A good mash-up can be a gimmick but it can also be a revelation, letting you see two things you already loved in a totally new light. Take chicken-fried mac and cheese or banh mi soft tacos or Destiny’s Child set to Nirvana, for example. These combinations shouldn’t work but they really, really do. We are ready for this jelly (and PB&J brownies, too).
Which is why we were thrilled to collaborate on our very own mash-up with Brooklyn-based Raaka Chocolate to celebrate the release of our newest book baby, Genius Desserts. “We’ve loved 'First Nibs,' Raaka’s small-batch organic chocolate subscription, (and carried it in the Food52 Shop) for a long time, so when we got the opportunity to help dream up the chocolates that were in the box for the month, we jumped,” says Kristen Miglore, Creative Director, Genius. “Our Shop team saw the perfect connection with the iconic recipes in Genius Desserts as a source of inspiration, since we’ve all had it on the brain for a while.”
While chocolate and dessert might not seem so far apart as mash-ups go—they are in the same broad category of “sweets,” after all—translating recipes into chocolate bars isn’t as much of a no-brainer as it may sound.
“Raaka has always been super innovative; innovative processes have always been one of the foundations of the company,” says Orissa Agnihotri, Director of Operations at Raaka Chocolate. Raaka’s award-winning Bourbon Bar is made by aging cocoa nibs in boubon barrels, which imparts a unique bourbon flavor into the chocolate. Similarly their Cabernet Bar is made by steaming cocoa nibs over wine in order to infuse the nibs (“we’re the first people to do that,” she says). It’s these kinds of thoughtful, creative techniques that make Raaka’s bars so special.
To adapt Genius Recipes into chocolate, Kristen selected a handful of recipes from the book she thought would be interesting in a chocolate bar, both in terms of flavors and textures. “Then, for each one, I distilled their standout personality traits for Raaka,” she says. “For Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ Cranberry Sage Pie, for example, I gave them this: fresh & dried cranberry, sage, cinnamon, allspice. For Stella Parks’ Roasted Sugar, I said: a secret weapon ingredient—and a discovery that won her a James Beard Award. Raaka then picked the three recipes that inspired them most and set off to tinker with different cacao origins and percentages.”
Finding the balance between chocolate and other flavors is a delicate undertaking. “We always want the bars to be chocolate-forward and then have that subtlety of whatever other infusions we’re adding to it,” Agnihotri says. But, she adds, “We pull from different recipes and flavor notes all the time to make First Nibs, so it’s a natural collaboration to go off recipes from the cookbook.” For each of the three bars, Raaka relied on different techniques to maximize flavor and texture—many of which were already in their repertoire.
The Nibby Butter Buckwheat Bar embodies innovation through and through. “We do a lot of infusions in cocoa butter,” says Agnihotri. “So we thought, why don’t we do a buckwheat infusion into the cocoa butter, that could be our ‘butter’ in the recipe!” They stewed toasted buckwheat in warm cocoa butter, then strained it out and added it back into the chocolate for a flavor that Agnihotri describes as “supper buckwheat-y, grassy, and earthy.” But there’s more—more buckwheat, that is. “Since we don’t use nuts, we’re always thinking about ways we can incorporate texture back into the chocolate,” says Agnihotri. “We’d worked with puffed quinoa and puffed rice and people loved that.” After experimenting with puffed buckwheat, Raaka ultimately decided to use a blend of toasted buckwheat and cacao nibs, for two different kinds of crunch. “I loved that Raaka worked not only with the flavors, but also layered in a variety of crunchy textures, too,” says Miglore, adding, “I’m always a sucker for chocolate bars with plenty of stuff in them.” She describes the bar as “cobbled with crackly cacao nibs and toasted buckwheat groats that pop addictively under your teeth—now I want to start working buckwheat groats into my own baking.”
For the Roasted Sugar Bar, Raaka called on a method they employ in their Bananas Foster Bar. “We do a house-caramelized cane sugar for it, so we literally cook sugar in a gigantic copper pot, caramelize it, reblend it down back into sugar, and then add it back into the bar,” Agnihotri says. “So we’ve done some experimentation with sugar before, but not exactly the roasted sugar method, and we thought that was cool: something we already do but a different version of it.” The result is a chocolate bar with a high percentage of cacao to highlight the subtleties of the sugar, and deep warm notes of caramel.
Similarly, the bar inspired by Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ Cranberry Sage Pie is a combination of innovative and tried-and-true confection-making techniques. “We had worked with cranberry and sage and pies before, but never all together,” says Agnihotri. “In the pie recipe, Four & Twenty Blackbirds uses both dried cranberries and fresh cranberries to give both angles of the cranberry flavor, so in our bar we use freeze-dried cranberry powder, which is super bright red, tart, crisp flavor, directly in the bar. And then we did dried cranberries on the back,” a process, she says, that reflects both the recipe and the flavors of the original pie.
Like all good mash-ups, Raaka’s Genius Desserts-inspired chocolate bars interpret the recipes in a new way and express them as something completely original. A chocolate bar that’s also a pie or a cookie is fun and almost thrilling—to say nothing of the collaboration required to pull this mash-up off. “I realize that a Willy Wonka analogy is way too obvious,” says Miglore, “but I did feel like Charlie right after he finds the Golden Ticket, pretty much the whole way through.”
What’s your favorite chocolate mash-up? Let us know in the comments!
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