My mother loved chocolate. She knew and understood it just as a wine master knows and understands wine. When she made some of her old world style bittersweet hot chocolate, the aroma filled every corner of our small apartment. Other days she might make one of her many chocolate fudge recipes, cakes, pies, puddings, brownies, or some other chocolate goodies. Consistent with her nature, she shared all of these treats with neighbors, friends, family, and anyone who was lucky enough to pay us a visit.
A few weeks ago I was struck with a hard to resist urge for a cup of Nanna V's old world style hot chocolate. I started to rummage through her old suitcase full of recipes trying to find, as she used to say, "a hot chocolate formula." I found several hot chocolate recipes stuffed in a large manila envelope along with two tattered notebooks. In one notebook my mom had scrawled a bunch of her chocolate recipes, along with some interesting facts about how chocolate is made. The other notebook was full of detailed notes on candy making. There I found the secret to the dozens of elegant candies and other treats that she gave as gifts to everyone during the holidays. After a few minutes of browsing through this newfound treasure it occurred to me that there was fun to be had with this stuff. I selected a bunch of the chocolate recipes and headed for the supermarket with my three kidsSarah, Jason, and Michael. They're a nosy bunch that never lets me go on shopping expeditions alone, especially if they suspect I'm working on some new recipes. We returned home with enough chocolate, sugar, and other related ingredients to start our own dessert shop. I didn't waste time. I whipped up a batch of hot chocolate right away.
During the following three weeks the kids and I used my mom's recipes to prepare a variety of chocolate desserts and beverages. We made cakes, brownies, pies, puddings, six chocolate drink formulas, and more fudge than I can remember.
Nutritive and storage value of chocolate
Chocolate is a high caloric food due to its cocoa butter (a vegetable fat) content. Combine this with the sugar found in chocolate candy and you have concentrated energy in a very small package. Chocolate also contains caffeine, the same stimulant found in coffee. So, as you are assembling your disaster food supply, don't forget candy, especially chocolate.
Chocolate has long been considered a lightweight and nutritious survival food by the United States Army. Three 4-ounce chocolate bars have been a standard part of the Army's D-rations since World War II. Researchers have even found a natural way to raise the low melting point of chocolate above 105 degrees F. Minute quantities of water are added to the chocolate formula to prevent the fats from blending together. This made it possible for soldiers to carry their D-ration chocolate bars during the Gulf War.
Chocolate, when stored as cocoa powder, has a reasonably long shelf life because of its low fat content. Higher fat-containing chocolate stores very well at root cellar temperatures (48° to 55° F) or refrigerator temperatures. But hard chocolate (milk or bittersweet chocolate) can undergo "fat bloom" or "sugar bloom" in which the fat or sugar crystallizes while in storage, and develop those unappetizing light spots. Despite these spots it is still edible and retains its food value. It is also interesting that the chocolate content in
milk chocolate helps to keep the milk in the chocolate from going rancid, and thereby adds to
its shelf life.
Few of us would consider candy a health food but all of us have had moments when some form of candy has been beneficial to the soul. Children, especially, will benefit from a mouth watering piece of candy during stress-filled times.
My children are hard-nosed food critics. They even formed a food review panel to critique my recipes. Any recipe included in these columns must first get a unanimous thumbs up from the panel. It took many serious tasting sessions, followed by a lot of lively conversation, before the panel finally gave me an accordant vote on the following three recipes.
Also, Sarah made a special request. "Hey, Dad, when you do the recipe article, tell the folks some of that cool stuff about cacao trees and how chocolate is made. Nanna V would like that." What is it about 13-year-old girls that turns fathers to mush?
