Chocolate fudge and hot fudge sauce are American classics, but let’s face it: Fudge is fussy.
Fudge seizes if its sugar crystals get too large, stiffening up like a toddler in tantrum mode. It’s uncooperative in humid weather. Fudge has to be stirred constantly while it boils, then immediately pulled off the heat at softball stage, which requires simultaneous access to a candy thermometer, a cup of cold water and a YouTube video.
It’s time to embrace something lower- maintenance, easygoing but elegant. In short, something French: ganache.
Chocolate ganache is a fixture on dessert menus and sounds daunting, but in truth is just a melted-together mixture of chocolate and cream. It takes about 5 minutes to put together, can be adjusted to taste like a classic fudge topping or a sophisticated dark chocolate drizzle and is easily the most impressive thing you can serve over homemade ice cream, or use to transform store-bought ice cream, or present on arrival as a house guest. There are plenty of recipes for fake “fudge sauce” with cocoa powder and corn syrup and butter, but the pure, straight-ahead chocolate flavor and the ease of ganache make it unbeatable.
And the sauce is just the beginning.
“Ganache looks like a million things you want to make,” said the cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, who describes making ganache as “mesmerizing.” There is something miraculous in how the lumpy mixture you start out with quickly comes together into a smooth, glossy, mahogany-brown emulsion. After that, it’s just a question of how to use it:
• Thin it with hot water to make a pourable sauce that becomes chewy and mouth-filling when it hits cold ice cream.
• Pour or pipe it warm over a cake, cupcakes or cookies; it will set as it cools to a soft, rich glaze. (If the icing loses its gloss as it sets, he says, “Hit it with some heat from a blow dryer.”)
• Scrape it into a tart shell or pie crust, then let set at room temperature before refrigerating: It will firm up into a dense, velvety filling.
• Pour into a parchment paper-lined baking pan, sprinkle with chopped nuts or coarse salt and let set at room temperature. Refrigerate, then cut into diamonds or squares to make bite-size bonbons. Serve cold.
• Let it come to room temperature, then whip it in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to make a fluffy cake frosting or a filling for homemade sandwich cookies.
• Chill it, then use a melon baller to scoop, roll into balls and dust with cocoa powder to make truffles.
Ganache seems to have been invented at around the same time as fudge, in the late 19th century, when chocolate was just coming on the mass market. French and Swiss chocolatiers experimented with blends of chocolate and dairy until they had a thick, plush, moldable cream that could be tweaked in numberless ways.
At the time, even the best chocolate was inconsistent, so making ganache was a touchy business, best left to professionals. Greenspan said she learned to make it from French pastry chef Pierre Hermé, who instructed her that it was necessary to stir the mixture in an outward spiral, starting from the center. Robert Linxe of Maison du Chocolate, a modern ganache master, insisted on bringing the cream to a boil three times before adding it to the chocolate.
Today, because top-quality chocolate is consistent and widely available, and because commercial cream is pasteurized and homogenized, ganache is nearly foolproof. It is equally good whether made in a $300 copper saucepan or in a measuring jar in the microwave. As long as you don’t burn it, ganache can endure rough handling and even neglect. A chilled jar of it can be reheated several times in a saucepan of simmering water or in the microwave. If the sauce becomes grainy, a little hot water or cream and a whisk will restore its texture.
For any chocolate sauce or ganache, always use top-quality chocolate with plenty of real cocoa butter, like Scharffen Berger or Valrhona. Don’t go more than a few ticks above 70 percent chocolate solids; the cocoa butter that makes up most of the rest of the bar is needed to keep the mixture smooth. When buying cream, look for a pasteurized one from a local dairy; most national brands are ultrapasteurized, which changes the cream’s fat structure and flavor. (Also, read the label to make sure the cream is just that: cream. The Food and Drug Administration allows manufacturers to add emulsifiers, sweeteners and stabilizers to products labeled “heavy cream.”)
If instant gratification is the goal, Alice Medrich, a California chocolatier, has a quick formula for making hot chocolate sauce to taste. Over very low heat, melt any amount of bitter or semisweet chocolate, along with a half-cup of liquid: milk, cream, rice milk, coffee, even water. Almond milk and coconut milk work especially well, because they are high in fat. Keep whisking in liquid until the sauce has the consistency you like. If the taste is too intense (for example, if you have used bittersweet chocolate and coffee), mix in chunks of butter to tone it down. Add vanilla to round out the flavor and salt with caution. Not everyone is a fan of the salted-chocolate trend, especially children.
This sauce may or may not be a ganache in the end, but you will hear no complaints. Pour with abandon.
Time: 5 minutes
14 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
3 tablespoons espresso, strong coffee or water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup sugar (confectioners’, granulated or light brown)
ß cup heavy cream, preferably not ultrapasteurized
1 pinch coarse salt, more to taste
In a heavy saucepan, combine all ingredients and melt together over very low heat, stirring. (Alternatively, combine in a bowl and microwave at low heat for 2 minutes. Stir. Continue cooking in 30-second blasts, stirring in-between.)
Just before all the chocolate is melted, remove from heat and stir until chocolate melts and mixture comes together. It may appear curdled, but keep stirring or whisk vigorously; it will smooth out. If too thick to pour, whisk in hot water a tablespoon at a time. Taste for salt and adjust the seasoning.
Note: This mixture can be used in many ways. Serve it warm to hot as a sauce over ice cream. Warm, you can pour or pipe it over a cake, cupcakes or cookies; it will set to a soft, rich glaze. Let it cool to room temperature and whip it in a mixer to make a fluffy frosting. Or chill it, then roll into balls and dust with cocoa powder to make truffles. Refrigerate leftovers in a jar; it will keep indefinitely.