Sometimes, it's the basic things that can trip you up..... When I was working on…
It’s no surprise that February is National Chocolate Month – while other food items get a day or a week, it is fitting that chocolate has an entire month! So where does chocolate come from? Why it grows on trees, of course. However, nature needs a lot of help to get chocolate from the raw form on the tree to the incredible goodness of a chocolate mousse, cake, cookies, brownies or truffles.
Chocolate comes from a small tropical tree – the Theobroma cacao (pronounced “ka-KOW”) tree. Theobroma is a Greek word that translates “food of the gods.” And since I am a chocoholic – I think it is a great name! The cacao tree grows a pod shaped like a football from the branches or directly from the trunk. These pods house 30 to 40 seeds (or beans) surrounded by a sticky white pulp. After harvesting, the magic begins…
The beans with the pulp are put in pits or bins to ferment. The heat of the fermentation changes the flavor of the beans into something that is almost edible. In this pure form, the beans are very bitter. Next, the beans are spread in the sun to dry for about a week. Once dried, the beans are ready to head to the chocolate factory.
When they reach the factory, the beans are sorted and any other material is removed. Different chocolate makers have different blends of types of beans or locations the beans were grown to create the flavors they want. Once the beans are selected, the next step is to roast the beans. The roasting is a very difficult step as there is a very small window of time when the beans are “just right.” After roasting, the beans are cracked and “winnowed.” This simply means that the outer shell of the beans are removed from the inner bean.
Once separated, the beans are crushed or broken and are called “nibs” at this point. I love using Cacao Nibs in recipes – they are very crunchy and chocolaty, but also very bitter. I add nibs to cookies – people often ask me what kind of nuts are in the cookies I make because they don’t expect the crunchy texture.
A lot of work, and not yet chocolate as we know it. The next machine used is called a melangeur. This has large rollers that crush and grind the beans. This continues until there is a smooth paste that is called chocolate liquor (no alcohol in it). It is here that a decision is made about how the chocolate will be further processed.
The chocolate liquor can be put through a cocoa press which removes the cocoa butter (fat) leaving behind cocoa which can be ground into powder. The cocoa press was invented by Coenraad Van Houten. Since the cocoa powder is acidic and does not mix well with water, Van Houten also came up with a process that mixes the cocoa powder with an alkali solution. This is known as “Dutch Processed Cocoa.” (Just a side note – both “natural” and Dutch processed cocoa powders are available on the market. Make sure you know which one the recipe calls for – they are NOT interchangeable due to the difference in pH.)
The other option for the chocolate liquor is to mix it with other ingredients and turn it into different kinds of chocolate. The most basic chocolates will add sugar, vanilla and possibly additional cocoa butter. The texture at this point is not the smooth, silky chocolates we are used to. This mixture is then “conched” to smooth out the texture and develop the flavors. To get the consistency the chocolate maker wants, additional ingredients may be added including more cocoa butter and lecithin. Other chocolates can be made by adding milk or milk solids, fruits or other flavors to the chocolate.
Once the mixture reaches the texture and flavor the chocolate maker wants, the chocolate is tempered – heating and cooling it to precise temperatures to get the glossy finish and the nice snap we are used to in chocolate bars. Or, it can be put in other molds (who didn’t love the bunny’s ear at Easter…) or make into other candies, cookies, ice cream, etc.
Hopefully, you can see why top end chocolate can be very expensive. Once you’ve tried different chocolates and experience the incredible range of flavors from top producers like Valhrona, Callebaut, El Ray and a multitude of others, you’ll find one that you really like to use.
So – there you go – more than you EVER wanted to know about how that fabulous chocolate shows up in the store…
See the “Cooking with C.C. Store” for some top chocolate and baking cookbooks along with a few chocolates.
Here are two beautiful chocolate books – “Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate” by John Scharffenberger and “Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a life in Chocolate” by Alice Medrich. John started the “artisan” chocolate movement in the US when he founded Scharffenberger Chocolate in Berkeley California. Scharffenberger is one of the brands that I use in my cooking. Alice is well known for her Berkeley former bakery – Chocolat. Alice now shares her experiences with us through her writings.
Pictures of the Chocolate Process