The word cocoa is a modification of the Spanish word cacao. The two words are often used interchangeably, but for the trees and beans, from which we get all things chocolate, we usually use the word cacao. The cacao tree is a tropical evergreen belonging to the theobroma genus. Literally translated from Greek roots, theobroma means "drink of the gods." These delicate trees originated and continue to thrive in the hot, damp rain forest climate of the South American river valleys. Being very sensitive to light, cacao trees grow in semidarkness under the protective mantle of taller trees. These unique growing conditions exist exclusively in a band around the earth that extends 20 degrees above and below the equator.
Cacao trees were first cultivated by the Mayas around the 7th century A.D. They carried the seed north from the tropical Amazon forests to what is now Mexico. In the 16th century the Spanish planted cacao trees across South America, into Central America, and onto the Caribbean Islands. In the 17th century the Dutch transported the cacao tree to other places around the globe like Java, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, New Guinea, and the Philippines. Early in the 19th century the Portuguese planted cacao trees on an island off the west African coast. By the end of the century they were being cultivated on the African mainland along the Ivory Coast. Today these combined tropical regions produce over two million tons of cacao beans. The finest and most sought after beans, however, are still grown in the New World.
The Maya, Toltec, and Aztec people of early Mexico prepared a hot chocolate drink of ground roasted cacao beans mixed with chili peppers and water. This popular combination of ingredients produced a very bitter, sharp tasting drink.
The first Europeans to discover the cacao bean were crew members sailing with Christopher Columbus on his fourth, and last, voyage to the New World in 1502. Columbus returned to Spain with a sack of cacao beans. Little interest, however, was shown in the bitter, sharp tasting drink that the beans produced.
Cortez and Montezuma
Seventeen years later the Spanish navigator, Hernan Cortez, sailed to the New World to plunder the West Indies. When he reached the mainland, the Aztec king, Montezuma, thinking Cortez to be a god returning to claim his lost kingdom, presented him with an abundance of treasures from the Aztec empire. This included a large amount of cacao beans. Unlike Columbus, Cortez immediately saw potential economic value in cacao. When he asked Montezuma where the treasures were, he was taken to a large stand of cacao trees. Cacao beans were the valued currency of the Aztecs. With a wealth of cacao beans in his possession, Cortez was able to trade for a fortune in gold. When Cortez returned to Spain in 1527 he brought with him a large cargo of cacao beans and a passion of his own for chocolate.
As Europeans began to colonize the New World they began planting sugar cane in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. One day someone came up with the idea of adding sugar to their chocolate drink hoping to make it more palatable. Well, the addition of sugar created an instant passion among the colonists. The infatuation with this new sweetened chocolate spread rapidly to other conquered territories and finally back to Europe. It is believed that chocolate was one of the factors that sparked the development of sugar plantations in the New World.
Nanna V's never-fail fudge
butter, margarine, or shortening for greasing a pan
1½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar, packed
2 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped into pieces
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2/3 cup evaporated milk
2 Tbsp. light corn syrup
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup pecans, broken into medium-size pieces
1. Carefully line a 9x5x3 loaf pan with a piece of aluminum foil large enough to extend over the edges of the pan. Coat the foil with butter, margarine, or vegetable shortening and set the pan aside.
2. Coat the sides of a heavy-bottom two-quart sauce pan and set the pan aside. This simple step will prevent any sugar from sticking to the sides of the pan and causing trouble later on.
3. In a suitably sized bowl combine the sugars, chopped baking chocolate, cocoa powder, evaporated milk, and corn syrup. Carefully stir the mixture with a wire whisk until all of the sugar is dissolved. Transfer the mixture to the heavy-bottom saucepan. Take great care not to splash any of the mixture on the sides of the pan.
4. Over medium heat bring the mixture to a slow boil while stirring constantly. Remember, it is important to avoid splashing any of the syrup onto the sides of the pan. Now clip the candy thermometer to the side of the pan. To get an accurate reading the fudge mixture must cover the bulb of the candy thermometer while the fudge is cooking and cooling. Continue to cook and stir the fudge until the thermometer reads the desired temperature. Without removing the thermometer, take the pan from the heat, and add the butter without stirring. Let the mixture cool until the thermometer reads 110 degrees F. Depending on the ambient temperature of your kitchen the cooling will take from 45 minutes to an hour. Note: If your candy thermometer is not designed so that it will clip to the pan, throw it away and buy one that does.
