by Chef Laurie Bell
Chocolate. It really is the perfect gift. Rich, velvety, indulgent chocolate. Who can resist? Throughout the holidays we all search for that just right gift, whether it's for a hostess, boss, neighbor or loved one. So this year, think of chocolate.
Memories from our childhood days of simple Hershey Bars, Milky Ways, Tootsie Rolls and hot fudge sundae sauce stay with us even as we have learned to savor the richer, darker chocolates available today. Chocolate, the word alone conjures up a multitude of emotions - longing, lust, desire, satisfaction and, yes, a bit of guilt. Why DO we love chocolate so much? Does it really matter why? We love it. And what better gift to give than one we love ourselves? Whether chocolate is a secret addiction for you or just a pleasurable treat, it is the perfect indulgent gift for someone to enjoy on their own or share as they wish.
I don't mean the standard box of assorted milk chocolates, though, good and traditional as that may be. I mean the upcoming, trendy, dark and single bean varietals that are now arriving on the market. Not only are they ultra delicious, they may be healthy for you, too. Let's explore a bit.
Recent studies claim a health benefit to eating chocolate. I know I sure feel better after eating it! Flavanols (a subclass of flavonoids which act as antioxidants in the body), are being researched by various companies including Hershey's and Mars, as well as some universities. And, as most of us know by now, dark chocolate has more of these "good for you" substances than milk chocolate. That makes sense, as dark chocolate has more cocoa mass than milk chocolate, less sugar and no milk solids. It's some of these dark chocolates I want to talk about here, specifically the single bean varietals.
Does it sound like I'm talking about wine when I say single varietals? The cacao tree grows in areas with various climate and soil conditions, most often within 20 degrees north and south of the equator (think rain forests). These variables, as with grapes, create distinct variations in the finished product. Historically, most chocolate companies blend their chocolates to achieve a consistency of product that the consumer rightfully expects.
But more and more, companies are marketing some of their chocolates by the specific bean and/or region from which they originate. The three major varieties of cacao beans are forastero, criollo and trinitario, which is a natural hybrid of the forastero and criollo bean and originated in Trinidad (hence its name). There are some other subspecies and variations that have been and continue to be developed around the world. Some examples that are specific to the bean and the region are from Guittard. They offer a criollo from Madagascar, a trinitario from Columbia, a trinitario called Ecuador Nacional and their Sur del Lago, a criollo/trinitario hybrid from western Venezuela, south of Lake Maricaibo (all available online). Of these, the Columbian is my favorite. It starts out on the tongue with a rich chocolate, but slightly fruity, taste, a bit like strawberry. But as its firm texture softens and turns silken on the tongue and slowly disappears, it leaves a subtle banana flavor that lingers. Fascinating and delicious!
The company Unique Origin sells a forastero from Ecuador and a criollo from Venezuela, available at Trader Joe's, World Market and some other locations. The differences in their aroma and taste are as distinct as a pinot noir is from a cabernet. I would be happy to indulge in either of them.
You can create some great gifts that include a variety of these types of chocolates, so the recipients can have their own special chocolate tasting.
If you are buying for a baker, however, there are a few new rules to heed when baking with these darker, higher percentage chocolates.
The % of cocoa mass in a chocolate will affect not only its sweetness, but also how it reacts in baking. As the % of cocoa mass rises, the amount of sugar decreases while the cocoa fat content increases. These proportions can alter a tried and true recipe traditionally made with a lower % chocolate. Alice Medrich, in her latest book Bittersweet, charts out how to adjust a recipe for these higher % chocolates. And local baking journalist Lisa Yockelson, in her just published book Chocolate Chocolate, suggests several chocolates to use to achieve specific results.
According to US-FDA guidelines, dark chocolate must have a minimum of 43% cocoa mass, semisweet or bittersweet must have a minimum of 35% cocoa mass. Beyond that, there are no other specific rules. That is why you will see some chocolates listed as semisweet at 64%, while others at only 58% might be listed as bittersweet. Generally, though, most chocolates (including many chocolate chips) listed as semisweet have a cocoa mass content of up to about 58%. Most chocolates with a higher percentage, usually up to about 72%, are listed as bittersweet. If the ingredient list lists cocoa mass, or chocolate, first, you know there is at least 50% chocolate in that brand. If sugar is listed first, there is less than 50% chocolate in that brand.
And I feel compelled to explain the term white chocolate. It is a bit of an oxymoron, but not really. You see, white chocolate is made from the cocoa butter, or fat, that is extracted from the cocoa mass, or cocoa liquor, that results from grinding the roasted cocoa bean. So it comes from the bean, but has only the fat and none of the dark, delicious chocolate. So it's white, not brown. And the product that remains from this extraction becomes cocoa powder! Understand now?
Okay, enough of the schooling. Let's talk about fun chocolate gift ideas. There are two particular chocolate websites I've found to be great resources for bulk, bar and gift selections: Chocosphere.com and Chocolatesource.com. (And I'm sure many of you know of several others.)
Once Upon a Bean Box contains samples of cocoa beans from start to finish: unroasted bean, roasted bean, nibs (the ground up kernels of the roasted bean), cocoa liquor, cocoa butter and finished eating chocolate. You can buy a collection of chocolate bits sold in caviar type tins. Or how about miniature chocolate coffee cups filled with coffee ganache, or mushroom shaped chocolates filled with almond crunch and caramel? YUM!!
As you do your chocolate gift shopping, be sure to buy some for yourself, too. That way, you'll be ready to heed this clever saying:
Put 'Eat Chocolate' at the top of your Today's TO DO list. That way you'll be sure to accomplish at least one item on the list!
Baker's Chocolate was named after Dr James Baker who manufactured chocolate in the late 1700's as a remedy to illnesses.
German's Sweet Chocolate was also named after a man, not the country.
The Baby Ruth candy bar was named after President Grover Cleveland's daughter, not the famous baseball player!
Theobroma cacao (chocolate's botanical name) translates to "food of the gods."
Laurie Bell is a chef, freelance writer, cooking instructor and a member of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and the American Institute of Wine and Food/Washington DC Chapter