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Kitchen Talk: Max Brenner on Chocolate and Valentine’s Day

Max Brenner isn’t ashamed of his unconditional love of chocolate. “I can’t go a day without chocolate,” says Brenner, whose real first name is actually Oded.

In 2009, the Israeli-born Brenner penned a book of recipes — a kind of ode to all things chocolate — entitled “Chocolate: A Love Story.” In it, he draws similarities between his relationship with chocolate and a long-term love affair.

Brenner is first and foremost the Bald Man of Max Brenner, Chocolate By the Bald Man, an ever-expanding chain of restaurants that focuses on all things sweet. Sure, the restaurant serves savories (a couple of dishes even meld savory and sweet, such as French fries dusted with cocoa powder and onion rings served with a dark chocolate ranch sauce), but the desserts garner most of the attention. Customers go crazy for the chocolate fondue (recipe below), chocolate egg rolls and chocolate pizzas (there’s even a very popular chocolate syringe).

The Max Brenner chain began as a store in Ra’anana, near Tel Aviv, in 1996. In Israel, Brenner is a bona fide culinary star, a true chocolate icon. But his empire now extends to 34 locations worldwide — including Australia, the Philippines and Singapore. There are three locations in the U.S. — one in New York, one in Las Vegas and one in Philadelphia. A Boston restaurant is set to open in two months.

Brenner also just opened Little Brown Chocolate Bakery and Coffee on the Upper East Side of Manhattan last week (which itself has the romantic tagline, “the chocolate and coffee love affair”).

While we know Valentine’s Day isn’t a traditionally Jewish or Israeli holiday, we thought that Brenner, a modern-day Willy Wonka, who often preaches about love and chocolate, might have some interesting ideas of how to enjoy the 14th with some chocolate. And he did not disappoint.

Lucy Cohen Blatter: How do you spend Valentine’s Day?

Max Brenner: I love to spend my free time with my wife, Liron, and two-year-old daughter, Nellie. Our favorite activity is to just all cuddle up on our couch and watch a movie. I especially love this holiday because it is during the freezing winter and I don’t want to leave my apartment!

What kinds of chocolate dishes do you recommend making for Valentine’s Day?

The most fun and easiest thing to do with your partner is chocolate fondue. It is a beautiful ritual because it is sensual and messy in the best way possible. You can use so many different things to dip into the chocolate — fruit, marshmallows, cookies, brownies and more.

In Israel, is there a day similar to Valentine’s Day, where people celebrate their significant others and give gifts?

Valentine’s Day exists in Israel but it isn’t as big because there is another date in the Jewish calendar that celebrates love in the summer [Tu B’Av].

What are some of the most exciting trends in chocolates and dessert right now? What are people going for?

I think people really look for fun and experiential things to eat. I find that people go to restaurants for the whole experience, not just the functional reason of eating. People look around at the beautiful people, the lighting, the cocktails and of course the food — it is like a theater.

What do you think about adding chocolate to savory dishes?

I don’t do much with chocolate and savory foods although it seems to be popular amongst other pastry chefs. I like to keep savory and pastry separate because what do you do then if dessert was part of dinner?!

How is the chocolate scene in Israel different from the one in America?

There isn’t much of a difference. The only main difference between our desserts and retail items is that Americans go crazy for peanut butter and in Israel, people don’t really eat too much of it.

Are there products that you sell in Israel that don’t work here, and what about the other way around?

I really try to create my products based on what everyone wants to experience in chocolate. The taste, the memories, the decadence, the sensuality — chocolate is truly a universal love and everyone just loves chocolate.

What is your favorite, can’t-live-without chocolate?

My favorite is milk chocolate with hazelnuts. I [also] love sugar waffles drizzled with milk chocolate sauce. Nothing is better.

Max Brenner’s Chocolate Pizza

This recipe will wow even the most anti-Valentine’s Day significant other.

Homemade pizza dough or 1 pound store-bought pizza dough
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, melted
½ ounce milk chocolate chips
½ ounce white chocolate chips
1 cup chopped large marshmallows or miniature marshmallows

1) Position the oven rack on the bottom of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

2) Roll the dough into a 9-inch round. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Using your fingers, make indentations all over the dough. Brush with the melted butter. Bake until the crust is crisp and golden brown, about 20 minutes.

3) Immediately sprinkle the chocolate chips and marshmallows. Bake until the chocolate just begins to melt, about 2 minutes. Cut the pizza into wedges and serve.

Yield: 8-10 servings

This recipe is from Max Brenner’s “Chocolate: A Love Story”

“Tacky” Double Chocolate Fondue

2 cups heavy cream
¼ teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
9 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
9 ounces white chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon cherry liqueur

1) Bring 1 cup cream to a boil with the chili powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour over the dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl and stir until smooth.

2) Bring the remaining 1 cup cream to a boil. Pour over the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Add the cherry liqueur. Stir until smooth and set aside.

3) Serve the chocolate sauces in separate bowls placed inside other bowls filled with boiling water, or in bowls over votive candles. This will keep the chocolate hot and melted for about 1 hour.

Recommended for dunking: marshmallows, nuts, soft dry cake, fresh fruits, candied and dried fruits.

Yields: 2 to 4 servings

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