5. When the fudge has cooled to 110 degrees, add the vanilla. Now comes the tough part. Find a comfortable kitchen chair and sit down gripping the pan between your knees. Start stirring the fudge slowly with a wooden spoon to incorporate the butter. Continue stirring, as vigorously as possible until the fudge begins to lose its shine and starts to thicken. Now, quickly stir in the broken pecans. The fudge should be too thick to pour, so push the fudge into a smooth layer in the foil lined pan using your fingers. Avoid scraping the pan. Pan scrapings are usually too dry. I call Sarah, Jason, and Michael, give them each a spoon, and set the bowl on the table. The bowl is back on the counter, shiny clean, in about a minute.
6. When the fudge is firm, in about 15 minutes or sooner, use the foil to lift it from the pan and cut it into squares. When in a hurry, I skip molding the fudge into the pan. Instead, I turn the fudge onto my marble bread board, knead it until it becomes stiff and roll it into half ounce balls.
If you are new to candy making don't let all of the sugar syrup science stuff intimidate you. People have been making fudge for generations without knowing anything about the science behind saturated solutions. I include it because those of us who are serious about cooking want to know what is happening with our food at all times.
By the beginning of 17th century, hot chocolate gained a great deal of popularity among the wealthy Europeans. Europeans also valued chocolate for its nutritional and stimulating qualities (see sidebar). Many also believed chocolate to be an aphrodisiac and a cure for a variety of physical and mental disorders. Late in the 17th century the first ready-to-eat chocolate in solid form made its appearance in London. This new innovation became an immediate curiosity to chocolate lovers. But because of its dry crumbly texture, chocolate in this early solid form received a cool reception in Europe. However, changes for the better were on the way.
The American and French Revolutions, along with the Napoleonic Wars, brought the production and development of chocolate to a temporary halt. The return of peace in the early 1800s, followed by the Industrial Revolution, sparked important changes in the chocolate industry. Innovations by French and Dutch manufacturers improved both the taste and texture of chocolate in all forms. The improved chocolate products were supported by flourishing cacao bean production around the world. These advances paved the way to making chocolateonce a delicacy reserved only for the wealthyan everyday treat available to all.
The cacao tree
Cacao trees bear their fruit in the form of gourd-like pods that grow directly from the tree's trunk and the base of its larger branches. Each pod contains as many as 40 almond-shaped seeds embedded in a white bittersweet pulp. There are three main varieties of cacao beans grown around the world.
The original bean, cultivated by the Aztecs, carries the Spanish name, criollo, which means indigenous. This is the finest and most sought after cacao bean. It is very aromatic, with a slightly bitter flavor.
Next is the hardy, fast growing forestero, which means foreign in Spanish. The forestero has a very acidic aroma and a strong bitter flavor and represents over 80 percent of the world's cacao bean production. Africa is the largest producer of forestero cacao beans.
The third variety is a crossbreed between the criollo and the forestero. This variety is grown in several parts of the world and its quality depends on where it is grown. The finest of these beans are grown in Central and South America. These three main varieties have several sub varieties, each having their own characteristic flavor and aroma. Makers of the Grand Crus quality chocolates will use the finest single variety cacao bean they can find. However, the vast majority of chocolate products are made from the subtle blending of a variety of carefully chosen cacao beans.
Picking and fermentation
When cacao pods ripen they are cut from the tree by experienced pickers using razor sharp machetes. The pods are split open almost immediately and the seeds, covered by a sticky white pulp, are removed and piled into baskets. Anyone curious enough to taste one of the seeds at this point will experience a bitter, acrid taste not at all like chocolate. After being removed from the pod, the beans are allowed to ferment in the pulp.
