A tasting with the Queen of Chocolate was oh so sweet

The plate of chocolate delicacies gently resting on my lap beckoned me to take a taste … no wait, a lot of tastes.

Dustings of two unique cocoa powders flanked two aromatic pieces of chocolate, and two delicate truffles completed the tempting selections.

The social hall at Temple Israel in Alameda smelled like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory Jan. 25 as attendees at the first of five weekly “Jewish Chef Series” events carefully handled their delectable treats.

As I scanned the room filled with giddy adults, I had to admit they looked more like kids in a candy store — if that candy store was stocked with Scharffen Berger chocolate bars, Dutch-processed cocoa powders and fresh cacao beans.

“Don’t taste anything yet!” came a shout from the stage. The room turned silent as everyone waited for instructions. The tasting would soon commence, led by none other than the “Queen of Chocolate.”

Her real name is Alice Medrich, a Berkeley-based pastry chef and founder of Cocolat, the Bay Area chocolate dessert company that closed more than a decade ago. She’s also written many cookbooks, including “Chocolate Holidays,” and she served as an unofficial adviser to Scharffen Berger when it launched more than 10 years ago.

Medrich, a Los Angeles native, told the audience she grew up in a secular Jewish home. Her parents valued anything handmade, be it model boats or pie. For young Alice, a project or a pastry was never actually complete — there was always a way to make it better.

Chocolate received special treatment in Medrich’s childhood home. For example, Hershey bars were never considered junk food, she recalled.

I picked up the first piece of chocolate, eager to put the rich treat to my lips. But just like a fine glass of wine, I had to prepare the chocolate. No swirling necessary; instead, I rubbed the chocolate’s edges to release its nutty, earthy scents.

Finally, the moment we’d all be waiting for: the first bite. Medrich advised us not to chew the chocolate, but rather let it melt on the tongue to gauge its smoothness. Oh, how silky smooth it was.

In 1972, Medrich moved to Paris with her husband for his work. She attended a series of French cooking classes, but soon discovered a passion for pastries after tasting Parisian truffles for the first time. They returned to Berkeley a year later, and in 1976 Medrich opened her first Cocolat shop .

I brought the second piece of chocolate up to my nose and breathed in the fruity, distinctively sweeter aromas. The woman sitting next to me whispered that this one was most likely Scharffen Berger. But ever the baking neophyte, I couldn’t discern the maker solely by the chocolate’s smell.

A cherry doused in chocolate sauce was the first image that came to mind after I took a small bite and lett it melt. I took another bite, this time chewing the chocolate and releasing its acidic flavors. Though less bitter than the first piece, all I could taste was fruit. Others agreed, while some didn’t taste fruit at all.

Medrich — who once wrote a guest Chanukah column for j. that included recipes for chocolate latkes and chocolate-banana blintzes — reminded us that, much like wine, everyone’s palate experiences chocolate differently. My taste buds preferred the first piece, which turned out to be the Belgian chocolate, Callebaut. The second was indeed Scharffen Berger.

But the tasting was far from over. Next, we paired the two chocolates with almonds, pretzels and raisins to create pleasing flavor combinations. Between each nutty, salty and fruity bite, we cleansed our palates with Jewish sorbet, better known as matzah.

For the piece de resistance, I savored the flavorful truffles that remained on my plate, each one dipped in different cocoa powders. Though this wasn’t my first time tasting truffles, I understood how Medrich could be so inspired by the tiniest of chocolate treats.

Following the tasting, I headed to Trader Joe’s as part of my usual Sunday errands. While standing in line, I noticed a boy begging his parents to buy him a bar of chocolate. “It’s full of bad stuff,” they said to quiet him.

Oh, if they only knew.

Amanda Pazornik can be reached at [email protected].