- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

I bet you are thinking about giving a gift of chocolate to someone special for Valentine’s Day. The usual box of drugstore chocolates just won’t cut it, however. If you love your honey and want to give bars of high-quality boutique chocolate, you’d best be prepared to spend more than a quarter. These are grown-up chocolates for grown-up tastes and wallets.

Chocolate has come into its own in the past decade. Specialty chocolatiers are introducing dark, luscious and not-so-sweet chocolate that has a complexity of flavors.

Lovers of fine chocolate are finding that flavors are not necessarily linked to a manufacturer but to the place where the chocolate beans are grown and how they are blended.

It’s not snob appeal. It’s the exquisite refinement of one of the world’s favorite flavors. Just as olives from southern Spain and coffee from Guatemala have unique flavors, the chocolates from specific growing areas have subtle but distinct flavors, too.

Varietal and estate are the buzzwords in chocolate. High-end chocolate bars are made from cacao beans grown from a single variety of bean or a single plantation or estate. (Compare it to a wine region — say, the Rhone Valley or a single vineyard within it.) Others are made from blends of cacao beans.

Some of the best and most sought-after beans come from Venezuela and Ecuador and their equator-belt neighbors. Other chocolate-producing areas include Trinidad, Madagascar, Java and the Ivory Coast.

There are flavor beans, which are expensive and rare, and bulk beans. It is how they are blended that makes the difference.

“Americans grew up with sweet milk chocolate. Now with palates educated by travel and fine food and wine, people are ready to explore refined flavors,” says Amy Rosenfield, owner of Mon Aimee Chocolat in Pittsburgh. Her shop is one of just a handful in the United States that specializes in artisanal chocolates.

Picnic tables, benches, cabinets and display cases are piled high with chocolate from more than 36 countries, many with exclusive derivation. Burlap bags that once were filled with cacao beans hang from the walls, adding subtle aromas.

“Some of the best chocolates come from Venezuela in a region south of Lake Maracaibo,” Miss Rosenfield says. “The humid conditions there are superior for growing cacao. El Rey, in business since 1929, is now a state-of-the-art manufacturer of chocolates from that region. It makes single-bean-origin bars to die for.”

She says the best way to buy a chocolate bar is to read the label. “You want only four ingredients,” she says. “Cacao, sugar, cacao butter and vanilla. There will also be something like soy lecithin as an emulsifier. If you see sugar as a first ingredient, vanillin (artificial vanilla) or hydrogenated oils, move on.”

Some names in the top ranks of chocolate makers are El Rey, Valrhona, Guittard, Michel Cluizel and Galler. Prices for these range from $3.50 to $7 for a 3.5-ounce bar. Some connoisseurs consider these the best in the world.

When ready to bake that chocolate cake, consider three things: taste, value and the form in which you buy the chocolate.

• Any baking chocolate should taste good when eaten out of hand. Buy several kinds, then taste them at home.

• Think about what you are making. Because their subtleties would be muted in a recipe with multiple flavors and textures, it makes no sense to chop up expensive chocolates for, say, brownies. Buy the best supermarket brand available and, again, read the label.

• Chocolate comes in squares, bars and thick blocks. Because chocolate is best eaten fresh, choose the form that best suits your cooking habits. Many upscale grocers chop large blocks of good chocolate and sell smaller chunks in plastic bags. That’s a good deal. Look for it.

Whatever you choose, for best results, store chocolate in a cool and dry place, chop it evenly when called for and melt it gently. Expect it to keep for a year at cool room temperature.

Taste is subjective. You may love the flavor of complex chocolates, or you may decide that you prefer the familiar flavor of the supermarket brands you have known since childhood.

If you want to fine-tune your taste for chocolate, do it yourself or gather some friends and hold a dark-chocolate tasting. Select just six kinds. More could lead to tongue fatigue. The chocolate should be at room temperature.

Chop or break it into small pieces, with no more than 2 to 3 ounces per person. Each person should have pieces arranged around a plate like numbers on a clock, and each person should have a pencil and paper to write comments. Choose someone to act as a leader as each piece is examined and tasted. The leader also can have whole bars to read from the label and pass around. Have a pitcher of still, not sparkling, water on hand to cleanse the palate.

Here’s how to taste. As you will see, it is a very sensuous business:

• See. Look at the color. It should be dark brown. There should not be white streaks (called bloom) on the surface of the chocolate. This is usually caused by heat or moisture. It doesn’t affect the flavor, but it indicates that the chocolate wasn’t stored correctly.

• Hear. Hold a bar or large piece firmly between the thumb and forefinger at each end and quickly snap the bar in half. Fine chocolate should give a nice snap with a smooth surface along the break. A bite of a large chunk will sound the same. It is the crystalline structure of the cocoa butter that gives chocolate its distinct, crisp snap.

• Smell. Notice the aroma by inhaling along the surface of the break. It should smell pleasing like, well, chocolate.

• Touch. Fine chocolate melts at slightly below body temperature. Hold a piece in your hand. It will begin to melt after a few minutes because cocoa butter is solid up to 91.4 degrees and melts at 93.2 degrees.

• Taste. Place a piece on your tongue for just a bit before chewing. Gently press it to the roof of the mouth. Here comes that velvety melting sensation we love so much. Now chew, taste and swallow.

• Wordplay is an important part of the tasting. Think about how it tastes. Some chocolate lovers can detect flavors of berries, apricot, currant, green olive, even licorice. Do you sense a slight, subtle aftertaste? Can you name it? Now take a sip of water and move on to the next nibble.

Marbled cheesecake bars

Chocolate crust (recipe follows)

3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated)

3 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, melted

Prepare chocolate crust. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese until fluffy. Gradually add sweetened condensed milk, beating until smooth. Add eggs and vanilla, and mix well.

Pour half of batter evenly over prepared crust. Stir melted chocolate into remaining batter; drop by spoonfuls over the vanilla batter. With a metal spatula or knife, swirl gently through batter to make a marble effect. Bake in 300-degree oven 45 to 50 minutes or until set. Cool in pan on a wire rack.

Refrigerate several hours until chilled. Cut into bars. Cover and store leftover bars in refrigerator. Makes 24 to 36 bars.

CHOCOLATE CRUST:

2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs (about 60 wafers)

⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

In a medium bowl, stir together vanilla wafer crumbs, cocoa and confectioners’ sugar. Stir in melted butter until well blended. Press mixture firmly into bottom of 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking pan.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES INTERNATIONAL

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