During this magical process the embryo is destroyed, preventing germination, and nearly 500 substances inside of each bean become active. The final flavor of the bean is determined during this critical process.
Depending on the variety of bean, fermentation will be allowed to continue from three days to a week. The length of the fermentation will determine the strength the bean's final flavor. The longer the fermentation, the stronger the flavor. Each variety of bean, depending on where and how it is grown, requires a carefully calculated fermentation process. For some varieties, if the fermentation is too long the seeds can develop an overly strong, acrid flavor. For other varieties, too short a fermentation will leave the bean almost flavorless.
The final destination of the beans will most often determine the fermentation process. Beans shipped to most English speaking countries will be fermented for a short period, producing a fairly mild, almost bland flavor. Cacao beans intended for French markets will undergo a longer and slower fermentation which produces a strong, full-flavored bean.
Glazed spiced mocha brownies
This brownie recipe was one of the more recent additions to my mom's list of chocolate goodies. Along with the chocolate it contains many of her lifelong favorite flavor enhances: coffee, fresh nutmeg, almonds, and black pepper. That's right, black pepper. Even I was uncertain of how the pungent fungus-produced flavor of black pepper would blend with chocolate. Especially chocolate that is mellowed by sugar and a variety of aromatic ingredients. The uncertainty was quickly dispelled after taking my first bite from one these marvelous brownies. Since then I have made black pepper a standard flavor enhancer in many of my chocolate favorites, especially hot chocolate. This recipe really demonstrates my mother's passion for and knowledge of chocolate. There is enough chocolate in these brownies to satisfy the most diehard chocolate fans. The chocolate is enhanced with the subtle amounts of rich flavor enhancers like coffee, fresh nutmeg, and vanilla extract. Then a little black pepper and molasses is thrown in to add zip. The molasses, of course, is hiding in the brown sugar. Give these brownies a try and let me know what you think.
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate
6½ oz. unsalted butter
1/8 tsp. Kosher salt
½ tsp. powdered, instant espresso coffee
½ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
3 large eggs
¾ cup sifted all purpose flour
1 cup pecans, broken into large pieces
1. Prepare a 12-inch square baking pan by coating the sides and bottom with soft shortening. Place a piece of waxpaper, cut to fit, on the bottom of the pan. Coat the wax paper with soft shortening, dust it with flour, and shake off the excess. Set the prepared pan aside.
2. Place the bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler over medium heat. When the chocolate is melted, stir it with a wire whisk until it is smooth and set it aside to cool slightly.
3. Cream the butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Add the salt, instant coffee, black pepper, nutmeg, vanilla extract, and brown sugar. Beat the mixture until all of the ingredients are blended. Now add the eggs, one at a time, beating the mixture just enough to incorporate each egg. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatular after incorporating each egg.
4. With the mixer on low speed, add the melted chocolate, then the flour to this mixture. Stir the bowl using a rubber spatula to get the mixture away from the sides, then continue mixing, at low speed with the electric mixer, until all ingredients are incorporated.
5. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the nuts using a wooden spoon.
6. Turn the mixture into the pan, smooth the top, and bake for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the brownie comes out slightly moist. It is critical not to overbake this brownie. Doing so will give it a dry crumbly texture.
7. Remove the brownie from the oven and let cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Then place a cake rack over the pan and invert the pan and the rack together. Remove the pan and peel off the wax paper. Turn the brownie right side up by placing another cake rack over it and inverting the whole business once again.
Ingredients for semisweet chocolate glaze:
4 oz. semisweet chocolate
2 oz. sweet butter
1. Combine the semisweet chocolate pieces with the butter in a small double boiler over medium heat. When the chocolate is melted stir the mixture with a wire whisk until it is smooth.
2. Remove the chocolate from the heat and set it in the refrigerator to cool. Stir it occasionally until it is thick enough to spread without running down the sides of the brownie.
