Alice Medrich's 'magic ingredients' take desserts to another realm

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The last thing you eat at a party sets up the best memories. It's that old business of first and last impressions being the most powerful. Professional baker, chocolatier and cookbook author Alice Medrich shares her list of “magic ingredients” that take the ultimate last taste -- dessert -- over the top. She is the author of Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts. (Read an excerpt: 10 Ways to Flavor Whipped Cream.)

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You've got a collection of these simple tricks that take desserts into another realm.

Alice Medrich: I call them magic ingredients. Those are the things that will take something delicious into stellar, something ordinary into good, and something wonderful into more wonderful. It's things that you can keep in the pantry and the fridge all of the time -- things you probably even have, like black peppercorns.

A little grind of black pepper over a chocolate mousse is to-die-for delicious. So is a little black pepper over figs that have been macerated in something, ripe figs, or figs that have been caramelized in the sauté pan.

Flaky sea salt is another one. Today we want a little salt with our chocolate, so how about an olive oil chocolate torte with a little flaky sea salt on top? The beauty of putting it on top and using it as an accessory is you get the little crunch and the little burst of salt rather than having the whole thing taste salty.

LRK: What about orange blossom water?

AM: I love to drop a few drops of it over orange slices in a bowl of their juices, flavor a little whipped cream with it or grate a little zest over a soufflé or a chocolate dessert. It just adds a little something. Again, putting it on top gives you that fragrance. It gives you a layered experience as opposed to flavoring the whole souffle or whole dessert with the orange.

LRK: You can get that easily in a lot of shops -- especially Middle Eastern shops. Then there's the partner: rose water.

AM: Rose water -- same sort of thing. It's this fragrant, floral thing that flavors whipped cream very beautifully. You can also put it in a fruit salad and it just lifts it -- even a glass of lemonade.

LRK: There's something else you have on your list that I think people don't think about grating: a cinnamon stick.

AM: I love that -- either a cinnamon stick or a whole nutmeg with a little Microplane zester. Again, it's a top note. It goes over or on top of something so you get first the fragrance when you put it in your mouth and then the taste -- a little taste of either the cinnamon or nutmeg -- and then you go into a chocolate brownie or some dessert like that. It's a layering instead of a flavoring and I just love it. It's something that gets all over your hands when you do it and it goes into the air. You do it just before serving and it makes a world of difference.

LRK: I think it would be great to do it at the table over fruit.

AM: Absolutely. I do it at the table. I do the same thing for citrus zests.

LRK: On this magic ingredient list you've got one thing that’s a surprise. Olive oil?

AM: Extra virgin olive oil is a stunning dessert ingredient. I use it in chocolate cake, I use it in pound cake, and even easier, just a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil over vanilla ice cream is just sublime -- and you can add a little pinch of sea salt and you are done. Just magical.

LRK: Not many authors I've ever seen who have done dessert books have given more than three pages, four pages, to only whipped cream.

AM: I think whipped cream is one of the greatest dessert toppings because it takes nothing to make it. It's not like frosting where there are several steps to making it. Whipped cream is easy, breezy -- you don't even have to look at the recipe. It's neutral and it highlights desserts and other flavors so beautifully.

But when you don't want it to be neutral, there are a zillion ways you can flavor it. You can infuse it with fresh mint leaves. You don't even have to cook it, in fact, it's better if you don't. Leave it overnight with the mint leaves, strain out the mint leaves, whip your cream as usual and sweeten it to taste. Same with jasmine tea. I also sometimes fold whipped cream into a lemon curd. [Ed. note: Learn more in “10 Ways to Flavor Whipped Cream,” an excerpt from Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts.]

LRK: Jasmine tea? How do you do that?

AM: I use jasmine pearl or any good jasmine tea. I put some in the cold cream and I put it in the refrigerator overnight. I let it cold-infuse, which brings out all these floral tastes. Then you strain out the tea and whip the cream as usual. It's great on a chocolate dessert or on a fruit dessert.

Sour Cream Souffles
Alice Medrich's Sour Cream Soufflés

LRK: Is there a trick to getting chocolate -- I don't mean cocoa -- melted chocolate whipped into cream?

AM: Yes there is. Any cook who has experimented by trying to add melted chocolate to whipped cream has probably ended up with something that is so stiff after it's chilled, it doesn't feel like whipped cream anymore. Or more likely, when you pour that warm chocolate into the whipping cream, because the cream is wet and cold it sets the chocolate too fast, and you get a lot of flakes and shards of chocolate instead of a nice blend.

So the thing to do is to melt the chocolate first with a little liquid -- I usually use water. That relaxes the chocolate a little bit. When that mixture is cool, then you can mix it with your cream. Then you chill it and then you can whip it.

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