Sunday, March 30, 2008

Chocolate and the Art of Diplomacy

A few years ago, when I headed a not-for-profit institution in Chicago, I was asked to entertain a group of young would-be not-for-profit executives from Belarus. The reason for their visit to the United States was to learn how to effectively manage their organizations. Here in the U.S. we refer to the not-for-profit sector as "The Third Sector". We have scores of nonprofits so our Eastern European counterparts must think we know how to run them.

Belarus is a small country in Eastern Europe that borders Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Its capital is the city of Minsk. Without going into a long political or economic commentary (I have a degree in Political Science but I'll leave that to the experts), it's safe to say that the people of Belarus have had their challenges. Formerly a part of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared its independence in 1991. The populace of Belarus speaks Russian, as well as Belarusian, Polish, and Ukrainian. My new found friends spoke mostly Russian and had not yet mastered the English language. I was in a cultural, if not diplomatic quandary. How do I break the ice? How do I communicate? How do I reach across and build a bridge? I have a friend who has a degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown. Why I didn't think to call her I cannot say – hindsight. Suddenly, the light went on ... chocolate!

I bought bags and bags of foil-wrapped chocolate candy and miniature chocolate candy bars. I brought several cut-glass bowls from home (didn't I say you can never have too many bowls?) and filled them with the chocolate. When my international colleagues arrived at my office, I was ready! It was a wonderful meeting, a complete success ... seven of us munching happily on chocolate. They were happy, they listened, they understood ... I listened, I understood. At the conclusion of our gathering, I filled little bags with the chocolate, so my guests could take some along. Ahh ... so this is diplomacy! I'm good at this! Ambassador potential! The experience left me wondering if world leaders at summit conferences concentrated more on what they had in common - FOOD - they might get along a little better. As James Beard remarked, "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." Maybe there should be summit meetings disguised as food conferences. A chocolate convention instead of a Geneva convention. Butter instead of guns. I'm reminded of Madhur Jaffrey's comments regarding America's nuclear and trade pact with India. India gets nuclear fuel for its energy and America gets Indian mangoes - perhaps India's greatest culinary gift (if you've never had one of the seasonally available mangoes from India, I implore you to do so).

As I was recently patting myself on the back for being such a diplomat, I came across Dorie Greenspan's recipe for "World Peace Cookies" so called, because a neighbor of Dorie's is convinced that these fantastic chocolate cookies (originally the creation of Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé) could help ensure world peace. I quite agree. In an effort to foster continued harmony, Dorie was kind enough to give me permission to publish the recipe, which can also be found in her book, "Baking from My Home to Yours". Thanks, Dorie.

Got to run - I have to update my resume so I can send it off to the United Nations.

WORLD PEACE COOKIES

1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup light-brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel* or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, and baking soda.

Working with an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is soft and creamy. Add the sugars, the salt, and the vanilla and beat for another 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they just disappear into the dough. You want to mix this dough as little as possible once the flour is added. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface, squeeze it so it sticks together, gather it into a ball, and divide the ball in half. Working with one piece of dough at a time, shape it into logs about 1½ inches in diameter and about 9 inches long. (Make sure the logs are solid—if they feel as if they’ve got holes in the center, flatten and roll them again.) Wrap the dough in plastic and chill the logs for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

Before baking, center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, nonstick aluminum foil, or silicone baking mats.

Working with a sharp knife, slice the logs into ½-inch-thick rounds. (Don’t worry if the rounds break—just squeeze the bits back together again.) Place the cookies on the sheets, leaving about 1 inch of spread space between them.

Bake only one sheet of cookies at a time and bake each sheet for 12 minutes—they won’t look done, but they’ll firm as they cool. Put the baking sheet on a cooling rack and let the cookies stand until they reach room temperature. Repeat with the second sheet of cookies.

* Fleur de sel is available at Whole Foods, Sur La Table and other specialty shops. The “wow” factor in these cookies is the salt which intensifies the chocolate. It’s impossible to eat just one of these fantastic treats.

1 comment:

dorie said...

Laura, this is such a lovely, lovely story. I'm delighted that World Peace Cookies are a part of it. The thanks go to you.

Do you think we could start a chocolates-for-peace movement? It makes such good sense, doesn't it?