3. Spread the glaze on the brownie with a narrow-blade spatula, and place the brownie in the refrigerator until the glaze is set.
After fermentation is complete, the beans are usually sun dried for one to two weeks. They are then cleaned, sorted by size and color, packed into jute sacks, hermetically sealed, and stored in cool warehouses to await shipment. With shipping, the grower's job is usually done. Processing of the bean into chocolate is then preformed by manufacturers all over the world.
Art, science, or magic?
Preparing the dried beans for the production of chocolate and cocoa is a very sophisticated and precise process. As soon as the beans arrive at the manufacturer's factory they are fumigated and cleaned to remove any dried pulp or other matter. The beans are then roasted at a temperature ranging from 250 to 350 degrees F for thirty minutes to two hours. The roasting process sparks the many substances activated in the bean during fermentation into performing their alchemy. The slow roasting process creates subtle browning flavors which combine with these substances to develop the familiar aroma and flavor of chocolate in each bean. The exact time and temperature of roasting is dictated by the quality and variety of the bean. Each variety of bean is usually roasted separately to insure quality results. The beans are then blended according to the manufacturer's closely guarded formula.
After roasting, the beans are broken open and the shell is separated by controlled currents of air. The inner portion of the bean is now referred to as a nib. The nibs are ground into a thick paste, called chocolate liquor, which consists of small particles of nib suspended in an indigenous fat called cocoa butter. A second grinding is often performed to reduce the particle size of the nib to a desired range. Further processing of the nib depends on the intended product.
If cocoa powder is to be the end product, most of the cocoa butter is removed using a special press. The resulting paste is then formed into cakes and ground one more time. The resulting powder is sometimes treated with an alkaline solution to raise the pH of the powder from slightly acid to neutral. This simple process, called Dutching, darkens the cocoa, mellows its flavor, and makes it easier to mix the powder with a liquid. Of all chocolate products, cocoa powder contains the least amount of cocoa butterfrom 10 to 20 percent.
Chocolate liquor destined for production into baking chocolate or one of the many types of ready-to-eat chocolate is treated very differently from cocoa powder. Bitter chocolate, the type used solely for cooking, is chocolate liquor that has simply been molded into blocks without further treatment. It contains roughly 53 percent cocoa butter. Eating chocolate is further enhanced with cocoa butter, sugar, milk, vanilla, and other ingredients. The addition of these ingredients varies according to the type of chocolate being made. The three main varieties of eating chocolate are: bittersweet chocolate, sweet chocolate, and milk chocolate. Throughout the world chocolate manufacturers have their own carefully guarded secret formulas for making each of these varieties.
Ready-to-eat chocolate is also conched. Conching is a process that mellows the flavor of chocolate by evaporating excess moisture and volatile acids from the mixture. This unique process, which continues for several days, mixes the finely ground and blended chocolate at temperatures ranging from 130 to 160 degrees F while exposing it to a blast of fresh air.
Whatever the end product, and however it is made, chocolate is without a doubt one of the world's favorite foods. It is my hope that the simple, but fun recipes in this article will demonstrate for you that the cacao tree truly produces fruits deserving the title "food of the gods."
No-brain chocolate fudge
While growing up I watched my mother make tons of chocolate fudge and I don't remember ever seeing a recipe in her hand. I was convinced that even a novice candy maker like myself could make fudge. When I found what I believed to be her secret unseen recipe, I was sure that I had found a no-brain road to success.
All of those years watching her breeze through batch after batch of fudge, without any difficulty, gave me a false sense of confidence. So I set my mom's instructions aside, convinced that I could make fudge as well as she did.
After my third successive failure, however, my ego was displaced with a wave of common sense. In a desperate effort to avoid complete frustration I decided to sit down and carefully read my mother's detailed notes on fudge making. When I finished reading, I clearly understood what I was doing wrong. I also, for the first time, understood the true extent of my mother's candy making talent.
