Cocoa A-Go-Go

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Your guide to the food of the gods: chocolate

Mention the word “chocolate” to a group of women and see what happens. The response closely resembles that of my furry four-legged canines when I show them a big, juicy slab of meat: Mouths begin to water, eyes gloss over, ears perk up, tails wag. Okay, maybe not the tail-wagging part, but otherwise it’s the same. “Euphoria,” one says. “Pure bliss,” adds another. “It’s the seventh major food group!” a third chimes in. Then suddenly, in the throngs of this cocoa ecstasy, three words are uttered, the ones that men fear most: “It’s better than sex!”

So what exactly is this wickedly divine sweet treat that causes typically sane women to burst into such a state of complete and unbridled euphoria? Since chocolate is synonymous with Valentine’s Day, I thought this would be the ideal time to unwrap this obsessive decadent delight.

Chocolate is made from the dried seeds that are found in pods on the Theobroma (translation “food of the gods”) cacao tree, which only grows in shaded tropical forests within 20 degrees of the equator. Cacao has been cultivated for thousands of years, originally by the Aztecs and Mayans, who first enjoyed a much-prized fiery drink called xocolat, made from roasted cocoa beans and hot chile peppers. The Aztecs introduced cocoa to the Spaniards, who took it back to Europe in the 16th century. However, because it was quite expensive, it was reserved for the very wealthy. Chocolate was exclusively consumed as a beverage until the early Victorian times when a technique for making solid chocolate was created.

Turning cacoa into chocolate the way we know it today is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. First, farmers grow, harvest, ferment and dry out the seeds, then pack them, most of which is done by hand. Next, importers and traders sell the seeds on the Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange to companies that process the seeds and turn them into various chocolate products. The production process begins with sorting and cleaning the seeds, then roasting, which can last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours depending upon the seed type. Once the seeds have cooled, they are crushed to remove the shells. Next, in a process called “winnowing,” the remaining broken seed bits, called nibs, pass through a series of sieves that strain and sort the nibs according to size.

The nibs, which are made of 53% cocoa butter and 47% pure cocoa, are milled by steel discs that turn them into a thick paste or chocolate liquor. Some of the chocolate liquor is then put into a hydraulic press to squeeze out the cocoa butter, which can be used to make white chocolate, added to milk or dark chocolate, or even used in cosmetics or medicine. Sugar, condensed milk and cocoa butter are blended with the remaining unpressed liquor to produce a course brown powder called crumb. Next, the crumb is crushed to create the proper consistency; not enough and it will be grainy; too much and it will become pasty. The refined chocolate paste is poured into vats where it is blended and kneaded to smooth out sugar grains and give it a silky texture. The refined chocolate is tempered, a process of repeatedly heating and cooling, which imparts its glossy sheen and ensures that it will properly melt. The final steps include molding, wrapping and packaging.

Main Chocolate Categories

Dark Chocolate
Also known as sweet, semisweet or bittersweet chocolate depending on the chocolate-liquor-to-sugar ratio, the cocoa content of commercial dark chocolate bars can range from 30 (sweet dark) to 80% for extremely dark bars. Commonly used for cooking, dark chocolate has an intense, rich, slightly sweet flavor. Small amounts of dark chocolate have shown to be good for your heart, as it helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Milk Chocolate
Primarily an eating chocolate rather than a cooking chocolate, milk chocolate, as its name suggests, contains either dry milk solid or condensed milk. Milk chocolate contains at least 10% unsweetened chocolate, 12% milk solids and 3.39% milk fat. It is milder than dark chocolate, has a creamy, sweet flavor and is more difficult to temper. Bars of fine milk chocolate generally contain between 30% and 45% cacao.

White Chocolate
White chocolate, which gets its name from the cocoa butter it contains, is technically not chocolate, as it does not contain cocoa solids. The Standards of Identity were amended in 2002 to allow white chocolate to be called chocolate if, among other requirements, it is made from a minimum of 20% cocoa butter. The higher the percentage of cocoa butter, the richer and creamier the bar will be.

Unsweetened Chocolate
Made from finely ground, roasted cocoa nibs, unsweetened chocolate is also called chocolate liquor. This bitter chocolate is mainly used for baking, as many feel that its bitter nature makes it undesirable for eating. However, for those who like an extreme cocoa taste, top quality, 100% cacao bars can be excellent on their own.

Semisweet Chocolate
Semisweet chocolate is dark, sweetened eating chocolate made with at least 35% chocolate liquor plus cocoa butter. Typically, semisweet contains more sugar than bittersweet does, while bittersweet has more cocoa content. This is the classic dark baking chocolate, which is often used for cakes, cookies and brownies and can be used as a substitute for dark chocolate.

Bittersweet Chocolate
The darkest eating chocolate with the most intense cocoa flavor, bittersweet is sweetened dark chocolate that contains a minimum of 35% chocolate liquor (unsweetened chocolate) and less than 12% milk solids. Depending upon the brand, top-quality bars typically contain 60% to 85% cocoa solids. It has a deeper, more bitter flavor than sweet dark or semisweet bars and is often used for baking.

Couverture Chocolate
Used primarily by professional bakers or confectioners, this chocolate contains a very high percentage (at least 30%) of cocoa butter, as well as a high percentage of chocolate liquor. This high ratio makes it expensive, but it also means that the resulting chocolate is smooth and melts quickly and evenly. Couverture chocolate, which comes in dark, milk and white varieties, is the preferred chocolate for tempering and enrobing candies.

Cocoa Powder
This finely ground powder is made from the solid portion that remains after the cocoa butter has been pressed and defatted. It is classified by fat content: Low-fat cocoa contains less than 10% cocoa butter, medium-fat cocoa from 10 to 22 percent and breakfast cocoa 22% or more. Generally speaking, higher percentages of cocoa yield a richer and smoother cup of hot cocoa, hence the name “breakfast cocoa.