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Chocolate & Vanilla

Chef Gale Gand’s holiday desserts are a lesson in black and white

Written and produced by Stephen Exel
  • Peter Krumhardt

    “Chocolate and vanilla are two things I can’t live without,” says chef Gale Gand, past Traditional Home master chef, author, James Beard award winner, and 2014 inductee to the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame. For Gand, these two ingredients shine in any season.

    This flavor duo, worthy of a holiday soirée, could be considered the fraternal twins of the dessert world—they have a background in common but are very different in taste and appearance. Both flavors come from beans grown approximately 30 degrees north and south of the equator. Once picked, they require roasting, aging, fermenting, and refining over a year’s time before they are edible.

    The first aficionados of these appealing flavors—ancient civilizations in Mexico, where chocolate and vanilla originated—believed beans from the cacao tree and the vanilla orchid were gifts from the gods.

    Europeans quickly developed a similar affinity for the ingredients in the 1520s when it is believed Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés introduced them to the continent’s wealthy elite.

    Today, Gand brings the pleasure of chocolate and vanilla to all. She finds culinary inspiration in traditional desserts, her Midwest upbringing, a French culinary education, and time spent cooking in England. Her recipes reflect this diverse journey.

    Gand’s pillowy Vanilla-Almond Rochers, similar to a meringue or pavlova, boast a combination of vanilla extract and almond. A takeoff on berries and cream, Buttermilk Panna Cotta features a soothing vanilla base topped with bright, tart cranberry syrup.

    The husky taste of bourbon in a julep led Gand to create Bourbon Chocolate Mousse. The impressive Chocolate Banana Cream Cake is a riff on banana cream pie heightened by rich cocoa powder. “I think today’s more curious palates can handle sharp, interesting, full-flavored cocoa,” Gand says.

    We say forget the partridges, turtledoves, French hens, and calling birds. These chocolate and vanilla recipes, which illustrate the range of the two ingredients by showcasing creamy, crunchy, ethereal, and dense textures, are the gifts for your true love. “The recipes are simple and straightforward,” Gand says. “They are about satisfaction.”

  • Peter Krumhardt


    1. Vanilla paste is a convenient alternative to vanilla beans: easy to store, less expensive, and a long shelf life.
    2. Vanilla sugar can be purchased or made at home by scraping the seeds from a vanilla bean into a jar, tossing with 2 cups of sugar, and sealing for two weeks. Use in place of regular sugar. Sprinkle it over cranberry muffins or sugar cookies before baking.
    3. Vanilla extract Use when you want vanilla flavor but don’t want to see vanilla specks in the dessert.
    4. Vanilla bean is the best way to deliver vanilla flavor to custards and liquids. Both seeds and pod can be used to infuse the taste. Stir the seeds into eggnog.
    5. Vanilla powder is interchangeable with extract. Flavor holiday cookies and other baked goods.
    Find top-quality vanilla products at


    6. Chocolate pistoles come in all grades of chocolate. Use for melting, snacking, and baking. Easy to measure and weigh, they don’t leave a messy cutting board.
    7. Bittersweet and semisweet chocolate are intensely flavored. Bittersweet has at least 64 percent cacao. Use for mousses or ganaches, or combine with other ingredients.
    8. Milk chocolate is best for coating or chocolate sauce because of its high percentage of cocoa butter and sugar.
    9. White chocolate has a high percentage of cocoa butter but no cacao, giving it a creamy texture and silky taste. Melted, it makes a tasty decorative icing for cookies.
    10. Cocoa powder in its natural state delivers a more intense flavor to cake and cookie batters. Don’t forget it makes the best mug of hot chocolate!
    Look for great baking chocolates by Callebaut or Scharffen Berger.

  • Lara Kastner

    Chicago pastry chef and past master chef for Traditional Home Gale Gand contributed these recipes with the divinely sweet partnership of chocolate and vanilla.

    Gand has recently published her eighth book, Gale Gand’s Lunch!, and was inducted into the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame in October 2014.

    She is the former co-owner of Chicago restaurants SpritzBurger and Tru. Gand has a secret passion for Nestle Crunch bars and likes to sample the chocolates she finds in airports in foreign cities. 


    Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Cranberry Sauce

    Bourbon Chocolate Mousse

    Vanilla-Almond Rochers

    Chocolate Banana Cream Cake

  • Peter Krumhardt

    Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Cranberry Syrup

    Vanilla bean seeds add smooth flavor to the panna cotta and balance the tart fruit syrup.

    Buttermilk Panna Cotta

    •2 tablespoons cold water

    •1 envelope unflavored gelatin

    •1-1/2 cups whipping cream

    •2/3 cup sugar

    •1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

    •2 cups buttermilk

    •1 recipe Cranberry Syrup (recipe follows)

    •Mint leaves

    Cranberry Syrup:

    •1/2 cup sugar

    •1 cup orange juice

    •1 cup fresh cranberries

    •1 (3-inch) stick cinnamon

    To release the seeds from a vanilla bean, simply cut the bean in half lengthwise and immerse it in hot cooking liquid. The heat of the liquid will loosen the seeds from the pod.

    To make Buttermilk Panna Cotta, place cold water in small bowl; sprinkle gelatin over water. Stir to combine. Let stand 5 minutes to soften. In medium saucepan heat cream, sugar, and vanilla bean together until just boiling, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. Stir gelatin mixture into hot liquid; stir to dissolve gelatin. Stir in buttermilk. Remove vanilla bean. Pour into eight 6-ounce or twelve 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups. Cover; chill 4 to 24 hours or until set.

    To make Cranberry Syrup, in small saucepan combine sugar and orange juice. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add cranberries; boil gently 1 minute. Remove from heat; add cinnamon stick. Let cool. Cover; chill 4 to 24 hours. Remove cinnamon before serving.

    To serve, unmold panna cotta onto plates. Spoon Cranberry Syrup over panna cotta. Top each with mint leaf. Makes 8 to 12 servings.

    Tip: Hibiscus-infused raspberries may be substituted for Cranberry Syrup. To infuse raspberries, in small saucepan, combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Bring to boiling, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. Add 2 tablespoons loose hibiscus tea leaves or 1 hibiscus teabag; let steep 4 minutes. Strain; let cool completely. Add raspberries to syrup. Cover; chill 4 to 24 hours.

  • Peter Krumhardt

    Bourbon Chocolate Mousse

    Bittersweet chocolate has at least 64 percent cacao, making it less sweet and more chocolaty-tasting. Dark chocolates have the most intense chocolate flavor. Bourbon adds smoky notes to this ethereal mousse.

    •3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (70 percent cacao is recommended)

    •1 ounce unsweetened chocolate

    •1 cup whipping cream

    •2 tablespoons bourbon

    •1/2 cup pasteurized liquid egg whites

    •1/2 cup sugar

    •White chocolate curls

    To make a double boiler for melting chocolate, place a mixing bowl over a pot of just simmering water, making sure the bubbles don’t hit the bottom of the bowl. Let the chocolate melt without much stirring and be careful not to let water drip into the melted chocolate.

    In large bowl over simmering water, melt chocolates. Remove from heat to cool slightly.

    Meanwhile, in large bowl using hand mixer, beat cream and bourbon to stiff peaks; set aside. Wash beaters. In medium bowl beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar beating until stiff peaks form. Spoon small amount of whipped cream mixture into chocolate mixture; fold in. Spoon chocolate mixture into remaining whipped cream. Fold to combine. Fold in egg whites mixture, one-third at a time, just until combined. Pipe or spoon into serving glasses; chill 2 to 24 hours. To serve, top with chocolate curls. Makes 6 servings.

    Tip: To make white chocolate curls, place piece of foil or wax paper on sheet pan. Place bar of chocolate in microwave 10 to 20 seconds to soften. Using vegetable peeler, draw blade across edge of chocolate bar, letting curls fall onto foil. If chocolate is not soft enough, return to microwave 5 to 10 seconds more. Place sheet pan in refrigerator to chill curls and make them easier to handle. Place curls on mousse before serving.

