- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I come from a family of chocoholics.

My mother baked chocolate cake almost every week, and she passed on the chocolate-loving gene to my brother and me. Liora, my niece, clearly inherited it, too. She graduated from being a milk chocolate lover to a chocolate connoisseur whose chocolate of choice is “70 percent dark.” Like Liora, more and more chocolate-loving Americans profess a preference for dark, deep-flavored chocolates.

My taste turned to bittersweet when I was studying cooking and baking in Paris. The chocolate our pastry chefs used most of the time was bittersweet. I nearly became addicted to ganache, which we made from only two ingredients: quality bittersweet chocolate and cream. This luscious frosting needed no sugar at all and was a departure from the sweet confectioners’ sugar icings I grew up with.

To make truffles, chef Albert Jorant, the virtuoso pastry chef at L’Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, taught us to dunk balls of the ganache in melted dark couverture chocolate, a special dipping chocolate rich in cocoa butter. Finally, the truffles were rolled in unsweetened cocoa — no sugar added. They were scrumptious.

In the chocolate aisles at the supermarket, you can see immediately that chocolate isn’t what it used to be. When I was growing up, there was milk chocolate for snacking and unsweetened and semisweet squares for baking, as well as semisweet chocolate chips. Now we have a great number of delicious selections.

At good markets, you can choose between 60, 70 or even 80 percent or higher dark chocolate. The percentage refers to how much pure cocoa bean the chocolate contains.

Chocolate is made from beans that grow in pods on the cacao tree in Central and South America and in Africa. The beans are roasted, and then their centers, called nibs, are ground to make chocolate liquor (which contains no alcohol). If the fat, known as cocoa butter, is removed from the chocolate liquor, what is left is cocoa powder.

The percentage of cacao means the proportion of these 3 components — chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa powder — which chocolate producers use in varying proportions. Sometimes it’s labeled cacao mass or cocoa percentage.

Manufacturers differ in how they define chocolate as semisweet, bittersweet or extra-bittersweet. One producer’s bittersweet might be sweeter than another’s semisweet. Using the cacao percentage clears up the confusion, as it gives you a much more accurate idea of the chocolate’s sweetness. The higher the percentage of cacao, the deeper the chocolate flavor. When a percentage is included, “dark” has become the adjective of choice instead of semisweet and bittersweet.

Unsweetened chocolate is 100 percent cacao, and for most palates it is too bitter to be enjoyed on its own. At the other end of the spectrum is white chocolate, which has a mild, sweet taste because it is made of cocoa butter, milk and sugar, and no cocoa powder.

Although most consider chocolate accented with citrus, coffee, mint or other flavors eating chocolates, Maurice and Jean-Jacques Bernachon of the famous Bernachon Chocolaterie in Lyon recommend using them in desserts as well. In their book, “La Passion du Chocolat,” they make ganache with cinnamon chocolate, moka ganache with coffee-flavored chocolate, and even tea ganache from tea-flavored chocolate.

Mexican chocolate is a flavored chocolate generally used to make hot chocolate. Seasoned with cinnamon and sugar, it comes in six-sided bars and is less smooth than European and American chocolate.

According to the Bernachons, Aztec Emperor Montezuma liked cocoa’s bitterness and added chilies to give it an even “wilder” taste. When the Spanish brought cocoa to the Old World, the Europeans added sugar to tame it. In our newfound appreciation of bitterness, some of us share Montezuma’s predilection. I’ve even found chocolates flavored with chilies.

In some specialty markets you can see chocolates with such names as Caraibe, from the Caribbean, or Manjari, from Madagascar, made by chocolate producers who, like wine makers, highlight the origins of their cacao beans. Cacao beans, like grapes and coffee beans, differ in flavor and quality depending on where they grow.

Some tout the merits of specific cacao varieties growing on one estate, like varietal wines made from grapes from a single vineyard. Valrhona, a French company, calls its top-of-the-line chocolates Grand Crus, the term that designates France’s time-honored Bordeaux wines. Ghirardelli, an American company, gives advice on matching different chocolates with other foods and with beverages, similar to sommeliers’ advice on pairing wine and foods.

