Chocolate is perhaps the most frequently craved food out there—people are downright passionate for it—perhaps a great reason why we associate Valentine’s Day with chocolate! In fact, according to Organic Chocolate maker, Dagoba, Americans consume about 11.7 pounds of chocolate per person annually, while Swiss citizens consume even more at 22.4 pounds per person, per year! Chocolate has also been said to be an aphrodisiac since Aztec times when King Montezuma allegadly drank 50 golden goblets of it each day!
Chocolate has been lauded in the news recently for its high antioxidant content, which comes as a comfort to those of us who eat our fair share. The benefits, of course, apply only if consumed in moderation!
Whether your loved one prefers chocolate plain, with nuts, nougat, caramel, fruit or baked into a delicious cookie or cake, chocolate is a perfect gift for your Valentine.
Chocolate comes from the tropical cocoa bean called cacao that grows in equatorial regions, including Africa (the highest producer), Latin America, and Southeast Asia, and is now being grown more often using organic and Fair-Trade methods under the natural canopy of the rain forest.
There are about 50 beans per cocoa pod, each surrounded with a fibrous white pulp. It takes about 200 beans to make one pound of chocolate.1 Produced much like coffee, cocoa beans are fermented, dried, roasted, shelled, and crushed into small bits called “nibs,” which contain 50 percent cocoa butter (the fat of the chocolate). The nibs are ground and compressed into a smooth paste called chocolate liquor. At this time, the rest of the ingredients are added: sugar, vanilla, and sometimes lecithin. Depending on the amount of sugar used, the chocolate becomes bittersweet, semisweet, or sweet (all dark chocolates). If milk is added, it becomes milk chocolate. If left virgin, chocolate is called unsweetened, baking, or bitter chocolate.
Finally, this mixture is refined and then conched or stirred for about 40 hours on average, depending on the quality of the chocolate. The last step is to temper the chocolate and pour it into a mold before packaging.
U.S. production standards call for unsweetened chocolate to contain 50–58 percent cocoa butter, while bittersweet chocolate has 35 percent, and semisweet and sweet have 15–35 percent. Milk chocolate must have 12 percent milk solids and 10 percent chocolate liquor.2 White chocolate is not truly a chocolate because it does not contain chocolate liquor. It does, however, have cocoa butter, which is likely the reason that it appears in this category.
Chocolate is available in a variety of forms, including chips, squares, chunks, and bars. Each form is available in different styles, including milk, semisweet, mint, and white chocolate. Splurge on the more-expensive type of chocolate—the finer the ingredients the better your end result will be. Take care not to substitute chocolates (unsweetened, bittersweet, cocoa powder, etc.) because each is made with different sugar and fat contents. Cocoa powder is also available and often called for in baking. If the chocolate is stored in a warm or humid environment, it will develop a grayish cast powder on it called "bloom." It can still be used safely without sacrificing the flavor too severely.
Store chocolate wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil in a cool, dry place. Double-wrap chocolate in heavy-duty plastic wrap for the freezer, if freezing. Dark chocolate can be stored for up to one year (10 if the strage conditions are perfect), while milk and white chocolate should be stored for 9 months because of the milk content in the ingredients.
Chocolate scorches easily, so the key is to heat it slowly. Use a double boiler above just simmering water to melt the chocolate. You can also use a microwave at 50 percent power. Check it often to prevent scorching. Four ounces of chocolate will generally take about three minutes. Stir the chocolate as it melts on the stove or once done in the microwave, but do not melt all the way in either case. It will be easier to melt chocolate if you chop it into smaller chunks first.
1 Dagoba Organic Chocolates, http://www.dagobachocolate.com/prodconsfacts.html
2 Herbst, Sharon Tyler, The New Food Lover’s Companion: Comprehensive Definitions of over 6000 Food, Wine and Culinary Terms, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. New York, 2001