Chocolate bread, neither bread nor chocolate, is in a class all its own. Make it when you have something to say, because the only response to a statement phrased in chocolate bread is to roll over and say "yes."
Say It With Chocolate Bread
T. Susan Chang for NPR
NOTE: The recipe originally published with this story did not work for many readers — the dough rose too slowly and the crumb was too dense. In January 2011, the author took the recipe apart and built a new one from scratch. It will appear in her forthcoming book, A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories from a Well-Tempered Table (Globe Pequot, fall 2011).
It happened in winter, 10 years ago in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. I was walking down the cold, slush-laced street, dreaming of the fruity French custard called clafoutis. I walked into the Balthazar Bakery, whose warm, yeasty interior glowed with good things — flaky croissants, savory olive breads, adorable financiers, fetching little jam tarts.
As I hesitated, in a fit of indecision regarding pistachio or plain madeleines, I became aware of something extraordinary happening over my right shoulder. What appeared to be a pillowy but otherwise ordinary pumpernickel loaf was changing hands over the counter.
But the smell: It was sensational, as if the resident spirit of the cacao tree itself was ascending to its home in heaven.
"What is it?" I exclaimed.e If that was pumpernickel, then I was the Tooth Fairy.
It was chocolate bread, I was informed, and I was lucky — there was one loaf left.
I raced home as fast as the subway permitted, clasping the warm bag in my hands, giving it a furtive sniff from time to time.
When I got home, my husband and I set upon it without delay. The first slice or two we ate in a decorous way. But within minutes, we were tearing it apart with our hands, with a greedy, crazed, cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs glint in our eyes.
The texture was feathery yet rich, like brioche, with a soft, tear-apart crumb. The satiny-smooth finish was like butter (for good reason, I later found out). The delicacy of the loaf stood in stark contrast to the dense chunks of high-test bittersweet chocolate scattered throughout.
If you like your chocolate gooey and compliant, you could pop a slice in the toaster. If you like your chocolate firm, dark and potent, you could eat it as it was. Either way, the bread was mouth-filling, faintly decadent and addictive in both the short and long term.
There followed a period where I began inventing reasons to go to SoHo. For a few months, I went to every obscure gallery showing within several blocks of Spring Street, and I never left without a yellow Balthazar bag carrying one, even two loaves of chocolate bread.
But I knew that sooner or later I was going to have to learn to make it for myself, and finally I succumbed to the inevitable Internet trawl in search of a recipe. Many megabytes later, I found one on the Godiva Web site. I tried it that very day, and I've never felt the need for another.
Chocolate bread is one of those foods that falls between categories: It's not bread in the sense that you'd want to slice it up and make yourself a tuna sandwich. And it's not chocolate in the sense that you can take a little bite and let it roll around in your mouth for a minute or two. It's not lunch or dinner, and you'd have to be a real sybarite to call it breakfast. But because it's bread, it's not exactly dessert, either.
If you have to choose a perfect time of day to eat chocolate bread, it's probably snack time — time when you come home from school and your Mom puts out something warm and sweet to revive your flagging spirits, as a sort of warrant for good behavior until dinnertime.
But if you have put your school days far behind you, or if you are more used to snacks falling like cellophane-wrapped manna from the cafeteria vending machine, pretty much any time will do.
Once I learned to make chocolate bread, I began making it rather often. For a loaf of bread, it's very communicative. I made it to say "thank you," as well as "sorry" and "I love you." I once made it for the chef at the restaurant where I was interning, to say, "Why don't you wait a few more days before firing me?"
In fact, it's not a bad idea to make it whenever you have something to say, because the only possible response to a statement phrased in chocolate bread is to roll over and say "yes."
Chocolate bread could be one explanation for the mysterious behavior of my 18-month-old daughter, Zoe. She might be the only baby in history to learn the word "yes" before "no." She says it "yeshh!" as in: Would you like some milk now? Yessh! Do you want to wear your fancy shoes from Santa? Yeshh! Would you like some chocolate bread, Zoe? Yeshh! Yeshh!
When the days get short and dark and the cold settles in, I'll take all the "yes" I can get. So my advice is this: When you get around to making your own chocolate bread, make it a double and have someone you love over for a snack. Odds are, they won't say no.