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Cheers for Chocolate!

A tongue-tickler, an aphrodisiac, the divine snack, an anti-depressant, a pure delight, sinful – call it whatever you want, Chocolate is as interesting as it can ever be and it sure can turn one into an addict, no matter whichever part of the world you go in! Rightly termed as the wonder ingredient, who knew that the discovery of an ordinary bean from the tree Theobroma cacao found in the jungles of South and Central America would become a hot favourite of all ages around the world.

This fantastic ingredient hails from the cocoa beans of the cacao tree, majorly native to the tropical and subtropical countries, at about 15º-20° N-S of the equator on the world map. The source of the cocoa bean plays an essential role in deciding the quality of the chocolate, relating to which, regions such as South America, West Africa, Ecuador, Madagascar, etc. are some of the places where you would find the most superior quality cocoa beans. The four major varieties of cacao beans are Criollo, Forastero, Trinitario and Arriba/Nacional.

 

Bean to bar: How is chocolate made

Chocolate as we know it is the product of a long and complicated refining process that begins with the bean pods of the Theobroma cocoa tree. Theobroma cocoa literally means “food of the Gods,” and this name reflects both the heavenly taste of chocolate and the reverence Mayan and Aztec cultures had for this divine food.

1. The making of chocolate begins with the harvest of the cocoa pods. The pods are first split open to reveal the cocoa beans surrounded by a fruity pulp. This pulp is sometimes used to make drinks or desserts, as it has a pleasant fruity taste with subtle chocolate flavour. The beans and pulp are scraped from the pods and left to ferment in baskets for two to eight days. Without fermentation, the beans would be too astringent and bitter to enjoy.

2. Once the beans are fermented, they are spread out in a single layer and left to dry completely, usually in direct sunlight. After the beans are fully dried, they are packaged and shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world.

3. At the manufacturing facility, they are roasted to bring out the most intense chocolate flavours and colours. The time and temperature of the roasting depends on the type of beans and their relative moisture levels. After roasting, the beans are transferred to a winnower that removes the shells of the beans and leaves the “nibs” which is the essence of the cocoa bean that is full of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

4. The nibs are then ground to a thick, rich paste called chocolate liquor (a misleading term, since the product contains no alcohol). This liquor is the foundation for all chocolate products, and at last begins to resemble and smell like conventional chocolate. The liquor is pressed to remove the cocoa butter, which leaves a powdery disc known as “cocoa presscake.” Presscake, when pulverized, becomes common cocoa powder.

5. At this point, the chocolate process varies depending on the recipe and formulation of the manufacturer. If the chocolate is low quality, the pulverized “presscake” will be mixed with vegetable fats, sugar and flavourings to become substandard chocolate. If the chocolate is going to be higher quality, cocoa butter will be re-added to the chocolate liquor, along with other ingredients like sugar, vanilla and milk. White chocolate undergoes a similar process, except it does not contain chocolate liquor or cocoa powder. The mixture then travels through a series of rollers to smoothen out the texture before travelling to the conching machine.

6. Conching is the final step. The speed, temperature and length of the conching process determines the final texture and flavour of the chocolate, as conching smoothens the chocolate and mellows any remaining acidic tones. After conching, the chocolate is tempered in large machines that cool the chocolate to precise temperatures in order to produce shiny, smooth bars. Finally, the chocolate is poured into moulds, wrapped, and ready for shipping.

Components of the cocoa bean

The two main components of the cocoa bean are basically the ‘fats’ or the ‘cocoa butter’ and constitutes about 50-55% of the whole bean. The rest of the bean is composed of ‘non-fat solids’ and together, both these components make the ‘cocoa mass’ or ‘cocoa solids.’

Cocoa butter (fats) is colourless, the flavour carrier and is responsible for giving the texture and mouth-feel to the chocolate. On the other hand, non-fat solids are the flavouring component and gives taste in the chocolate.

The more preferred category of chocolate, i.e., the ‘Couverture’ chocolate, is made by combining the ‘cocoa mass’ with sugar, vanilla and the emulsifier lecithin (usually extracted from soya) where as the inexpensive category of chocolate, i.e., the ‘Coating/Glaze’ chocolate is derived by combining the ‘non-fat solids’ with vegetable fat, sugar, vanilla and emulsifier lecithin.

The separation of the ‘non-fat solids’ from the cocoa bean results in what is commonly known as ‘cocoa powder’ with some variable fat content. The higher the percentage of fat content in the ‘cocoa powder’, the superior is the quality. Also, this powder is acidic in nature, so it is treated with an alkali, in a process called Dutch Process, to make it richer, darker, less acidic and has less tendency to settle out when combined with liquids. This way it is also made suitable for dishes that call for baking powder.

Cooking with chocolate

The two broad categories, into which chocolate is divided into, in terms of cooking, are ‘Couverture’ and ‘Coating’ chocolate. The latter is also known as Glazing and Pate Glace. When comparing, which among the two is best suited for cooking, the ‘Couverture’ scores over the ‘Coating’ type, inspite of the ‘Coating’ type being cheaper and easy to handle. Some obvious reasons for the ‘Couverture’ type to be better are: it provides a better flavour to the recipe, it provides a better mouth-feel, it makes the recipe the most appealing and it is healthier.

Easy to store and handle, the ‘Coating’ type is usually darker and bitter and also seen more in the market. On the other hand, you must look for a fruity taste, acidic nature, cocoa content and cocoa butter content in a piece of chocolate to get the best quality of ‘Couverture’ chocolate. 

