“As with most fine things, chocolate has its season. There is a simple memory aid that you can use to determine whether it is the correct time to order chocolate dishes: any month whose name contains the letter A, E, or U is the proper time for chocolate.”
– Sandra Boynton, ‘Chocolate: The Consuming Passion’
Proper name: Theobroma cacao (Translation from Latin: “Food of the Gods”)
Area of Origin: Chef Mark explores the history of chocolate’s origins in detail in Food of the Gods
Chocolate has been touted as an aphrodisiac for many a century, on many a continent. While there is likely some truth to the legend, perhaps much of it is a fanciful excuse for treating ourselves to this decadent taste of heaven; or perhaps the effects of a sugar high are misconstrued for chocolate euphoria. Renowned as a cure for heartbreak, PMS, various other ailments, and even Dementor attacks in the world of Harry Potter, chocolate is almost mythical in its healing capabilities. Quite an extraordinary foodstuff, isn’t it?
But what is the real story?
Medical experts have not yet conclusively proven that chocolate, in and of itself, has healthful benefits. While cocoa seems to have some minimal positive chemical effects on the body, this is only shown to be accurate when other “detrimental” additives such as sugar, high f ructose corn syrup, et. al. are removed from the analysis. In any case, we are cognizant that such studies are published with alarming regula rity, touting what is good for us and what will likely kill us (sometimes it’s the same ingredient, depending on the week). However , we choose not to focus on such minutae and speculation, because o ur concern regards the characteristics of chocolate that make it a wonderful ingredient fo r crafting both sweet and savory dishes . Cocoa butter adds a beautiful mouthfeel to sauces and gravies, and coats the tongue with silken sweetness in des serts and confections.
Chocolate comes in a range of colors and sweetness that can literally overwhelm the uninformed. Just researching the topic was an exercise in brain cramping. Semisweet? Bittersweet? What is the difference, and are they interchangeable?
Here is a very simplified overview:
White Chocolate: White chocolate contains only the fat (cocoa butter) from the cacao bean, and none of the cocoa solids (which includes both cocoa butter and cocoa), hence its lack of color. The fat is combined with milk, sugar, emulsifiers, vanilla, and sometimes other flavorings. Its mild flavor is quite unique, and could not technically be called “chocolatey.” White chocolate is sweet, and thus is used primarily in desserts and confections.
Milk Chocolate: This is the chocolate you will typically see used in candy bars and other confections. It is not often used in baking, as it is simply too sweet when paired with the additional sugar needed in recipes. Milk chocolate contains from 10-20% cocoa solids, and more than 12% milk solids.
Dark Chocolate: To add to the confusion, dark chocolate presents its own spectrum of sweetness, from bitter to sweet. When a recipe specifies dark chocolate, and you are not creating a savory dish, it is likely semi-sweet. Dark chocolate contains less milk solids (less than 12%) and more cocoa solids than milk chocolate, giving it a more pronounced flavor.
Semisweet Dark Chocolate: This chocolate is also on the sweeter side, and can be substituted for sweet dark chocolate in any recipe, though it does likely contain more cocoa solids (40-60%). It is typically found in the baking aisle of supermarkets, and can sometimes be called “sweet baking chocolate” or “dark baking chocolate.” Do note, however, that it is not to be confused with regular baking chocolate, which is completely unsweetened (and inedible — trust us).
Bittersweet Chocolate: The motherload of baking chocolate. The premium brands have a higher cocoa butter content, allowing for a silky richness and bite of flavor that plays beautifully against the sweet in baked goods like brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and rich chocolate cakes. Though it must contain at least 35% cocoa solids, higher-end brands often contain much more, up to 90-95%. It is important to note that this chocolate is not interchangeable with semisweet or dark chocolate. Yes, we have a headache too.
Unsweetened Chocolate: We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again: Do not eat this by itself. As it contains no sugar and mostly cocoa solids (up to 100%), the purpose of unsweetened chocolate is to add a silky, rich texture to savory dishes, or a bite to baked recipes that contain enough sugar to compensate for the lack of sweetness. This is the chocolate we have used in this week’s savory sauces.
Most of the time chocolate is quite delightful as a stand-alone indulgence, whether in candy bars or other sweets. However, it has also been famously paired with coffees of all sorts, spicy chile peppers, fruit, and even martinis.
Though we will attend to the sweet-toothed among us in our next update, we first wanted to explore chocolate from a savory approach, adding spice, cooking it with wine, and essentially testing how it contributes to the texture and flavor of main courses. Chef Melissa has gone the very traditional route in researching the origins of Mexican molé, presenting it in a format that may seem daunting at first glance; we wish to note, however, that no ancient recipe was ever “quick and easy.” Molé must be crafted with love, much like an Italian tomato sauce, a French cassoulet, or an Indian curry (made the old-fashioned way with mortar and pestle) — such dishes cannot be hurried.
Certainly, one can eat these dishes in a restaurant, or buy a pre-made version, but such shortcuts really lose the essence of origin, and the essential heart of the recipe. These flavors must be slowly coaxed and gently layered, particularly with a delicate ingredient such as chocolate; the time and patience required are unlisted but necessary ingredients. When you try them in your kitchen, we encourage you to savor the process, and enjoy the aromas and delicate touches that take a dish from everyday to spectacular.
Chocolate Cranberry Jam
White Chocolate Lemon Napoleon
Chocolate and Caramel Tart with Port Ganache
Chestnut Hot Chocolate
Garlic Brittle Cookies
White Chocolate Cinnamon Crusted Tuile Cookies
Mascarpone Brownies with Honey Chocolate Sauce
Luscious Thai Curry Truffles
Mocha Pudding with Espresso Creme
Cardamom Hot Chocolate
Photo: Kelly Cline
Originally Published January 2006