Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Marvelous Mendiants

Mendiants, little disks of tempered chocolate topped with nuts and dried or candied fruit pieces, are one of my favorite confections. I first fell in love with them at Payard Patisserie when I was working on Francois' book Simply Sensational Desserts years ago.  To fine-tune the recipes and interview Francois, I would show up at the restaurant early in the morning, around 7 or so, bleary-eyed and not quite awake. But a little of Francois' excellent espresso and a mendiant or two, and I was ready for action. The double dose of caffeine in the espresso and dark chocolate really did the trick. Aside from their stimulating properties, what's so special about mendiants? Well, not only are they crunchy, chocolatey and delicicous, but they are also really easy to make. Mendiant means ‘begger’ in French, and the name originally had a religious connotation. Upon entering the order, monks were required to turn over all their worldly possessions, thus becoming poor as church mice.  The fruit and nuts on top of a classic mendiant represent the four monastic orders of the Dominicans, Augustinians, Franciscans and Carmelites. The traditional topping includes raisins (for the Dominicans), hazelnuts (Augustins), dried figs (Franciscans) and almonds (Carmelite). Nowadays, chocolatiers use all sorts of toppings for their mendiants, including seeds, fruit peels and caramelized nuts. I like to use pistachios, toasted almonds, toasted unsweetened coconut, dried cranberries, dates, macadamia nuts and candied ginger. Though I prefer dark chocolate, you can also make these little gems with milk and white chocolate.

Bittersweet Chocolate Mendiants
Makes 24

1 pound bittersweet chocolate (68-72%), chopped, plus one 2-inch chunk of shiny, well-tempered chocolate
Assorted toasted nuts and dried or candied fruit cut into ¼-inch pieces

1. Line 2 baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. Prepare all the nuts and fruit.
2. Melt the chopped chocolate in a bowl set over barely simmering water and stirring frequently (do not let the chocolate go above 120°F.) Add the chunk of well-tempered chocolate. Place the bowl in a cool place and let cool, stirring frequently, until it reaches 84°F. Return the bowl to its position over the hot water (the heat should be off at this point) and stir until it thins slightly and reaches 89°F (but not higher—watch the chocolate carefully).
3. Scoop up some chocolate in a teaspoon and let it flow onto the prepared baking sheet into a 1 ¼-inch round. Repeat to make 12 rounds. (If the chocolate begins to thicken, return the bowl to its position over the hot water to warm it.) Top the rounds with the nuts and fruit, pairing them as you like. Repeat to make 12 more rounds, for a total of 24 mendiants. Let the chocolates stand at room temperature until set, about 1 hour. Store the chocolates in an airtight container at room temperature.