Part of the reason for Americans’ growing taste for dark chocolate might be the encouraging news from nutritionists. Our beloved snack can be good for us, although sugar and milk fat, which are found in generous proportions in white and milk chocolate, are not what the dietitian orders. The caveat is, chocolate in moderate quantities can be healthy, as long as it is dark chocolate — the darker the better.

MELTING CHOCOLATE

• Chop the chocolate in small pieces. Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a bowl set above a pan of hot water over low heat. Do not cover the chocolate. Stir occasionally as the chocolate melts, and remove it from above the hot water as soon as it is melted.

• To melt chocolate in the microwave, chop the chocolate and put the pieces in a bowl. Microwave it uncovered on 50 percent power. Check it frequently because even when the chocolate is ready, the microwaved pieces hold their shape and don’t look “melted,” and thus can easily scorch. When the pieces feel soft to the spoon, remove them and stir until smooth.

• If you are melting chocolate in liquid, as in making chocolate sauce, you can heat the chocolate in the liquid in a heavy saucepan over very low heat.

Chocolate chip and pine nut bars

These golden brownies, sweetened with brown sugar and studded with chocolate chips and pine nuts, are light-textured but rich and buttery. If you prefer, use a mixture of dark, milk and white chocolate chips.

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, slightly softened

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2/3 cup pine nuts (about 3 ounces)

1 cup 60 percent dark, bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips

1/4 cup pine nuts, if desired (for sprinkling)

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- to 9-1/2-inch-square baking pan. Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl.

Cream butter in a large bowl. Add sugars; beat until smooth and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating very thoroughly after each addition. Beat in 2 tablespoons flour mixture at low speed. Add vanilla; beat until blended. Stir in remaining flour mixture. Stir in 2/3 cup pine nuts and chocolate chips.

Transfer batter to prepared pan; spread evenly. Sprinkle evenly with 1/4 cup pine nuts. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until mixture is brown on top, pulls away slightly from sides of pan, and a toothpick inserted into center comes out nearly clean. Cool in pan on a rack. Cut into approximately 11/4-by-13/4-inch bars, using the point of a sharp knife. Makes 16 to 20 bars.

Easy pecan-coated chocolate truffles

A high proportion of cream makes the centers of these truffles so soft they melt quickly in your mouth. Their velvety texture is a wonderful contrast to the crunch of toasted pecans. You can refrigerate the truffles in a container up to 1 week, or you can freeze them.

2 large navel oranges

1 cup whipping cream or heavy cream

10 ounces 60 percent dark or bittersweet chocolate, very finely chopped

1 cup chopped pecans, lightly toasted

Using a vegetable peeler, pare colored part of orange peel in long strips, without including white pith. Heat cream with orange strips in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until bubbles form around edge of pan. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand 20 minutes. Strain into a medium bowl.

Melt chocolate in a medium bowl over nearly simmering water. Stir until smooth. Remove from water; cool 5 minutes. Add hot cream all at once; whisk until blended. Cool to room temperature. Scrape down mixture with a rubber spatula. Cover with a paper towel and plastic wrap and refrigerate, occasionally stirring gently, about 1½ hours or until just thick enough to pipe.

Line 2 trays with foil. Have ready a pastry bag with a large plain tip, about 5/8-inch diameter. Using a paper clip, close end of bag just above tip so mixture will not run out. Fill bag. Remove paper clip. Pipe mixture in small mounds or “kisses,” about 3/4 inch in diameter and 1 inch high, onto prepared trays, spacing mounds about 1 inch apart. (If you don’t have a pastry bag, use 2 teaspoons to shape the mixture in mounds.) Cover and refrigerate 3 hours or until firm.

Remove a chocolate mound from its tray, keeping second tray in refrigerator. Press mound into a ball; return to tray. Repeat with remaining mounds. Quickly roll each ball between your palms until smooth. If truffles soften too much during rolling, refrigerate mounds for 5 minutes and continue. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours or until firm.

Line 2 trays with foil. Put pecans in a shallow bowl or tray. Roll truffles in nuts, 1 at a time, pressing so nuts adhere. Transfer to trays; refrigerate 1 hour or until firm. Serve cold in candy papers. Makes about 48 small truffles.

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