Now what, Vienna??

My good friend Gerhard writes in again to invite me to write what could be a very long and windy post indeed (even for me):

Can I inspire you for a post about different kinds of chocolates and which one shall be used for what purpose in baking? That is if you haven’t written one on that subject already. You know, I live in chocolate-heaven here – but I guess very few people would use those excellent grand cru bars for baking. On the other hand I believe that your chocolate chips are not an ordinary chocolate either, since their purpose seems to be *not* to melt as quickly as regular chocolate when exposed to heat. Then I heard about American chocolate for baking that contains next to no sugar… just like a 95% or 100 % grand cru bar here – but believe you me, you wouldn’t want to waste those for baking.

This subject is so broad I scarcely know where to begin, but I’ll take a shot. I think some historical context is warranted here. Suffice to say that up until the middle of the 1800’s chocolate was considered a drink. It didn’t occur to many people to eat it, but among those who did think of it, there were technical problems. Cacao beans are high in fat (cocoa butter). Grind them and you get a high-fat paste that doesn’t incorporate very well into other things. Sure, you can mix it into water or milk, but the result is a heterogenous mix of liquid and solids with a greasy film on top. But that’s how people consumed it up until a Dutchman by the name of Conrad Van Houten, in 1828, invented a press that allowed him to squeeze half the fat out of roasted cacao nibs, creating a cake that could then be ground into what we now know as cocoa powder.

That innovation opened the door to the world of confectionery chocolate. For it wasn’t long before other innovators, like Joseph Fry & Sons in Britain, figured out that if you mix cocoa powder with sugar, then blend that mixture back into the separated cocoa butter, you get a solid bar of chocolate. That little inspiration took off like a runaway train to say the least, especially after 1875, when Daniel Peter (from Switzerland) brought milk chocolate to market. The next fifty years saw an explosion in confectionery chocolate products, both in Europe and the States, however the innovations proceeded down somewhat different tracks. While on the Continent folks like Rudolph Lindt and Joseph Draps were developing newer and better ways to create the smoothest, silkiest chocolates known to man, Americans were busy cranking out things like Heath Bars (1914), Reese’s Cups (1922) and Mr. Goodbars (1929).

The materials were the same but the aims were different, and to my mind reflective of some of the fundamental differences between European and American mindsets. Whereas Europeans (in general) spent their time pursuing the purest, most perfect chocolate-eating experiences, Americans (in general) used chocolate as a base material to create one novelty confection another, pitching them out onto the market in hopes that some of them would become popular. Nestlé semisweet chocolate bars were among these, and I’m quite convinced that had Ruth Wakefield not hit on a use for them, they’d have joined history’s confectionery ash heap, along with Pecan Petes and Chicken Dinner Junior Bars. They weren’t particularly good eating chocolate, after all, not even as good as Hershey’s, but it just so happened that when cut up and put into Wakefield’s cookies, they provided just the right combination of chocolate flavor and bite to make them interesting.

And this is where we get into a little bit of the technical side of different chocolates — at least for baking. Nestlé makes a milk chocolate chip that can be used in a cookie, though as anyone who’s tried it knows, the milk chocolate is so (comparatively) fine in flavor, it’s completely lost against all the brown sugar. The same fate would befall any fine European chocolate used in that way. Like the very finest wines, they’re created to be enjoyed all by themselves. American mass-market chocolates, being of much more variable quality, make better ensemble players. Thus we’ll cut them up and throw them into everything from cookies to ice creams — hey, why not? Let see what it tastes like! For that matter, let’s do the same thing with whole candy bars!

Are very fine and expensive chocolates ever used in baking? Yes, though mostly as coatings for opulent tortes — very high cocoa butter chocolates known as couvertures — though even these don’t make good “eating chocolate”. Here the wine example comes in handy again, because you’d never want to waste a great estate wine making coq au vin. What’s true of wine in cookery is true of chocolate in the bakery: “good” is good enough.

UPDATE: (And there will be more of these). Cocoa powder is by a wide margin the most common form of chocolate used in baking. However where solid chocolate is used, chocolates that are high in sugar (versus fat) are generally preferred. The reason, because while they still melt, they don’t “run”, giving them definition again once they cool. Good European chocolates (and many good American ones) are high in fat, making them both mild tasting and prone to dissolving utterly.

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