Chocolate is made from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree. The original cacao tree may have originated in Brazil, though some say Venezuela and others say it is native to Central America. The cacao tree is a tropical plant and only thrives in regions no more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator.
Its history dates back to ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America. The Maya and Aztec people mixed the ground dried seeds with various spices into a frothy, bitter drink that was used for special occasions. The beans are even recorded as being used as a form of currency.
Fast forward...Christopher Columbus brought cacao beans to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, among other treasures from his adventures, but it wasn't until explorer Hernando Cortez discovered Emperor Montezuma's "Royal Drink" that it took to favor. Montezuma was known to drink upwards of fifty goblets a day. While the bitter broth did not agree with the tastes of the Spaniards, adding a bit of cane sugar to it changed history.
Spanish royalty enjoyed the new discovery for nearly a century until the secret was let out and the rest of Europe discovered chocolate. Before long, chocolate presses were invented to remove the cocoa butter, the fat that naturally occurs in cocoa beans, and then a Swiss gentleman named Daniel Peter added milk to the chocolate. He is responsible for what we now know and love as milk chocolate. Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle later joined together to form the Nestle Company.
Types of Chocolate
Different types of chocolate are created by what is added to or removed from the chocolate liquor. That is how the different flavors and varieties of chocolate are created. Each has a different chemical make-up and the differences are not solely in taste. Always be sure to use the specific chocolate that a recipe calls for, as different varieties will react differently to heat and moisture. Unsweetened or baking chocolate is just cooled, hardened chocolate liquor. It is primarily used as an ingredient in recipes.
Semi-sweet chocolate is mostly used in recipes as an ingredient. It has extra cocoa butter and sugar added. Sweet cooking chocolate is basically the same, just with more sugar.
Bittersweet chocolate is a dark sweetened chocolate which must contain at least 35% cocoa solids. Good quality bittersweet chocolate usually contains 50% to 85% cocoa solids depending on brand. If the content of cocoa solids is high the content of sugar is low, giving a rich, intense and more or less bitter chocolate flavor. Bittersweet chocolate is often used for baking/cooking. If a recipe specifies bittersweet chocolate, do not substitute with semi-sweet or sweet chocolate. Please ensure that you buy the correct type! European types of bittersweet chocolate usually contains very large amounts of cocoa solids, and some of them have quite bitter taste.
Milk chocolate is chocolate liquor with extra cocoa butter, sugar, milk and vanilla added. By far, milk chocolate is the most popular form of chocolate. It is for the most part an eating chocolate.
Cocoa powder is chocolate liquor with much of the cocoa butter removed. This fine powder can pick up moisture and odors from other food products, so treat it like your fine spices by storing in a cool, dry place with a tight fitting cover.
White chocolate is somewhat of a misnomer. In the U.S. to be legally called 'chocolate,' the product must contain real cocoa solids. White chocolate does not contain these solids, which create a smooth ivory or beige color. Real white chocolate is primarily cocoa butter, sugar, milk and vanilla. There are some products on the market that pretend to be white chocolate, but are made with vegetable oils instead of cocoa butter. Do your best to avoid these imitations. White chocolate is the most delicate type of chocolate, so use caution when heating or melting it.
Cocoa beans come from cocoa trees The trees can grow in the wild up to sixty feet, but when cultivated, they are trimmed to around twenty feet to facilitate harvesting. The trees are delicate and the pod-like beans are harvested with long poles equipped with a sharp knife or machetes for the lower growing beans. The beans are picked year round, so experience is needed in harvesting to know when the beans are fully ripened. Once the beans are harvested they are cut open to reveal the beans, usually there are between 25 to 50 per pod.
The beans are then fermented in a process much like mulching. The beans are covered in a pulp that heats up and actually converts the sugars in the beans to lactic or acetic acid. The process lasts from three to nine days and generates temperatures up to 125 degrees thus killing the germ of the bean and activating enzymes which produce the chocolate flavor we know when they are roasted. They are then dried in the sun or drying rooms, losing more than half their weight. They are then ready for shipping.
How to Melt Chocolate
Melt chocolate in a dry environment. Humidity can cause the chocolate to tighten up and get grainy or stiff. This is a condition known as "Seizing."
Make sure that the utensils you use are dry.
Break up your chocolate in smaller even sized pieces for a quicker melt.
Stir chocolate often during the melting process to avoid burning.
Microwave: Place unwrapped broken pieces of chocolate in a microwave-safe dish. Heat for about 30 seconds, then remove the dish and stir the chocolate. It may not have changed shape, but it is softening. Stir to determine how melted it is. Return to microwave and repeat until just melted.
Double Boiler: Place unwrapped chocolate in top pan. Melt over hot, not boiling water. Do not let the top pot come in contact with the water or steam from the bottom pot. Stir with a dry utensil for 6 to 8 minutes or until melted.
Saucepan: Not recommended but if you must, place unwrapped chocolate in pan. Melt over very low heat. Stir constantly.
How to Temper Chocolate
The experts at Ghirardelli explain tempering as follows: "Tempering is a method of heating and cooling chocolate for coating or dipping with chocolate. Proper tempering results in chocolate that has a smooth and glossy finish. The tempered chocolate will have a crisp snap and won't melt on your fingers as easily as improperly tempered chocolate. Properly tempered chocolate is also great for molding candies because the candies will release out of the molds more easily and still retain a glossy finish".
