The mere mention of that sweet treat conjures up images of love, comfort, luxury, indulgence. It’s a favored gift for special occasions — holidays (especially Valentine’s Day), birthdays, anniversaries, rainy days, sick days, or any day that needs a little lift.
The Aztecs supposedly gave a gourd of chocolate to their sacrifice victims to cheer them up in case they were too melancholy to participate in the ritual dancing before their deaths.
Linguists trace the origin of the word “chocolate” to the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which means “bitter water.” The Latin name for the tree from which chocolate is made is Theobroma Cacao, meaning “Food of the Gods.” Most experts today use the term “cacao” to refer to the plant or its beans before processing. “Cocoa” generally refers to chocolate in powdered form, although the two words are often used interchangeably.
Historians propose that the Olmecs of Mexico were the first civilization to use the cacao beans which grew wild in Central America and South America more than 3,000 years ago. For about 90 percent of chocolate’s long history, it was strictly a beverage.
The Mayans were the first real chocolate lovers. They roasted and ground the beans, then mixed in vanilla, chili peppers and spices to make a cold, bitter drink. Later the Aztecs used the drink as part of their religious ceremonies. They believed that anyone who ate cacao beans would be blessed with spiritual wisdom, energy and enhanced sexual powers. The Aztec emperor Montezuma reportedly drank 50 cups of chocolate each day. For several centuries in pre-modern Latin America, cacao beans were considered valuable enough to use as currency.
Cacao beans were brought to Spain by the explorer Hernando Cortez following his conquest of Mexico. With the addition of sugar, the chocolate drink became very popular among the aristocracy and its esteem spread throughout Europe.
The first chocolate bar candy didn’t come along until 1847 in England, when Joseph Fry and Son created a paste that could be pressed into a mold. Chocolate confections developed quickly from then on. In 1849, John Cadbury invented a similar dark chocolate bar. Milk chocolate was introduced in 1875 by the Swiss partnership of Henri Nestle and Daniel Peter. In 1875, Rodolphe Lindt added cocoa butter back into the mix, creating a bar that “snaps” when broken and melts on the tongue. In America, Milton S. Hershey, who made a fortune in caramels, invented his milk chocolate bar in 1900. A number of the big names in chocolate today were founded with money from Quaker families who hoped the candy would replace alcohol; they saw the consumption of alcohol as a sin, whereas chocolate consumption was merely a minor vice.
Judging from its extraordinary history, clearly chocolate has been cherished from the start. What is it about chocolate that makes it so revered, and so closely associated with feelings of love, solace, joy even?
Maybe it’s the “warm, fuzzy” chemicals. Chocolate, long rumored to be an aphrodisiac, contains an w compound called phenylethylamine, which is released naturally in the body when you fall in love. It also contains the natural painkiller dopamine, and serotonin which produces feelings of pleasure. Studies have shown that even the smell of chocolate causes relaxation. It contains over 400 distinct scents; a rose has only fourteen. A small gift of chocolate scored in the top five of a 2009 “Happy Poll,” conducted by the Happy Egg Company.
It could be that it’s actually good for you. Chocolate contains a range of nutrients which include minerals such as potassium, calcium and iron, as well as the B-vitamin riboflavin. Recent research has shown that chocolate contains flavonoids, powerful antioxidants good for your heart and which assist in preventing cancer. Since dark chocolate has the largest quantity of cocoa, and fewer fats and added sugars, it has the greatest health benefit, surpassing red wine. A cup of cocoa (using pure cocoa powder) has double the amount of antioxidants as green tea, according to a 2003 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. Researchers at Harvard found that people who consumed cocoa regularly had lower blood pressures than those who did not, were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and had better peripheral blood flow.
Whether the secret is science, history, folklore or fact, “chocolate is just sexy,” says Kelly Walker, Richmond chocolatier and owner of Chocolates By Kelly (5047 Forest Hill Ave, Richmond VA, 23225). “It looks good, it tastes good, it feels good to eat and it melts at body temperature — a seductive combination. Those are perfectly good reasons for everyone to love it,” she said. Like many of the best things in life, “good chocolate is hard to come by, so it’s valuable.”
Ms. Walker hails from five generations of confectioners and learned the art of chocolate from her grandmother. After some business training, with stints in restaurants, insurance and banking, she forged a new path and began a career in what is perhaps the number-one most unusual job — chocolatier.
“Chocolate combines my love of food and science. My office is like a laboratory,” she said. “Working with chocolate is not for the faint of heart,” Ms. Walker cautions. “It’s liquid, it’s hot and flammable. Mistakes are costly. It’s next to impossible to get it right all the time.”
Although chocolate can be used in a variety of baked goods, pastries and confections, perhaps its most “artisanal” use is in hand-dipped truffles, with soft centers in interesting combinations of chocolate, spices, liquor, fruits, nuts, cream or caramel. Ms. Walker’s current favorite pairing is hot red peppers and citrus. She’s successfully experimented using spices like cinnamon, curry, salt and peppercorns. The intense red fruits like cherries and pomegranates are also a good match for chocolate. Lemon and mint might make a good summertime
Chocolate recipes for the home cook are plentiful in cookbooks and on the internet — from fudge to crock pot candy. But, for the amateur chocolatier eager to explore the mysteries of melted chocolate, dipping pretzels or fruit segments is a good first step. Chocolate bark, sprinkled or drizzled, is also an attractive practice project.
Begin with the best chocolate you’re willing to afford. Merckens, available in many specialty stores, is a reliable melting chocolate. Dark chocolate is a stylish and health-conscious choice. For those who don’t have a taste for the darker varieties, Ms. Walker recommends trying four different types before deciding. The quality and taste of dark chocolate, like coffee and wine, can vary widely depending on the variety of plant, where it’s grown, how it’s processed and the manufacturer’s recipe.
Melt chocolate gently, stirring often, using the lowest heat possible — either over simmering water (don’t get a drop in the chocolate) or in the oven on the lowest setting. Even the heat of an oven light or pilot light can accomplish melting if time permits. The safest temperature range is between 89 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit, a span which preserves the quality of the chocolate crystals.
“Must have” tools include a quality candy thermometer and a small spatula for stirring and scraping. A dipping tool is helpful, but not necessary — bare hands have worked well since the invention of the chocolate bar. A dipping fork looks like a traditional fork, but with only two prongs. Other dipping tools look like variations of a wire hoop with a handle.
The enemies of melted chocolate are water and excessive heat. Even a small drop of water can cause melted chocolate to clump or “seize” into a gloppy mess. The only remedy for chocolate that has seized is to further liquify the chocolate for use as syrup, or to throw the entire batch into the backyard. The squirrels seem to like it. No re-melting is possible. Scorching, due to overheating or direct contact with a heat source, turns chocolate crumbly and grainy. There is no remedy at all for scorching. When you throw scorched chocolate into the back yard, even the squirrels won’t touch it.