and vanilla together. Set aside. [note: let this sit for about 1 hour to meld well]

In an impeccably clean medium bowl, use a whisk or a hand-held mixer on low speed to beat the egg white with the cream of tartar until they are foamy and the cream of tartar dissolves. Whisking vigorously or beating on medium-high speed, beat until soft peaks form. Whisk or beat in the sugar. Use a rubber spatula to fold half of the whipped egg white in the coconut mixture, then fold in the remaining white.

Scoop mounds of the coconut batter (about 2 tbl. size) onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing the macaroons 2 inches apart.

Bake until the bottoms of the cookies and the tips of the coconut shreds are light brown, about 20 minutes. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then slide a metal spatula under the macaroons to loosen them from the parchment and transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Make the chocolate coating. Put the chocolate in a heatproof container or the top of a double boiler and place it over, but not touching, a saucepan of barely simmering water (or the bottom of the double boiler) - or heat in microwave oven for about 1 min. Stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove from water and let cool to thicken slightly, about 10 min.

Scrape the chocolate coating into a small bowl. Dip the bottom of each macaroon in the chocolate and place the cookies, chocolate bottoms up or on the sides, on a wire rack. (You will have some chocolate coating left over for another use or to pour over ice cream. It's easier to dip using a larger amount of coating.) Let the macaroons sit at room temperature until the chocolate coating is firm, about 1 hour. Or, to speed the firming of the chocolate, refrigerate the macaroons on the rack for about 15 minutes. Serve cold or at room temperature.

The cookies can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.