Alice Medrich’s sweet life

Alice Medrich/All photos: Deborah Jones

Alice Medrich, the author, is best known for her high-end sweets cookbooks devoted to serious bakers and dessert makers, including the bestsellers Pure Dessert and Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate. Alice Medrich, the dessert chef and chocolatier, is best known for her influential and ahead-of-its time shop Cocolat. Medrich ran the store, opened on Shattuck Avenue in 1976, for 14 years.

In both careers Medrich earned a reputation for meticulous recipe testing, a commitment to quality ingredients, and originality in her elaborate baked goods.

So some may be surprised to learn that her eighth cookbook is about, well, the humble cookie. Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth-Cookies (Artisan Books, hardcover, $25.95) in fact. And, as is today’s norm for authors of new books, Medrich, 60, is even blogging about her latest work.

Medrich’s foray into food started in her early 20s with a hand-written recipe for the tiny cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles given to her by her Paris landlady in 1973. Truffles were virtually unheard of in America at the time.

She sold the pure bittersweet confections at the Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie (since replaced by The Cheese Board Collective, which has a memento to the shop’s past on display in the store). She also carried a sign and took orders for elaborate cakes and desserts that people could pick up at the end of the week. Sometimes, she says now, she needed all week to perfect the recipe.

Her creations were wildly popular so she decided to open her own chocolate dessert shop, Cocolat. That proved wildly popular too and spawned six satellite stores in the Bay Area. The business ran into financial troubles, Medrich sold the company in 1990, and she went on to reinvent herself as a cookbook author. She has since won three cookbook of the year awards.

Medrich recently judged the chocolate category for the Good Food Awards (winners announced tonight) along with other titans of the chocolate world, John Scharffenberger and Michael Recchiuti. On January 30 she will appear at a book signing and panel discussion with other chef legends from the Gourmet Ghetto’s formative years, including Joyce Goldstein, Victoria Wise, and Bruce Aidells. The event, at Books Inc., on 4th Street, will be hosted by chef-cartoonist L. John Harris, author of the recently released Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History.

She is also the featured speaker at Cafe Rouge on March 22 as part of the new Cooks’ Book Club, a monthly meet-up combining book readings, food, and wine, sponsored by Books Inc., Cafe Rouge, and The Pasta Shop.

Medrich writes, teaches cooking classes across the country, consults with chocolate companies including Scharffen Berger, and bakes, of course.

We spoke this week in the kitchen of her North Berkeley home.

Is your latest book something of a departure from your previous cookbooks?

Not really, my other books have been popular with culinary professionals as well as home cooks but I wanted to write something a little more accessible, to reach a wider audience. I felt like there was an opportunity to reimagine the cookie for modern times and I wanted to do that in an interesting way with recipes anyone could follow.

What’s new for you in this book?

Breaking the book up by texture was a fun way to mix it up a bit. I like to write cookbooks where I learn something and in this book I began to experiment with wheat-free, dairy-free, and whole-grain recipes. I started with a blank slate, a beginner’s mind. I wanted to try different things and gain some knowledge. I also wanted to make a cookie regardless of the ingredients that you’d be proud to serve, without explanation, and it would still taste really good.

How would you describe your approach to recipes?

Balanced and restrained. A high regard for simple brilliance. Paring, layering, or juxtaposing flavors over mixing.

Is there anything in your background that might have helped your culinary career?

My father was an engineer, carpenter, and inventor. He was a real outside-the-box problem solver and gave me the sense that you can do anything if you just put your mind to it. He built a boat and learned how to bake bread. My mother always had a lot of craft materials on hand — scissors, paper, glue, a lot of balsa wood when my dad was experimenting with model boats. There was a lot of D.I.Y. in my home growing up. To this day I’m always experimenting — only now it’s with recipes, flavors, and ingredients.

How is the latest wave of chocolatiers similar to and different from the old guard?

The younger palate seems to like salt and smoke. I’m from the school of thought that smoke is a terrible flaw in chocolate. The new generation want to reinvent the food world, approach it from a political point of view, and are largely self-taught. The same could be said of those of us who came of age, culinarily speaking, in the 1970s and ’80s in Berkeley.

Do you have local restaurants you frequent?

I love O Chame, its aesthetic sensibility and the small bites really appeal to me. It’s not your everyday kind of Japanese restaurant. I’ve had a wonderful time at the new Japanese restaurant Ippuku, it serves up a slice of Japanese food we haven’t seen much here before. I haven’t had the raw chicken yet but I will. I like Kirala for takeout sushi. For some reason I think the takeout sushi is better than what they serve in-house. It’s the closest thing to a TV dinner that I have. I like the lean, clean sensibility of Japanese food. I’m also a regular eater of oysters at Cafe Rouge and on the rare occasion when I want to eat a steak, that’s where I head.

What about favorite food purveyors?

I go to Monterey Market. It can be unbelievably crowded, and yet everybody gets along and gets their shopping done. There’s a great spirit there. I like that professional chefs shop there and that there’s an expectation that you’ll want to try produce before you buy it. You can taste a slice of something and that’s perfectly acceptable.

I enjoy the diversity of cheeses and depth of knowledge at the Cheeseboard. And I like their baked goods. They have a rustic feel. Their scones (I like the oat or cornmeal kind) don’t resemble the dainty things by that name from other countries — these scones are more like meals. But they’re good and not too sweet.

What’s next?

I’m working on a dessert cookbook for people who don’t have a baker’s mind. People who have a cook’s mind want recipes that aren’t so finicky and precise. They want to cook in a relaxed way, with maybe a little room for spontaneity and less attention to measuring. It’s a stretch for me but I enjoy a challenge.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

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  • citizenstx

    Whew! This story started out like an obit. Glad it’s not!

  • http://www.painlesscooking.com/ Painless Cooking

    This philosophy may be good for a very small niche of the population. But the majority of the population needs to get back to the basics of cooking. Many of these people cannot afford a lot of products to cook with nor do they have bowls, pans, and utensils to cook with. Many of the top chefs that I know prepare simple basic recipes with top quality ingredients. Because they use simple recipes these can be replicated in the home and the flavor is unbeatable!