Chocolate is almost a religion. It is worshipped and has followers. Universally loved, chocolate has long been the object of obsession. It can be politically correct, healthful, green, local, artisanal, organic, vegan, aromatic, complex, seductive, beguiling, powerful, and incomparably satisfying. Chocolate is satisfying. Just a few bites and you feel uplifted. Walk into a chocolate shop and the fragrance puts a smile on your face.
We have strong opinions about chocolate and everyone has their personal preference. We each have a favorite candy bar or flavor in a sampler box, and an opinion about brownies with or without nuts. We are very particular. I will often turn down milk chocolate (with the exception of Hershey Kiss). There is no wrong time for chocolate. My first trip to Holland was eye-opening. Chocolate sprinkles on toast for breakfast. France has pain au chocolat and let’s not forget Nutella, my sons’ object of obsession since their first bike trips to Europe at 16. Chocolate is for breakfast, lunch, dinner or anytime in between.
Here are some of my favorite tips for handling and preparing this lovely ingredient.
Quality. The best things to eat are made from the best ingredients. Quality does matter and chocolate is not an inexpensive ingredient. My favorite flourless chocolate cake recipe uses one pound of dark chocolate for a 9-inch cake. High quality chocolate is very accessible and can be found in grocery stores, ethnic grocers, even chain and discount stores. Look for bittersweet, semisweet, and unsweetened bars, blocks and cocoa from top purveyors. I am partial to Droste Dutch process cocoa powder, and Valrhona and Callebaut blocks. I also highly recommend Trader Joe’s house brand. To further enhance chocolate’s flavor, I often use coffee, espresso, instant coffee or coffee liqueur such as Kahlua. They add a roundness or richness to the finished product. Chocolate also pairs well with orange, raspberry, strawberry and nuts.
Use the right chocolate for the job. Chips don’t melt well. That’s why they are best for chocolate chip cookies. Blocks and bars are best as they allow options of chipping, shaving, and melting. Most recipes specify the type; bittersweet, semisweet, unsweetened or cocoa powder. Bitter and semi can often be interchanged, but unsweetened will need additional sugar. I barely use white chocolate. I love the look in a black and white chip cookie, but I’ve never really enjoyed it on its own.
Repertoire. Your chocolate repertoire doesn’t have to be very big. I bake the same cakes and cookies over and over. Anyone who entertains, celebrates, or just enjoys the simple pleasures of chocolate should have a recipe repertoire that includes a cake or two, a brownie and always a cookie or two. My recipes have been used for many years and they are guaranteed successes. When it comes to baking, repetition leads to perfection. Always remember baking is an exact science. It is the combination of ingredients creating a chemical reaction in a very warm environment.
For the best results, here are a few rules:
- Follow the recipe precisely
- Exact measurements, temperature, and timings are imperative
- Always read the recipe through several times. Understand what’s going on and have all ingredients ready, mis en place!
- Preheat the oven. Use a thermometer to check oven temp.
Equipment. Use the right top-quality tools and equipment. Make sure tools and pans are clean and dry. Always use parchment paper to line pans, when icing cakes, and for wrapping in storage. Spatulas are a must, rubber for scraping bowls, metal and off-set for applying and smoothing. The right tools make baking with chocolate much easier.
Storage. Do not store chocolate in the refrigerator. It requires 60-70°, with less than 50% humidity. Also, do not store chocolate near anything with strong smells as it is very absorbent.
In my area of the Hudson Valley are some outstanding chocolate makers. Oliver Kita and Fruition are my neighbors, and they each produce some amazing products. Bryan Graham at Fruition is doing bean to bar by buying, roasting and grinding his own cocoa beans into the finest bars and confections. By popular demand, Oliver has started a line of Hudson Organics that is totally vegan. Artisanal chocolate makers are cropping up all over, check out your area for local producers.
What’s your favorite sweet or savory recipe that uses chocolate?
Photo Credit: Fruition
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