And they have come up with two easy methods to do it:
Grate or chop desired amount of chocolate. Place two-thirds of the chocolate in the top pan of a double boiler. Heat over hot, not boiling, water, stirring constantly, until chocolate reaches 110 to 115 degrees F. Place the top pan of the double boiler on a towel. Cool to 95 to 100 degrees F. Add the remaining one-third of chocolate to that top pan, stirring until melted. The chocolate is now ready to be used for molding candies, coating or dipping.
Starting with a pound of broken chocolate, melt two-thirds of the chocolate over indirect heat, such as in the top pan of a double boiler. Melt just until the chocolate is liquid and smooth (at 110 to 115 degrees F). When it is smooth, add the remaining one-third of broken chocolate and heat again until the entire chocolate becomes smooth. Pour the chocolate onto a marble or laminate surface. Using a spatula, scrape and stir the chocolate across the surface to smooth and cool it. When the chocolate is cooled to 80 to 82 degrees F return the chocolate to the top pan of the double boiler. Place over hot, not boiling, water. Heat and stir constantly, until it reaches 87 to 91 degrees F. Remove the top pan of the double boiler. The chocolate is now ready to be used for molding candies, coating or dipping.
You should store your chocolate tightly-wrapped in a cool dry place. Preferably the temperature should get no higher than 75 degrees F in the summer and no lower than 60 degrees F in the winter. If absolutely necessary, during the summer, chocolate can be stored in the refrigerator. However, be sure it is double-wrapped and in a plastic zipper-type bag (with all the air pressed out). Taking chocolate out of the refrigerator can lead to condensation, which can dry out the chocolate and negatively affect the quality.
Chocolate will absorb odors from other foods if not properly wrapped. Do not store in the same cool dry place as your onions.
Chocolate and moisture do not mix. High humidity or moisture may cause a white haze or spots on the surface of the chocolate. (This is known as "moisture bloom".) The chocolate will not look as appetizing, but it will generally be just as tasty.
In general, solid chocolate that is not mixed with other products will have a shelf life of at least six to twelve months or longer, depending on the environmental storage conditions. When mixed with other products (nuts, cream, etc.) the shelf life will be reduced. Chocolates that are filled should not be stored over one month. Date all your chocolate before storing.
How to Spot Superior Chocolate
Flavor - Well-balanced, not bitter or too sweet
Appearance - Whiny and evenly colored
Aroma - Rich and flavorful; not burned, musky or chemical in scent
Snap - Break firmly and cleanly, not crumble or splinter
Texture/mouth feel - Smooth and creamy, not waxy and gritty
Aftertaste - Should linger pleasantly
Health Facts on Chocolate
New research suggests chocolate is packed with high quality anti-oxidants that may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Cocoa and chocolate are rich in minerals that the body needs, including magnesium and iron.
Source: Chocolate & Cocoa: A Review of Health and Nutrition
America's Love Affair with Chocolate
Chocolate is America's favorite flavor. A recent survey revealed that 52 percent of U.S. adults said they like chocolate best. The second favorite flavor was a tie (at 12 percent each) between berry flavors and vanilla.
In 2000, the total chocolate consumption in the U.S. was 3.3 billion pounds.
The estimated retail sales of chocolate in 2000 were $13 billion.
Chocolate manufacturers currently use 40 percent of the world's almonds and 20 percent of the world's peanuts.
Seventy-one percent of American chocolate eaters prefer milk chocolate.
Source: National Confectioners Association/Chocolate Manufacturers Association
Is chocolate really an aphrodisiac?
On romantic occasions, the most popular gift exchanged between lovers is a box of chocolates. Even the ancient Aztecs and Mayans (circa 600 AD) of South America loved it. There are some very good reasons why.
Chocoholics are beginning to understand the secret behind the amorous inclination we have for these brown and white treats. Two doctors, Donald Klein and Michael Leibowitz, theorized that chocolate contains a particular chemical called phenylethylamine (better known as the "love chemical"), which is also present in the brain.
Phenylethylamine, an amphetamine-like substance, is a chemical produced in the brain when people fall in love. Love struck persons produce more of this chemical than people who are not. Initially, Dr. Klein and Dr. Leibowitz joked about the idea of chocolate being an arbiter for people who are in love. They tried to prove their theory, but were unable to finish their experiments. Other scientists followed suit, but were also unable to conclude whether or not chocolate has love potion-like abilities. One study, however, revealed that eating chocolate did not actually increase the level of phenylethylamine in the body, thus ruling out chocolate as responsible for that certain wonderful high.
By nature, however, phenylethylamine is a naturally-occurring trace chemical known to release a certain kind of dopamine in the "pleasure-centers" of the brain. Unfortunately, one of the metabolites phenylethylamine produces also causes a person to become unusually restive. Overproduction of this chemical is found in people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.
Some studies showed that chocolate was mildly addictive, mainly because of its caffeine content. It also contains small quantities of the chemical anandamide, and endogenous cannabinoid found also in the brain. Finally, chocolate also has a substantial amount of tryptophan, an important amino acid that controls the production of the mood-modulating serotonin.
Probably the most distinctive "side-effect" of eating chocolate is its release of endorphines, the body's own endogenous opiates. The production of endorphins consequently gives chocolate addicts that co-called "inner glow" about them (which explains why many chocolate lovers seem to be so gloriously alive).
In the end, science has yet to prove chocolate's efficacy as an aphrodisiac. While some doctors say that phenylethylamine in chocolate is just a mild love-chemical, the debate is still ongoing and it is too early to know if chocolate really is the lovers' delight. Then again, giving your special someone a box of chocolates couldn't hurt. It's worth a try!