Fudge, according to my mother, is a special type of candy, because it can be made in an infinite number of flavor varieties. Each variety has some subtle differences in preparation. "But remember," she would say, "regardless of the variety, fudge is only a simple candy. And candy is easily made simply by cooking a concentrated sugar solution to the right temperature, then controlling how you bring it back to room temperature."
Old-fashioned hot chocolate
This recipe was given to my mother by a Jamaican woman who lived a few blocks from us. Mrs. Wheatly and my mother were always swapping recipes. My mom's notes say the recipe is Mrs. Wheatly's version of a 19th century French recipe she brought from Jamaica. As I said earlier, the rich mocha almond aroma of this wonderful hot chocolate will fill every room of your home. Also, it is not overly sweet, so you may want to have a sugar bowl at the table for those guests with a sweet tooth.
2 cups whole milk
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped into pieces
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. Kosher salt
2 Tbsp. unsweetened, Dutch process cocoa powder
1½ cups your favorite coffee, hot
1 cup light cream
1 Tbsp. pure almond extract
fresh whipped cream
1. Combine the milk and the chocolate pieces in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan over moderate heat. While stirring constantly with a wire whisk, heat the mixture until the chocolate is completely dissolved and the mixture is smooth.
2. Stir in the sugar, salt, and cocoa powder. Bring the mixture to a simmer and add the hot coffee and the light cream. Simmer the mixture for about 5 minutes.
3. Remove the cocoa from the heat, add the almond extract and serve immediately.
For an extra treat add a dollop of fresh whipped cream or a marshmallow. If you dare, add a little black pepper to taste.
All of this sounded easy to me, until I tried it. I had to go back to my mom's "fudge for dummies" notes for help. In short, this is what I learned:
Most fudge starts out as an 85 percent sugar syrup consisting of about a two-to-one sugar-to-liquid mixture. This is also called a saturated solution because the amount of sugar that can be dissolved in the liquid is at its limit. If any more sugar is added, even the smallest amount, it will not dissolve in this solution. But, if you now cook this mixture, much of the water evaporates, and the mixture becomes super saturated, that is, the mixture now has more sugar in solution than it should to be stable. But as long as the solution stays hot this super saturation is not a problem and the excess sugar will not precipitate out. But, as the solution starts to cool, it gradually becomes thick and sluggish. This slows the movement of the sugar molecules. Under these conditions the slightest disturbance of the mixture can cause these slow moving excess molecules to fall out of solution. This action continues until the solution is, once again, in saturated balance. Everything would probably be fine if all of these loose sugar molecules would just go away, but they don't. They hang out in the form of large ugly crystals that can make fudge dry and ugly. Fudge that has fallen victim to the precipitation monster usually has a sawdust texture.
Nanna V would also caution: "Never make fudge on a rainy day. All of that moisture in the air gets sucked into your fudge while it is cooling and turns it soft and runny. Also, once you start beating the fudge, don't stop until it is ready to mold into the pan. If you stop beating before the fudge is ready, those large ugly sugar crystals start forming. The only way to keep them under control is to keep stirring."
By following the simple preparation method accompanying my mom's recipe, you will be able to make delicious chocolate fudge every time, even if you don't understand the science behind the whole procedure. All you need is a heavy-bottom sauce pan, a strong wooden spoon, a candy thermometer, a strong arm for stirring, and a Nanna V chocolate fudge recipe.
The candy thermometer is the easy way to determine when a sugar solution reaches the soft ball stage. Depending on the type of fudge being made, the soft ball stage will be reached when the mixture reaches a temperature from 234 to 240 degrees F. This fudge will be at soft ball stage when the candy thermometer reads 238 degrees F when the weather is warm. When the weather is cold and dry it will reach soft ball at 236 F.
In my next column I will dig further into Nanna V's candy making notes. Making candy at home can be a rewarding family activity. Remember, all you need to make candy is water, sugar and a little know how.
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