Chocolate, the sweet treat we grew up munching in the form of Kisses and nougat-filled bars, is getting the royal treatment once reserved for fine wine, aged cheeses and $4 cups of coffee.
Oh, sure, we’re still gobbling Snickers and Baby Ruths from vending machines and stashing some in our carts at the supermarket checkout aisle. But a growing number of chocoholics are taking their passion to the next level.
They’re seeking out organic chocolates and single-origin chocolates and inventive, high-end dark chocolate bars infused with chilies or ginger or green tea.
They’re learning that there’s a proper way to taste – to really taste – chocolate, much as you would savor a good glass of wine.
They’re comparing labels to find the percent of cocoa in a given bar.
They’re using words like “full-bodied,” “aromatic,” “supple” and “seductive” to describe the chocolate they eat. (But “yummy” is certainly still acceptable.)
“Americans have spent a lot of time educating themselves about wine, beer, single-malt scotch, artisan cheese and artisan olive oils,” says Clay Gordon, a New York-based chocolate critic (yes, that’s his real job) who runs www.chocophile.com. “A lot of that interest is finally being aimed at chocolate.”
And then there’s the growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that chocolate – or at least some of the compounds in chocolate – might actually be good for us.
The most-recent research has found that flavanols, an antioxidant in dark chocolate, could help control diabetes and lower blood pressure.
“There’s an increasing perception that chocolate, if it’s not healthy for you, then at least it’s not as bad as we all thought it was,” Gordon says.
Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but it’s clear the demand for gourmet chocolate is growing. Gordon says he’s seen figures pointing to 20 percent increases each year in the high-end chocolate market recently.
At just one U.S. chocolate-maker, Boulder-based Chocolove, sales of their zippy crystallized ginger dark chocolate bar have jumped 300 percent in the last year, says Laurie Roberts, the company’s director of sales and marketing.
(And, yes, Roberts reports that the company gets calls from people wondering how much chocolate they need to eat to reap the health benefits. “We tell people to talk to their physicians if you’re going to start treating yourself medically,” she says.)
In Spokane, budding chocophiles are training their palates by nibbling on the wildly popular chocolate tasting platters at the Latah Bistro.
The restaurant features a chocolate menu, much like a wine list, of about 30 varieties, from the darkest dark chocolate to milk and white chocolates, along with flavored and single-origin varieties. Diners can pick three chocolates from the list for each $10 sampler.
“I really did think this was going to be a unique and eye-opening idea,” says Latah Bistro chef David Blaine. “But not one that actually sold a lot.”
Boy, was he wrong on the latter.
So much chocolate is flying out of that kitchen, Blaine’s wholesalers can’t keep up. The restaurant sells about 300 to 350 chocolate samplers each month, he says. He routinely orders chocolate in 50-pound lots, and that’s not counting what’s needed for the bistro’s other desserts.
The Latah Bistro changes its chocolate offerings regularly. But you might find Domori’s single-origin Caranero bar on the list. Or a hot masala milk chocolate from Dolfin. Or a strawberry and pepper dark chocolate bar from Hachez.
These are not the kind of chocolates you stuff down your gullet to satisfy those mid-afternoon hunger pangs. These chocolates pack intense flavors – and often hefty price tags – that require you to spend some time with them, to take small bites and really savor them.
“The only secret to chocolate tasting is patience,” Blaine says. “Waiting for the flavor to bloom is the real key.”
Says Gordon, “There’s a protocol for eating the chocolate, much like there is for drinking wine.”
First, you’ll want to have a glass of plain water at your side to clear your palate, Gordon says.
Make sure your chocolate is at room temperature. You’ll get the most flavor that way, he says.
You might want to start with a bite of a familiar chocolate, such as Hershey’s Special Dark, by way of comparison.
Next, open the chocolate bar’s wrapper and smell it.
“Does it smell of chocolate? Does it smell of sugar? What’s your first impression?” he says.
Then, take a look at the bar. It should have a nice sheen.
Snap off a piece. It should make a clean, crisp break. The higher the percentage of cocoa in the bar, the stronger the snap, Gordon says. If chocolate crumbles at the snap, it might have been stored improperly.
Finally, you can take a bite. Chew a couple of times and let it melt a bit, he says. Push the liquidy mass toward the front of your tongue and inhale deeply.
“You might get an even-stronger impression of sweetness,” he says. “You’ll have an initial flavor impression, then a secondary flavor impression, then a third as the chocolate leaves your mouth.”
Higher quality chocolates will give off many more levels of flavor than cheaper ones.
