{short description of image}1st Traveler's Choice

Internet Cookbook Guest Columnist

Dave lived in Europe for 10 years. During that time he became interested in the fine art of food preparation. He has studied at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and now, along with his wife, Patricia, is the Chef/owner of The Nutmeg Inn (circa 1777), located in the Mount Snow Valley of southern Vermont in the village of Wilmington. Dave Cerchio

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What is Chocolate?

Let's first go to Webster's, and what do we find - "processed ground and roasted cocoa beans." But we are not going to stop there, are we? To the millions of lovers, chocolate goes much further. It is an aroma, it is a flavor, it is a texture, and most importantly, it is our lives!!! And we accept no substitutes. Like Carob. What is Carob but the mashed fruit of a Mediterranean pine tree? Some may wish to consume a pine tree, but for most, only the real thing will do. By the way, Americans consumed on average 11.6 pounds of chocolate in 1996. Not enough, let's get to work.

First brought to Europe in 1528 by the Spaniards, who learned about chocolate from the Aztecs, chocolate was, at that time, simply a bitter, spicy drink. And, to be quite frank, not very much fun. Well, enter the Spanish, who first warmed the mixture then added sugar cane. Enter the chemists, who ground, processed, and stirred the beans while adding milk and more cocoa butter. And presto, you now have those tasty morsels of chocolate, which Linnaeus so appropriately named Theobroma - "food of the gods." So, we may not be gods, but bring on the food!

We've somehow gotten ahead of ourselves. Let's get back to basics and answer the following questions: What (really) is chocolate? How did it get where it is today? And, most importantly, why do so many of us love it to death?

In order to produce the chocolate of today, one must first start with fermented cacao beans, which are roasted, shelled, and shattered into nibs or large fragments. The nibs are then crushed and heated between large milling wheels or disks. The result is a thick, dark brown paste which goes by the trade name of Chocolate Liquor. This Chocolate Liquor, which does not have any alcoholic content, forms the basis of most, if not all, chocolate products. Equally important, it is at this point where the additives and/or further processing will be the main determinate of the type, quality, and flavor of the chocolate product to come.

When put into heavy metal canisters and subjected to a large amount of pressure, the Chocolate Liquor can be separated into its two major components: cocoa butter, a beautiful amber-colored oil, and cocoa powder. The next step is to combine some of the extra cocoa butter with Chocolate Liquor and sugar. The mixture is then stirred or conched in large vats for up to 72 hours. What are the results? What have we produced? Nothing more than a velvet-smooth blend (or chocolate as we know it today) that can be filled, flavored, decorated, or shaped into the most beautiful of morsels, which we so eagerly place into our mouths and thus melt away our concerns of the day. And why not? We've earned it!

Here are some more tidbits of information which will help you better understand some of the finer points of chocolate:

  • Why does chocolate melt in our mouths?
    Chocolate remains in a solid state very close to its melting temperature of approximately 80 degrees. Thus, when we plop it into our warm mouths, it quickly reaches its melting point.
  • What determines the quality of chocolate?
    Many factors: the quality of the cacao bean, the amount of cocoa butter added to the Chocolate Liquor, the length of time it is conched (4 to 72 hours or longer), and the list continues.
  • What is white chocolate?
    Cocoa butter, sugar, and milk solids make up white chocolate. This raises the question that without any Chocolate Liquor, is it really chocolate?
  • What is Dutch chocolate?
    Some time ago, a Dutch chemist discovered that processing Chocolate Liquor with alkali tended to increase the chocolate flavor, reduce its bitterness, and darken the chocolate. Today, most chocolates are processed with alkali.
  • What is confectionery coating?
    First of all, it's not chocolate. After the Chocolate Liquor has been separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter, the manufacturer will add a partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to the cocoa powder. This produces a chocolate-like coating with some of he characteristics similar to chocolate with no cocoa butter. Why do manufacturers do this? Cocoa butter is expensive and vegetable oil has a higher melting point than cocoa butter. By the way, this higher melting point causes a waxy feeling in our mouths similar to overcooked pasta sticking between our teeth. In other words, it does not melt in our mouths.

All the best,
Dave

P.S. Many thanks to John at the WDL.

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