More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About :: Chocolate
Is there any other food as revered, glorified and obsessed over as chocolate? This simple sweet clearly holds a prime position in gastronomic culture and is enjoyed in its many forms by people throughout the world. It gets its name from the Aztec word for a spiced hot chocolate drink called xocolatl . Spanish conquistadors, no more linguistically talented than we are, found this to be too difficult a name to pronounce and thus adapted it to chocolat , which was later incorporated into the English language as today's “chocolate”.
There are three main types of chocolate – dark, milk, and white. The distinction is made based on the percentage of pure cacao, or chocolate liquor, in the bar. Dark chocolate has the highest cocoa mass and the least sugar, while white chocolate contains no cocoa mass at all. In order to be considered dark chocolate a bar must contain at least 50% cocoa mass. The darker the chocolate the bitterer and less sweet it tastes, and bars with over 80% cocoa mass are rarely consumed on their own and are typically used only for baking. Chocolate lovers could debate ad nauseum the merits of each type of chocolate, though according to a survey done by Hershey's, dark chocolate is America's current favorite.
Chocolate's history involves a variety of cultures, peoples and locations throughout the world. The first recorded instance of chocolate occurred around the year 500 C.E. in the rain forests of Central America. This region was, and continues to be, an important region for chocolate production because its hot and humid climate is the ideal environment for the cacao tree, which produces the main ingredient in chocolate, cacao, more commonly known today as cocoa. At its inception, chocolate took the form of bitter drinks and porridges prepared by grinding together cacao seeds and maize and allowing the mixture to ferment. Early civilizations in the area, such as the Mayans and the Aztecs, also used the beans as currency for trade activities as well as for paying taxes and tributes to their leaders.
Chocolate then found its way to Spain via the return of explorer Hernan Cortez. His fleets brought dried and fermented cacao beans back to the mother country, and factories soon opened there to roast and grind them in preparation for usage as cocoa powder in beverages and cooking. Europeans found the “hot chocolate” of Central America far too bitter, and thus they added sugar and vanilla to make their drinks sweeter and more palatable in accordance with the preferences of the era. Cocoa powder soon became a hot commodity on the emerging European trade markets, and by the beginning of the 16th century it had spread to the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany and England. One religious sect in particular, the Quakers, played a large role in spreading the popularity of chocolate due to their development and control of a large number of factories, bakeries and production companies. In fact, Cadbury, one of the most famous producers of chocolate today, had its beginnings producing chocolate bars in the Quaker town of Bourneville, near Birmingham, England. In the early 17th century, chocolate was first introduced to North America by the English when they began to establish their colonies there. It was clearly a hit– today, the United States and Canada are two of the world's largest importers of chocolate.
The obsession with chocolate extends beyond the culinary realm. Many personal care products, ranging from high-end lotions and potions to drugstore scrubs, contain chocolate scents or cocoa butter. Some spas even list chocolate-themed body wraps and facials among their lists of treatments. Artistically, chocolate has made appearances in literature, film, and even sculpture. Almost all children have read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , or viewed either of the two movies inspired by the book. Adults are familiar with Like Water for Chocolate , a novel written by Laura Esquivel that celebrates Mexican food culture and the sensual and mystical powers of chocolate and was later adapted into film. Chocolat , a 2001 film centered on the life of a French female chocolatier and her community, also experienced widespread success during its release.
Chocolate has served as the perfect inspiration for structural art, as well – though reactions tend to be a bit more mixed. Cosimo Cavallaro, an Italian-Canadian artist, horrified staunch Catholics (and delighted passionate chocoholics) worldwide with his 2007 creation “My Sweet Lord”, a life-size, anatomically correct and nude depiction of the crucified Jesus crafted entirely of chocolate. After a debacle that included last-minute cancellations and radio-station death threats, this work was never displayed in Manhattan, as planned. However, Cavallaro's chocolate creativity has not been quelled, and he recently produced a series of life-size chocolate saints to accompany the “Lord” in his next display. On a smaller scale, countless boutiques and specialty companies offer chocolate products molded in shapes ranging from letters and holiday icons to picture frames, wine goblets and even, as one California store proudly advertises, custom busts of famous celebrities.
