On a recent weekday morning, superstar chocolatier Ginger Elizabeth Hahn and her husband, Tom, stood at a large table at Old Soul Coffee in midtown to do some research for an upcoming dessert creation.
They stood, they stooped, they sniffed, they stirred. They slurped and yes, much like professional wine tasters, they spit discreetly into a cup. It was a bustling morning in the warehouse-style shop, with scores of patrons chatting, reading and engaging in their own form of tasting coffee.
Guided by Old Soul co-owner Jason Griest, the Hahns repeated the procedure several times. Eyes widened. Notes were taken, comments made. There were frowns and smiles, a couple of awkward silences and more than a few epiphanies about how each of the several coffee varieties might or might not work when infused into a thick and rich concoction called crème anglaise.
They tasted the coffees by themselves and then after tasting a spoonful of custard blended with banana and a cookie flavored with cinnamon. Some of the coffees brought out the banana. Some made the cinnamon practically blare on the palate. Others steamrolled the whole thing. There was harmony. There was discord.
The tasting, which lasted nearly an hour and resulted in a clear favorite, is part of an elaborate collaboration in which Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates will use coffees from specialty roasters to create seven coffee-centric desserts for a special event on April 27 they're calling "Coffee Day."
For Ginger Elizabeth Hahn, reaching out to the coffeehouses not only gives her access to the highest- quality roasted beans, it also helps spread the word about Sacramento's dramatic rise as a serious good coffee town. It's no secret to coffee aficionados that Old Soul, Insight, Temple, Chocolate Fish, Broadacre and a few others, along with old-school favorites like Coffee Works and Boulevard Coffee have outclassed Starbucks and Peet's in the premium coffee game.
It's a little lonelier for Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, as many believe the shop has no peer locally. In 2010, the trade magazine Dessert Professional named Hahn one of the top 10 chocolatiers in North America. She and her team make some of best seasonal ice creams going. I've referred to her ice cream sandwich as the best dessert creation in the city.
If you were already a believer that coffee and chocolate were a can't-miss pairing, just imagine how good they can be when the specific flavor notes of a specific coffee varietal from a specific part of the world can be selected to bring out the best in each of the seven desserts. That's the idea behind Coffee Day a classically trained perfectionist chocolatier recruiting obsessive, exacting coffee folks to help come up with desserts that offer something new and perhaps profound.
In addition to Old Soul, Hahn will use coffees roasted by Sacramento's Chocolate Fish and Temple, along with two Bay Area coffeehouses, Four Barrel and Ritual.
The classic French dessert called oeufs à la neige in English they're called "floating islands" ($6.50) will feature a macadamia nut crumble, banana custard and the Old Soul coffee-infused crème anglaise, all layered in a jar and topped with a poached meringue. For Temple, Ginger Elizabeth will make a dessert-sized macaron ($8) significantly larger than the standard daily offerings containing lemon ricotta cheesecake mousse, coffee curd, anise biscotti crust and an espresso gelée sandwiched between two lemon cookies.
Ritual Roasters will have a macaron ice cream sandwich ($5.75) with coffee caramel ice cream; Chocolate Fish coffee will be featured in a pint of cold- infused coffee-flavored ice cream with chocolate chip cookie dough pieces; it will also have its coffee in a hazelnut coffee bouchée ($4.50) crunchy praline layered with coffee and orange blossom ganache. Four Barrel's coffee will be used for a classic opera cake ($6.50 per slice) with a coffee mousse and, yes, a coffee-flavored jam.
Coffee shop owners like Griest say the Coffee Day idea is a chance for both sides to learn and grow from the experience. During the tasting, Griest brought out a "flavor wheel" showing the spectrum of flavors and aromas from the coffee varietals.
As the Hahns discovered, it is no longer enough to say something "tastes like coffee." Roasted by Old Soul's Ryan Harden, the various beans showed a spectrum of favors fruit and floral notes, sweet and bitter, chocolate, caramel and much more. At their best, these flavors work in harmony to create a complex, expressive coffee.
By the time the Hahns left Old Soul, they had zeroed in on coffees from Brazil and Ethiopia, but when they created test batches back at their shop they discovered the Ethiopian tended to overwhelm the banana flavor in the custard while the less dynamic Brazilian balanced out the dessert perfectly.
The collaborations with the other shops were no less intensive. Eton Tsuno, the head roaster at Temple, sent Hahn a detailed description of which coffees might work best, along with observations about the pluses and minuses of various brewing techniques. He suggested using a Chemex brewing method not with the after-market stainless steel filter favored by the serious coffee aficionados but with the extra-thick paper filters that would limit the oils in the coffee and, Tsuno stressed, make the gelée easier to manage. At Four Barrel, Hahn said, the shop's employees brainstormed and debated for 30 minutes before selecting a coffee varietal for the opera cake.
Said Hahn of the level of expertise she encountered at various stages of this process: "I wasn't surprised at all. I was delighted."
What: Seven desserts starring coffee will be available April 27
Where: Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, 1801 L St., Suite 60, Sacramento
Information: (916) 706-1738; gingerelizabeth.com
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.