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A Bag That's Good Enough to Eat

By Ken Bookman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

It was 1986, and I was looking for the right Valentine's Day dessert. My significant other took her chocolate very seriously, so I took my chocolate obligation to her very seriously, too, scouring dozens of recipes for one that looked right. Chocolate Bag looked fantastic.

I had no idea that I was dealing with what would become a culinary legend.

I'm quite a klutz, thank you, but I was undaunted by the dexterity the recipe required. It recommended using the bag from a pound of coffee. You melted some chocolate, brushed the inside of the bag with it, placed the bag in the freezer until the chocolate hardened, then carefully tore away the paper. You were left with a chocolate bag, which you then filled with chocolate mousse, fresh berries and any number of sweet things. I decided to make two bags, just in case I messed one up.

I didn't. In fact, the dessert was quite impressive: Every pleat and wrinkle of the bag was there in the chocolate. But I knew better than to spend time admiring it. It went back into the freezer, and I told Ruth that she was barred from opening the freezer until further notice.

On to the fillings. I made some white chocolate mousse and raspberry sauce, and I also bought some berries, pound cake and mint, as the recipe suggested. By then the refrigerator, too, was off-limits to Ruth.

Our Valentine's Day dinner was at a favorite restaurant in our Philadelphia neighborhood. It was a wonderful dinner, but our waiter was a little taken aback when I said we'd skip dessert. After all, who goes out to dinner on Valentine's Day and doesn't order dessert?

With Ruth out of earshot, I told him about the chocolate bag. He understood perfectly. But all I could tell him about the origin of the recipe was what I had gleaned from the long-lost article it came from, that it was the work of a chef in Chicago.

Anyway, we walked back to my house, where I quickly assembled the chocolate bag. Ruth was as dazzled as I had hoped she'd be. It was visually stunning, delicious and ample.

Then it dawned on me that I had the backup bag and plenty of the fillings. So we loaded up the second chocolate bag and returned to the restaurant. Two decades later, I still remember the waiter's smile and laugh. He bought us drinks at the bar, and, along with staffers from the kitchen and the dining room, took a taste of the chocolate bag. They loved it.

Then, last October, Ruth and I were in Chicago for a few days. My agent, Lisa Ekus, arranged dinner for us and some other people at Red Light, a pan-Asian restaurant whose executive chef, Jackie Shen, was one of her clients. Lisa introduced us all to Jackie, then asked her to "just feed us." Dish after delicious dish arrived at our table until, finally, it was time for dessert.

A couple of waiters brought three large desserts. You guessed it: One of them was Chocolate Bag. Ruth and I hadn't seen one since that Valentine's Day nearly 20 years ago. I started telling our story to Lisa, and she interrupted. "Jackie invented Chocolate Bag!" she said.

Sure enough, though there are a number of knockoffs, Shen is widely credited with creating Chocolate Bag in 1984. (In yet another coincidence, one of the first published articles about Shen and her Chocolate Bag appeared in The Post's Food section in 1986.)

Shen told me her inspiration came from Julia Child, who filled a chocolate bag with chocolate truffles on her public television show but didn't explain how to make the bag. The keys were figuring out that the bag needed a waxy interior and that the chocolate had to be tempered to 89 degrees.

Devotees of the dessert have insisted on seeing it on the menu wherever Shen has cooked.

It was fabulous back then, it was fabulous last fall and it will be fabulous when you make it -- perhaps to fulfill your 2006 Valentine's Day chocolate obligation.

Ken Bookman, a freelance editor and writer, is a former food editor and co-author of seven cookbooks.

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