Before we start talking about chocolate I should make clear that I draw a distinction between the sort of chocolate you find in candy shops and the kind you find in bakeries or pastry shops. The former is a confection meant to be consumed on its own. The latter is a component meant to be consumed in concert with other components: flour, butter, eggs, sugar, caramel, vanilla…you get the idea. So don’t blame me (as many do) for taking a utilitarian approach to the stuff. For I look at chocolate no differently than I do any other ingredient in baking, which means that just like everything else in my kitchen chocolate is subject to Joe’s Inverse Law of Ingredient Dynamics which goes like this: as the number of ingredients in a given recipe goes down, the quality of those ingredients must go up. That means if, say, you’re making a flourless chocolate cake — where chocolate is clearly the star — you should use very good chocolate. Conversely it means that if you’re using it as a drizzle for your caramel macadamia nut tart, a chocolate of middling quality is fine. In fact it’s probably more than enough, as the delicate flavors and aromas of a rare and expensive chocolate will get lost in an ensemble.
But what exactly is chocolate? Essentially it’s the ground seed of the Theobroma cacao tree which grows in tropical and subtropical areas in Africa, Central and South America and Southeat Asia. The seeds — which can come from any one of three species of cacao: criollo, forastero or trinitario — are found in football-shaped pods that jut straight out from the trunk of the cacao tree. Processing begins by removing the seeds and pulp from the pod and fermenting the whole mess in large bins for up to a week or so. At that point they’re dried, packaged and shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world. When the seeds reach their destination they’re roasted and their outer shells are removed to reveal the inner kernels. These kernels are also called “nibs”. After roasting the nibs are ground to a paste called chocolate “liquor”.
It’s at this point that chocolate’s other key ingredients are added, frequently sugar, milk or cream solids, flavors like vanilla and usually emulsifiers such as lecithin that keep the chocolate emulsion stable. Once that’s done the whole mixture is further blended or “conched” for a period of a few hours or up to many days depending on the flavor and texture the chocolatier is after. Lastly the chocolate is tempered and formed into its final shape.
What do I find most interesting about chocolate? The fact that we don’t know very much about what’s in it, the cocoa solids at any rate (cocoa minus cocoa butter). Oh certainly we know that cocoa solids are starchy and acidic, that they contain theobromine, cellulose fiber and a little caffeine, protein and water, but beyond that not a whole lot is known about what exactly chocolate is. Like coffee, it’s a brew of flavor-giving compounds, many of which don’t have names. Which I guess is where the magic comes from, no?