So, what’s the big deal with those expensive, single-origin chocolate bars? Most chocolate bars, even high-quality ones, are made of a blend of cocoa beans from multiple plantations. They are tested and designed to taste the same year after year. With single-origin bars, the flavor changes with differences in each harvest.
“Chocolate is much the same way as wine,” Blaine says. “When it’s grown, the soil and climate and the location determine much of the flavor.”
Besides the possible direct health benefits of chocolate, there’s a secondary boon to eating high-quality bars: You don’t need to eat as much of it to get your fill.
At Latah Bistro, tables of four often share one 3-ounce chocolate sampler plate, Blaine says.
“I really doubt four people would ever share a Snickers bar that long,” he says.
Gourmet chocolate straight out of its foil wrapper is always sublime, but here are some recipes that take advantage of that deep flavor (just try not to eat all of your chocolate before you get a chance to cook with it):
From Martha Stewart Living
8 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
Assorted coatings, such as crushed peppermint candies, toasted sweetened shredded coconut, finely chopped pistachios or other nuts, and cocoa powder
Place chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring cream to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat; pour over chocolate. Let sit 2 to 3 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Refrigerate (uncovered) until somewhat firm, about 1 hour.
Spoon mounds (2 level teaspoons each) of chocolate mixture onto a large baking sheet lined with parchment or wax paper. Return to refrigerator for 15 minutes.
With your hands, roll mounds into balls. Place desired coatings in shallow bowls; roll balls in coatings, pressing in and covering completely. Return to baking sheet; chill until set, about 30 minutes. To store, refrigerate in a single layer in airtight containers up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 24 truffles
Approximate nutrition per truffle, without additional coatings: 69 calories, 5 grams fat (3 grams saturated, 63 percent fat calories), less than 1 gram protein, 6 grams carbohydrate, 7 milligrams cholesterol, less than one gram dietary fiber, 3 milligrams sodium.
Molten Chocolate Cakes with Raspberries and Cream
From Emeril Lagasse, www.foodnetwork.com
1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter, plus 1/4 pound (1 stick)
4 teaspoons all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons heavy cream, cold
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup heavy cream, cold
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon nut-flavored liqueur
1/2 pint fresh raspberries
4 sprigs mint
Sweetened cocoa, as garnish
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Grease and flour 4 (6-ounce) ramekins or baking dishes with the 1 1/2 teaspoons of butter and 1 teaspoon of flour in each, tapping out the excess flour. Set on a baking sheet.
In a double boiler, or a metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the remaining 1/4 pound of butter with the chocolate, cream, and powdered sugar, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat.
In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla and salt until thick ribbons form, about 3 minutes. Sift 2 tablespoons flour into the egg mixture and fold together. Fold the chocolate into the egg mixture. Divide among the prepared dishes and bake until the sides of the cake are set and the tops are puffed but still soft, about 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the ramekins for 2 minutes, then unmold onto dessert plates.
Meanwhile, in a bowl whip the cream until beginning to form soft peaks. Add the sugar and nut liqueur and beat until stiff peaks start to form. Spoon a dollop of the whipped cream on each unmolded cake, and garnish each plate with raspberries and a sprig of mint. Sprinkle cocoa over the cakes, and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 626 calories, 46 grams fat (27 grams saturated, 66 percent fat calories), 8 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrate, 290 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams dietary fiber, 117 milligrams sodium.
Dark Chocolate Mousse
4 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, diced
2 tablespoons espresso or hot water
1 cup heavy cream, cold
3 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon sugar
Combine the chocolate, butter and espresso in the top of a double boiler over hot, but not simmering, water, stirring frequently until smooth. Remove from the heat and let cool until the chocolate is just slightly warmer than body temperature. To test, dab some chocolate on your bottom lip. It should feel warm. If it is too cool, the mixture will seize when the other ingredients are added.
Meanwhile, whip the cream to soft peaks, then refrigerate. Once the melted chocolate has cooled slightly, whip the egg whites in a medium bowl until they are foamy and beginning to hold a shape. Sprinkle in the sugar and beat until soft peaks form.
When the chocolate has reached the proper temperature, stir in the yolks. Gently stir in about one-third of the whipped cream. Fold in half the whites just until incorporated, then fold in the remaining whites, and finally the remaining whipped cream.
Spoon or pipe the mousse into a serving bowl or individual dishes. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours. (The mousse can be refrigerated for up to a day.)
Yield: 8 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 250 calories, 21 grams fat (12 grams saturated, 75 percent fat calories), 4 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrate, 129 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 36 milligrams sodium.