One downfall associated with chocolate is how it is not typically considered one of the best foods to consume in the large quantities due to its high fat and sugar content. In the 16th and 17th centuries, some town governments, likely facing pressure from the Church, even banned its consumption under the premise that it was too indulgent to eat and therefore could be considered a sin. However, even this negative health reputation might be able to be refuted. By the 18th century, early European physicians began to believe that chocolate could aid in digestion and in preventing stomach ailments, and therefore began to issue it as a form of “medicine” to their patients. While we're not handing out Hershey's in pharmacies today, some recent medical reports indicate that certain forms of dark chocolate may indeed have some (albeit limited) health benefits. These include lowered blood pressure, stroke risk reduction, diabetic management, and the powers of antioxidants.
In addition to improving physical health, eating chocolate can provide us with pleasant emotional benefits. The historical tales and pop culture nods linking it to sensuality and stress reduction have a basis in truth – chocolate is a natural aphrodisiac. Cocoa beans contain both phenylethylamine and serotonin, two of the mood-lifting agents found in the human brain that are released into the nervous system when we are happy. Consuming chocolate produces largely the same effects as the chemicals do, including greater energy, a rise in heart rate, feelings of euphoria and rapid mood changes. Perhaps this property is responsible for the fact that we tend to link chocolate with that oh-so-romantic holiday, Valentine's Day. Over one billion dollars is spent on chocolate worldwide during the V-Day season. In Ghana, the Ministry of Trade even declared February 14th, 2007 “National Chocolate Day” to celebrate its position as the number two manufacturer of cocoa, after the Ivory Coast. With the holiday just around the corner, don't take my word for it: try out the following chocolate-based recipes and see if you can't cook up a little lovin' of your own.
No matter what your current romantic status (well, perhaps not “it's complicated” – you're on your own there), there is a chocolate recipe that will serve to perfectly complete your Valentine's Day festivities. Happy couples can share the simple to make and fun to eat cinnamon chocolate fondue, sampling a variety of dipping objects – use your imagination! Not partnered? Don't despair! Groups of friends would surely enjoy the chocolate mousse, served in fun dessert glasses and garnished with fresh strawberries or raspberries, as a classier version of the fro-yo parfaits in café cups. And for the bitterly single planning on spending the night sulking in the depths of the dorm, try matching your drink to your mood – the revenge-spiked chili hot chocolate is perfectly portioned for one and lacks the sickly sweetness you've undoubtedly already overdosed on. And don't forget that chocolate has historically served as a gift given to those people whom you admire or appreciate. So if you're feeling generous this season, I'll just mention that this square writer prefers her chocolate extra dark.
Recipes courtesy of www.joyofbaking.com
Yield: 3 cups
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 cups light corn syrup
Assorted items for dipping: biscotti, fruit, marshmallows…
1. Melt butter and chocolate together in fondue pot or double boiler.
2. Whisk in flour until blended.
3. Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly.
4. Remove from heat. Add in cinnamon.
5. Pour into fondue dish (if using double boiler)— and enjoy.
Rich Chocolate Mousse
Yield: About 4 – 6 half-cup servings
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
3 large egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated white sugar
1/4 cup water
Fresh fruit or whipped cream, for garnish
1. In a medium-sized stainless steel bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, melt the chocolate. Set aside but keep the bowl over the warm water so the chocolate will stay slightly warm.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Refrigerate, covered, until needed.
3. Place the egg yolks in a large heatproof bowl and set aside.
4. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Boil until the sugar dissolves, a minute or two. Then, whisking constantly, pour the boiling syrup over the egg yolks.
5. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water and whisk constantly (can use a hand mixer on low speed) until the mixture is thick and light in color. This mixture should be hot to the touch.
6. Remove the bowl from the heat and, working quickly, scrape the egg mixture into a clean large bowl of your electric mixer. On medium speed (or with a hand mixer) beat until the volume has doubled and the bottom of the bowl is completely cool to the touch. Turn speed to low, and beat in the warm melted chocolate until well combined. Fold in half the reserved whipped cream and then fold in the remaining cream. Can be made and refrigerate a day ahead of time.
Spicy Hot Chocolate
Yield: About 2 cups
2 cups of milk
1 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped finely
Dash of chili powder
Whipped cream or marshmallows, for garnish
1. Place the milk and chopped chocolate in a saucepan over medium heat and whisk periodically until the mixture reaches the boiling point and becomes foamy.
2. Gradually add in the chili powder, to taste.
3. Remove from heat, and if more foam is desired, use a wire whisk or hand held blender to whip the hot chocolate mixture.
4. Pour into a large mug and garnish as desired.