Chocolate lovers, fire up your engines!
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Chocolate lovers, fire up your ovens. On Saturday January 29, the King Arthur Flour Company is sponsoring a Chocolate Challenge, its first ever, at the company’s Baker’s Store in Norwich. “We have a lot of baking contests happening all over the country but we don’t usually do them here in our store,” says Allison Furbish of King Arthur’s Media Relations Department, “I believe this is an inaugural event.”
Home bakers of all ages are eligible to enter, according to Furbish; competitors should bring their baked treats, and recipes, to the store by 4 PM on the 29th. A team of three judges, two from the company’s Baking Education Center plus one expert from their Baking Hotline, will sample the entries and pick winners based on appearance, flavor, texture, and creativity.
The Challenge’s prizes are perhaps more enticing even than the expected array of chocolate cakes, pies, and brownies. Second and third prize winners will receive $100 and $50 gift certificates, respectively, to use in the Baker’s Store, which is stocked with utensils and equipment, grain and nut flours, cake, cookie, and scone mixes, as well as high quality, difficult-find-ingredients like espresso powder, citrus essences, cinnamon baking chips, and, a wide variety of chocolate.
The top-rated Challenge entry will win its creator a coveted place in the King Arthur Baking Education Center’s February 12 Chocolate class, which will be taught by the celebrated pastry chef and gifted bread artist, Ciril Hitz.
Hitz’s path to chef extraordinaire was not always conventional or deliberate. He was born in Switzerland, but his banker father moved the family to the United States during his elementary school years. Ironically, Hitz’s mother “can’t cook to save her life,” but because his father worked in New York City and the family also traveled a great deal, Hitz was exposed to many different kinds of cuisine, and had the opportunity to dine in “some very formidable restaurants,” which, he feels, trained his palate.
Still, when Hitz went off to college, he didn’t have his eye on a career in food. It wasn’t until after he received a degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design that he decided to pursue baking.
“My degree project was dinnerware,” he recalls, and when he presented the plates he’d created for his senior thesis, they looked empty; he felt compelled to fill them.
“That’s the only sense I can make in my own brain,” says Hitz, of his decision to pack up with his new bride and move to Switzerland for a three year apprenticeship as a pastry chef and chocolatier.
When he returned to Rhode Island with a job in product development for chocolate manufacturer Hauser, Hitz’s vision was to eventually open his own chocolate shop. But then he was offered a teaching position at the Providence campus of Johnson & Wales University, a top-rated culinary arts school, and he adored the job. “I fell in love with teaching,” Hitz says, “I felt I was a natural teacher.” Now he’s the Chair of the Baking and Pastry Department at the school.
Hitz is also a seasoned competitor in the baking world. Years ago, when the university was slated to compete in a New York City food show and needed a baker to create some decorative show pieces, Hitz raised his hand. He fashioned caricatures of chefs from bread dough. The resulting quirky “sculpture” attracted much attention. A friend of Hitz recognized his talent and sent off an application, without Hitz’s knowledge, to the Bread Baker’s Guild of America for a position on their international competition team. After his application was accepted, a twenty minute video of Hitz at work earned him a trip to the live finals in Indianapolis. He bested three other competitors for a spot as the Artistic Design member of the three person United States team, and then embarked on an intensive training regimen for the 2002 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris, more familiarly known as the “World Cup” of baking.
“You train for these events for a year,” he says, “and you hope to have one good day on the day of the competition.”
His contribution to the eight hour World Cup was an intricate bread sculpture with a gracefully rumpled flag, whimsical sun flower, and delicately bending wheat stalks. His teammates were charged with producing dozens of precisely sized and shaped baguettes and pastries fashioned from seven types of dough. Together, they won the silver medal. Two years later, Hitz competed in, and won, the team and individual awards at the National Bread and Pastry Team Championship in Atlantic City.
While recently Hitz has focused much of his professional attention on bread, he still loves, and works with, chocolate, it’s the “secret in my back pocket,” he says. The students in his February King Arthur class will learn about both baking and decorating with chocolate. For one project during the daylong session, they’ll use Hitz’s favorite chocolate recipe to make a grand marnier tart. “It’s amazing how rich it is, and how complex in flavor and texture,” he says, “you need so little of it to be completely satisfied.”
Hitz is also fascinated with the trend now toward making chocolate from single origination cocoa beans; the subtle differences that can be attained in chocolates made from beans all grown on one plantation or region versus another can be amazing, he says. For home chefs looking to create appealing chocolate baked goods, Hitz recommends carefully balancing sweetness and flavors. “If you are going to use chocolate, make sure [your product] still tastes like chocolate,” he says, “don’t let it taste like cinnamon or something that overpowers the chocolate’s subtleties.”
In addition to the Chocolate Challenge, there are other King Arthur-sponsored competitions that may be of interest to amateur bakers. The National Festival of Breads is seeking contestants; original recipes for various types of breads can be entered on line through February 7. Eight finalists will be flown to Wichita for the live, national competition in June. And through February 19, The Sweet Victory Challenge is accepting original recipes that use 100% pure maple syrup and King Arthur Flour. In March at the National Maple Syrup Festival which, ironically for Vermonters, is held in Medora, Indiana, volunteers will use the finalists’ recipes to make goods for judging.
The King Arthur Baking Store is located at 135 Route 5 South in Norwich, Vermont. The phone number is 802-649-3361.
For more information about Chef Ciril Hitz, visit breadhitz.com.
To learn about the National Festival of Breads, visit nationalfestivalofbread.com, for The Sweet Victory Challenge, visit sweetvictorychallenge.com