Alan Tangren: The story of chocolate
Dear Alan: Can you advise me how to choose a good chocolate?
Alan: Chocolate is popular and in season every day of the year. But as Valentine’s Day gets closer, many of us become more aware of its presence! Chocolate is an agricultural product, but one that has many steps from farm to table.
Most cacao trees grow in a narrow belt north and south of the equator. The trees are native to Central America, where they were an important part of Mayan and Aztec culture.
The first European to taste chocolate was probably Columbus, who found it on a visit to what is now Nicaragua in 1502. During the period of European colonial expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries, the cultivation of cacao spread around the world. Outside of Central America, large quantities of chocolate come from South America, West Africa and Indonesia.
Much of the chocolate we eat starts out on family farms, growing on small trees that grow in the shade of others. The trees produce big colorful pods that contain the cocoa beans. The pods are cut open and the sticky beans are scooped out and left under banana leaves or burlap to ferment naturally.
The beans are then dried in the sun and sold to intermediaries who supply the big chocolate producers. More and more cacao beans are being identified and sold as “single origin,” each with distinctive flavor characteristics. My Danish friend Mikkel produces chocolate in France from beans he buys directly from growers in Honduras.
Most chocolate is made by a careful selection and blending of beans, and even more careful roasting to bring out the complicated flavors. The beans are then crushed and ground, generating heat that melts the fat cells in the beans, and the whole mass liquefies into chocolate liquor.
Chocolate liquor which is allowed to cool and solidify is sold as 100% cacao, or “bitter” chocolate. Some chocolate liquor may go through a second refining process, called conching, where it is mixed with sugar, emulsifiers and often vanilla and rolled under pressure for anywhere from 2 to 6 days.
It’s not surprising that choosing chocolate can be a bit confusing. Manufacturers are relatively free to call a product bittersweet or semisweet. U.S. law only specifies that bittersweet and semisweet have at least 35% chocolate liquor.
Presumably bittersweet chocolate has more cacao than semisweet, but a look at the label can help define chocolate that lacks a percentage designation. If sugar is listed as the first ingredient, I would assume it is semisweet. If cacao is listed as the first ingredient, that would be in the direction of bittersweet. A more exact determination is a label with the percent of cacao listed. In general I prefer something in the range of 55% to 65%. In any event, taste testing is the best way to choose the chocolate you want to use.
Milk chocolate, has a minimum of 10% and plenty of milk powder. It is better as a snack than for cooking.
Cocoa powder is made by removing about 80% of the cocoa butter from chocolate liquor. Be sure to pay attention to recipes that call for Dutch process cocoa. This product has been treated to neutralize the natural acidity in cocoa. It dissolves much more easily in liquid, but it does not have the leavening power of natural cocoa. They cannot be interchanged in recipes for baked goods.
Chocolate has many roles in the pastry kitchen, where it can be used in cakes, ice cream, sorbet, cookies, mousse, pudding, tarts, sauce and candy. Chocolate is used less commonly on the savory side of the kitchen; most notably in its ancestral home of Mexico as a part of red mole sauce.
Keep chocolate in a cool, dark place before use. Stored at between 65°F and 70°F, dark chocolate will keep for a year or two. Milk chocolate is more fragile, and should be used within six months.
Chocolate that has been stored improperly may develop a white sheen or streaks. Used promptly, it should be fine.
Many recipes direct chocolate to be melted before use. Chocolate can seize into a grainy mess if it comes into contact with small amounts liquid while being melted.
The best way to melt chocolate is to chop into ½-inch pieces and place them in a dry bowl. Bring a pot of water to a simmer that will just contain the bowl. Remove from heat and place the bowl over the hot water, cover and let the chocolate melt. Remove the cover and stir until smooth.
Chocolate can be melted with butter or large amounts of liquid, using the same method, if the recipe calls for them to be melted together. Don’t allow the temperature of the chocolate to exceed 120°F or it will be damaged.
If you must substitute cocoa powder for chocolate in a baking recipe, for each ounce of chocolate, use three Tablespoons cocoa and one Tablespoon fat (butter or oil).
Look for information on our chocolate class coming up on Saturday, Jan. 30 by visiting https://tesskitchenandculinary.com.
Chez Panisse Chocolate Truffles
Makes 24 to 30 truffles
8 ounces best quality bittersweet chocolate
10 Tablespoons (1-1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
6 Tablespoons whipping cream or crème fraîche
1 to 2 tablespoons liquor, orange, kirsch, rum, etc.
½ cup unsweetened cocoa
Melt the chocolate with the butter in a bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Stir until smooth. Remove the bowl from over the hot water and let cool for a few minutes. Stir in the cream and liquor.
Put a sheet of plastic wrap directly on top of the chocolate mixture and refrigerate until firm.
When ready to shape let the mixture soften at room temperature. Use a melon baller or small scoop to portion onto a parchment-lined pan. Chill until firm again.
Shape the chocolate balls into rough spheres and toss in the cocoa. Place in small candy cups to serve. Chill if not serving right away. Truffles may be stored covered in the refrigerator for a week or so.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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