By Granville Wood
In the 2000 movie “Chocolat,” Juliette Binoche plays a nomadic chocolatier who lands in a small, uptight French town. It is here where she seduces the townspeople with her exotic, Mayan confections. Heady, chili-infused cacao beverages and nuggets of pure, unadulterated pleasure arouse even the most stoic of figures. And for the female audience, there is eye-candy – in the form of Johnny Depp, a river-rat gypsy.
With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, what encapsulates the essence of the day better than chocolate? The bitter-sweet fruit of the cacao tree has been presented to many a lovely lady in the form of chocolate confections over the years by a romantic suitor as a sweet symbol of their love and affection. (Theobroma cacao, “The Food of the Gods”)
It was the curious Olmec and Mayan Indians of Central America and the Yucatan respectively that can be thanked for the gift of chocolate. For without their curiosity and culinary abilities, who knows what the outcome of cacao would have been. Cacao is the seed of the cacao tree (a fruit, actually) and presents itself in the flowers as pods that grow on its trunk and boughs. Cracked open, the pods or nuts reveal the seed, which, when fermented, roasted or dried and ground, begins the process of chocolate making. It has been said, “Where there is cacao, there is life.”
Originating in South America and traveling to Central America and Mexico, the cacao tree flourished. It was those intrepid Spanish explorers, Cortez in particular, who took note of the value placed on the beans by the Aztecs. The beans were in fact a form of currency deemed as valuable as gold and jewels. The Spanish spread the cultivation of cacao throughout the Caribbean and, of course, brought the beans home to Spain. Cacao plantations now flourish in countries around the world that are within close proximity to the equator.
Cacao beans are graded and valued by their terrior, similar to those of grapes used in the making of wine. Beans vary in quality and flavor depending on where they are grown and what type of bean they are. The two prominent beans are “criollo,” originating in South America and traveling to Mesoamerican and “forastero,” a native of the Amazon rainforest basin. But another bean became a player in the game, named after the island of Trinidad, where the promiscuous criollo and forastero cross-pollinated to create the bean, “trinitario.”
In the 1800’s Swiss and Dutch chocolatiers developed a means of making the chocolate smoother by “conching,” which involved grinding the roasted cacao with sugar. This method created the chocolate that we are now familiar with and birthed commercial production of chocolate. This could be eaten in the form of candy and not just restricted to its use as a beverage. What makes one chocolate better than another is the amount of cacao and cacao butter – a candy bar has about 15% content while a good dark chocolate has upwards of 75%.
Types of chocolate vary and have different applications. Semi-sweet (52%) is a forgiving type and has many uses for its flavor and consistency. It is ideal for sauces, dipping, baking and works well with other flavors. Bittersweet (63 – 72%) can be trickier to work with and has a darker color and stronger flavor. Unsweetened (100%) has no sugar and should be used in conjunction with semi or bittersweet chocolate. Milk chocolate (36 – 46%) has a distinct caramel flavor and it is best to find one with the darkest color. Brand names to look for are Lindt, Valrhona, Callebaut and Ghirardelli.
Want to impress your valentine with a rich, sensuous, melt-in-your-mouth, sinful chocolate dessert next week? Here is a flourless cake or torte that is easy to make, but don’t over-bake it because as it cools it takes on a luscious firm texture. So chill the champagne put the roses in a vase, light the candles dim the lights and get ready for a night to remember!
Flourless Chocolate Torte
1 pound dark chocolate (60%) finely chopped
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1 cup heavy cream
Cocoa powder for dusting
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
Place chocolate in heatproof bowl over simmering water and melt.
Butter a 9-inch round cake pan a line the bottom with waxed paper
In a heatproof bowl, beat eggs, sugar and Grand Mariner. Place over simmering water stirring until warm but not hot.
Transfer to electric mixer or use a hand held fitted with whip attachment. Whisk for 5 minutes and then slowly mix in melted chocolate.
Whip the cream to soft peaks and fold gently into chocolate mixture.
Gently pour mixture into cake pan and bake for 40 minutes. Center should just be set.
Cool at room temperature, turn out and remove paper.
Dust with cocoa powder and serve with fresh raspberries and some un-sweetened whipped cream.
Store at room temperature, covered for one day.
[Granville Wood: “Chocoholic and lover of the good things in life”]
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