For optimal effect, choose the darkest chocolate you can find. These chocolates are highest in cocoa content, rich and intense in flavour, and they just may boost your health and your mood in delightful ways. Dark chocolate has high percentage of cocoa solids and is now being promoted as heart-friendly food. 

• When melting chocolate, make sure all the equipment are completely dry. Any moisture in the utensils/container may cause the chocolate to stiffen. To rectify the error, stir in half to one teaspoon of melted shortening for every ounce of chocolate.

• In order to minimize the cooking time, chop chocolate bars into squares or smaller pieces before melting them.

• Chocolate melts easily in a microwave and there is less danger of scorching.

• Store grated chocolate in the freezer. It is easier to work with frozen chocolate since you can scoop out as much as you need.

• White or milk chocolate make better chocolate shavings because they are a softer chocolate and will curl better.

• While melting chocolate add a spoonful of butter to the chocolate for a smoother consistency and richer flavour.

• To prevent your chocolate cake from having white streaks on the brown crusts, dust greased cake pans with cocoa instead of flour.

• For bananas that are ripe and ready to eat but you have too many, peel the bananas and freeze them then dip in melted chocolate and freeze again, these make a nice treat!

• Have a bag of chocolate chips on hand? Just sit the whole bag in a bowl of very hot water, and mush the bag up every couple of minutes until all the chocolate has melted and there are no lumps. Snip the corner of the bag and squeeze out the melted chocolate directly onto the cake.

• When you are looking for dark cooking chocolate remember that it can be available as pure unsweetened chocolate under the name of bitter chocolate or baking chocolate.

• When making chocolate cake, add dried and powdered orange peels for yummy taste.

• Never use a wooden spoon to stir chocolate because it adds unwanted moisture.

The white counterpart

There’s a white partner of the rich, dark brown chocolate called ‘white chocolate’ that is nothing but cocoa butter along with sugar, milk powder, vanilla and the emulsifier lecithin. One thing to keep in mind while buying a good white chocolate is to make sure that it contains cocoa butter as some inferior brands contain vegetable fats.

This rich, creamy, sweet and subtle-flavoured chocolate makes it best suited for baking purposes as it complements other ingredients. This chocolate is very delicate and thus, should be always melted on very low heat in order to avoid burning. Also, the while setting, it happens to be softer than the dark chocolate as it contains milk solids.

Is white chocolate caffeine-free?

Yes, white chocolate is caffeine free and it is also chocolate-free! That might sound odd to you but it is a fact that white chocolate is simply the fat from the cacao bean (the cocoa butter) mixed with milk solids and sugar. It contains none of those wonderful, delicious cocoa bean solids that give chocolate its unique character and rich colour and flavour. If you choose to have white chocolate to avoid chocolate’s caffeine, bear in mind that cocoa butter is a highly saturated fat. To add more problems the so-called white chocolate confectionery is not even made with cacao fat. It is often made with hydrogenated vegetable oils (ghee). Be sure to read the ingredients list on the label before consuming white chocolate.

Cocoa and its derivatives

• Cocoa powder: This is obtained by grinding cocoa beans and it must contain at least 20 % cocoa butter.

• Extra plain chocolate: This contains at least 45 % cocoa.

• Light cocoa powder: This contains at least 1.8 % cocoa butter.

• Milk chocolate: Milk or dehydrated milk products are added, sometimes with cream, butter or butter fats. It must contain at least 25 % cocoa, 14 % milk products, 3.5 % butter fats. The saccharose must not exceed 55 %.

• Ordinary chocolate: This is made from cocoa paste, cocoa powder or cocoa granules, saccharose and sometime cocoa butter, it must contain at least 30 % cocoa butter.

• Soluble cocoa: Cocoa powder that has undergone carbonated steam treatment.

• Superior or very fine plain chocolate: This contains at least 43 % cocoa.

• Superior or very fine milk chocolate: This contains at least 30 % cocoa, 18 % milk based products and 4.5 % butterfat.

• Sweetened cocoa powder: Cocoa powder mixed with saccharose and containing at least 32 % cocoa.

• White chocolate: A mixture of saccharose (no more that 55%), cocoa butter (at least 20 %), milk or dehydrated milk derivatives (at least 14 %) and sometimes also cream. Colouring agents are always strictly forbidden.

Chocolate and health

Consume it in moderation, and it does great to your health as well. Check out some lesser known chocolate facts related with health:

1. Eating chocolate can lower the risks of a stroke, especially in women. Chocolate eaters are also known to be les stressed.
2. Chocolate, especially the dark one, is known to have benefits for the hearts including lower blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol and lower risks of heart diseases. It is also known to have inflammation-fighting properties that reduce cardiovascular risk.
3. Planning to diet, include some chocolate in your diet as it can keep you full – so you end up eating less!
4. Eating chocolate regularly increases insulin sensitivity and hence reducing risk for diabetes.
5. The darker versions of this wonder ingredient are good for the skin. Chocolate contains flavonoids that help to protect the skin from the UV damage from the sun.
6. Treat those hard coughs with chocolate – theobromine in chocolates reduces the activity of the vagus nerve, the part of the brain that triggers coughs.
7. The cocoa in chocolate has some great properties like anti-clotting, blood-thinning, etc.
8. Chocolate is known to boost the blood flow, so it also increases the blood flow to retina, thereby improving the vision. 

Of all forms of cocoa-derived products, the maximum benefits will be gained from consuming fat-free pure cocoa powder, which is rich in all the constituents described above. But most people prefer chocolate with a bit of rich sweetness.

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