National Chocolate Day (Oct. 28) is right around the corner. If you’re really serious about chocolate, book your flight to Seattle for the Northwest Chocolate Festival in November — it’s the best chocolate festival in the country. If that’s not in the cards, don’t worry. These pastry chefs in Chicago have you covered for all your chocolate cravings.
Every Friday and Saturday evening at The Peninsula Chicago, the lobby transforms into a chocolate wonderland. Eat your heart out with dozens of chocolate treats at Chocolate Bar ($40 per adult, $20 if you’re adding Chocolate Bar as dessert after dinner at Shanghai Terrace or The Lobby), from bonbons and entremets to brownies, pralines, drinking chocolate, and made-to-order desserts. White, milk, dark, and ruby chocolates are used, and The Peninsula has even collaborated with Cacao Barry Or Noir lab in Meulan, France, to create custom chocolate blends. Hazlenut chocolate cake, chocolate caramel domes, and chocolate Paris-Brest are just a few of the treats you’ll find on offer.
Pastry chef Bobby Schaffer used to bake chocolate chip cookies for the team at Grace after dinner service on Saturday nights and when he left Chicago to work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, he was challenged to use more whole grains in his pastries and breads. “I worked on adapting my former recipe to include whole grain spelt flour along with spelt flakes for an additional texture,” he says. His resulting spelt chocolate cookies ($3.75) made with Franceschi Venezuelan chocolate at Lost Larson have become a bestseller and Schaffer bakes them fresh throughout the day to keep up with demand. “The spelt adds an almost nutty flavor and the freshly milled spelt flour adds a tenderness to the cookie so they are soft and slightly chewy.”
Executive pastry chef Chris Teixeira’s new autumn dessert menu at Steadfast includes a cacao nib and rosemary pavlova ($10), paired with chocolate cream, concord grape sorbet, and fried rosemary crumble. “The savory element of rosemary pairs great with concord grapes,” Teixeira says. He uses both a 41 percent Alunga milk chocolate and 70 percent Fleur de Cao chocolate, both from Cacao Barry for the right balance of sweetness and rich chocolate flavor. “I liked using two ingredients like chocolate and grape because they rely so much on where they are grown,” he says. “Each type of grape and chocolate are different based off where they are grown, harvested, and dried.”
Chocolatier L.A. Burdick is best known for chocolate mice and penguins along with decadent drinking chocolate, but there’s also a robust selection of chocolate pastries in the case along with croissants from Floriole. The Harvard Square ($5.50 per slice, $28 for a whole cake) is perhaps the most decadent of all, a dense chocolate cake generously studded with walnuts and topped with a thick layer of dark chocolate ganache with a hint of rum.
Leigh Omilinsky has been one of Chicago’s best pastry chefs for quite some time, and her current dark chocolate sphere ($12) at Bellemore is a great example of her talent for making what seems simple sublime. A Valrhona Manjari dark chocolate shell rests on a bed of white coffee ice cream with chocolate feuilletine crunch. “What’s really fun about this dessert is that it’s interactive,” Omilinsky says. “It looks simple, but the guest gets to crack it and a whole bunch of goodness falls out.” That goodness is hazelnut mousse, which contrasts with the huckleberry compote that Omilinsky makes with fresh huckleberries from Washington, adding nutty, fruity layers that complement the single-origin Madagascan chocolate’s flavor profile.
The tableside s’mores ($12) served at Prime & Provisions are nothing like what you remember from camping. Honestly, it’s worth ordering just for the show — a chocolate sphere is delivered to the table and your server delicately pours hot chocolate sauce on top, causing the sphere to quickly melt and releasing a wafting cloud of campfire smoke. As the smoke clears, a deconstructed s’more consisting of graham cracker, toasted marshmallows, and gelato is revealed. Corporate pastry chef Jimmy MacMIllan uses Valhrona Jivara Lactee milk chocolate for this one, and yes, it tastes as good as it looks.
The ultra-rich chocolate delice ($15) at Brindille uses a limited edition E. Guittard 150 Year anniversary chocolate. At the heart is a rich cremeux that sits upon a wafer of pure tempered couverture, accented with cocoa sponge cake and candied cacao nibs. Sparrow espresso ice cream and a sprinkle of gold leaf and sea salt top it all off. “This recipe is a rich, ganache-like pudding, which really concentrates the silky creaminess inherent in the chocolate and allows for both the sweetness and the bittersweet notes to come through,” pastry chef Craig Harzewski explains. The original cremeux recipe had long been used at Naha in one of chef Carrie Nahabedian’s favorite desserts.
The 14K chocolate cake ($15) at RPM Steak has been on the menu since opening and will probably never leave it or diners would revolt. The chocolate blackout cake is made with Cacao Barry Pureté chocolate with a touch of La Colombe coffee. It’s then layered with rich chocolate ganache using locally-sourced cream from Kilgus Farmstead, a dark chocolate glaze, and 14-karat edible gold leaf. “It’s all about the different textures and quality of ingredients we use in our 14K Chocolate Cake,” says chef/partner Doug Psaltis. “The cake really is a sum of all its parts.”
The chocolate hazelnut bars ($10) at Bistronomic are another new-classic dessert Chicagoans can’t get enough of. Chef Martial Noguier wanted to emulate a classic American candy bar but transform it into a gourmet French pastry using Valrhona chocolate. The result is sweet, crunchy, and addictive like the KitKat, yet sophisticated and not overly complicated.
Pastry chef Greg Mosko creates an herbaceous, savory twist on a dark chocolate budino ($13) at Acanto while staying true to Italian ingredients. He blends Valrhona Manjari 64 percent and Cocoa Barry Ghana 40 percent chocolate to make a dark chocolate custard, topped with powdered and gel olive oil, crunchy devil’s food cake, and fresh basil ice cream. “This dessert is a true contrast between some of Italy’s best-known flavors,” he says.
Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. Her writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley. Champagne, dark chocolate, and gelato are her biggest weaknesses. She also admires and supports CAASE in Chicago. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.