  • Peter Krumhardt

    Vanilla-Almond Rochers

    Vanilla extract gives these slightly crunchy meringues their subtle flavor. Extract works well when cooked at low temperatures.

    •4 egg whites

    •2-1/3 cups powdered sugar

    •Pinch of salt

    •2 cups sliced almonds, toasted

    •1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla, divided

    •2 cups whipping cream

    •2 teaspoons granulated sugar

    •Sliced fresh strawberries

    •Kiwifruit, peeled and sliced (optional)

    •Toasted sliced almonds

    In large mixing bowl allow egg whites to stand at room temperature 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 225°F. Line large baking sheet with

    parchment paper; set aside. Add powdered sugar and salt to egg whites. Beat with electric mixer on high speed until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks (tips stand straight). Fold in 2 cups almonds and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Using large spoon, dollop about 1/3 cup meringue in oval mounds 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheet. Bake about 2 hours or until firm when lightly touched and bottoms are very light brown (meringues should be crisp throughout).

    In large chilled mixing bowl combine cream, granulated sugar, and

    1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Beat with electric mixer on medium speed until

    soft peaks form. Serve meringues topped with whipped cream, fruit, and toasted almonds. Makes 12 servings.

    The interior of the rocher should be crunchy but have a slight marshmallow-like texture in the center.

    Tip: To toast almonds, preheat oven to 350°F. Place almonds on large baking sheet. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Cool.

  • Peter Krumhardt

    Chocolate Banana Cream Cake

    Gale Gand suggests using “un-Dutched” cocoa powder to give the cake its dense chocolate flavor. “Most people are familiar with Dutched cocoa powder,” Gand explains. “Dutching was a process used to make intensely flavored chocolate powder more alkaline and less acidic and, therefore, more bland. Pastry chefs don’t use Dutch cocoa.”

    •3 cups granulated sugar

    •2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

    •1-1/8 cups unsweetened cocoa powder

    •2-1/4 teaspoons baking powder

    •2-1/4 teaspoons baking soda

    •1-1/2 teaspoons salt

    •1-1/2 cups milk

    •3/4 cup vegetable oil

    •3 eggs, slightly beaten

    •1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

    •1-1/2 cups very hot water

    •2 cups whipping cream

    •3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

    •1 to 2 teaspoons instant coffee crystals, dissolved in 1 to 2

    teaspoons hot water

    •4 bananas, sliced in 1/4-inch-thick slices

    •Chocolate curls

    •Additional banana slices for garnish

    Lightly grease bottoms of three 9x1-1/2-inch round cake pans. Line

    bottoms of pans with parchment. Grease and lightly flour bottom and sides of pans. Preheat oven to 350° F.

    In stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment or in very large bowl with an electric hand mixer combine granulated sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add milk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Mix on low speed 5 minutes. Gradually add hot water, mixing at low speed just until combined. (The batter will be very thin.)

    Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake about 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center of cake comes out clean. Cool in

    pan on wire rack 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pan. Peel off

    parchment paper. Cool thoroughly on wire rack.

    Meanwhile, in medium bowl combine whipping cream, brown sugar, and coffee. Beat with electric mixer on medium speed until stiff peaks

    form (tips stand straight).

    To assemble, place cake layer on serving platter. Top with 1/3 of coffee whipped cream; cover with banana slices. Repeat with another cake layer, coffee whipped cream, and banana slices. Place final cake layer, and top with remaining coffee whipped cream. Garnish with chocolate curls and additional banana slices. If desired, chill cake up to 8 hours before serving. Makes 12 servings.

    Tip: To make chocolate curls, place piece of foil or wax paper on sheet pan. Place bar of chocolate in microwave 15 to 25 seconds. Using a vegetable peeler, draw blade across edge of chocolate bar, letting curls fall onto foil. Make enough curls to cover cake. Place sheet pan in refrigerator to chill curls and make them easier to handle. Place them on cake top. Or, just let curls fall onto top of cake as you make them.

  • Gale Gand’s Lunch! is the chef’s eighth cookbook. According to Gand, “Lunch is the new dinner,” and the book celebrates the afternoon meal with 150 recipes that are simple and flavor-packed. Find it on Amazon.