Chocolate has become so popular with professional chefs and home bakers during the past century that the complex flavor of the exotic cocoa bean now seems as American as our flag. Harvested in the depths of the tropics and developed through masterful European chocolatier techniques, chocolate–once a luxury item reserved for royalty–is both a ubiquitous treat and the ultimate indulgence. In a glamorous restaurant, a country diner, or an ice cream parlor, many food lovers find the menu simply incomplete without the beloved bittersweet flavor of chocolate. Easily incorporated into all types of sweets from cookies and cakes to ice creams and puddings, a chocolate dessert is nearly expected at the end of a meal.
Considered an aphrodisiac in many cultures, chocolate’s intense taste is matched in decadence only by its luscious creamy texture and its fragrant aroma. Each bite creates a wild ride for the taste buds: a union of bitter, roasted flavors mellowed by sweet, fruity undertones, melting smoothly in the mouth. While the unique flavors and textures of chocolate alone can fulfill the senses, many chefs and home cooks delight in creating enchanting adaptations of chocolate desserts. Blended with cream, churned and frozen, one lick of chocolate ice cream and a tongue tingles with pleasure. A molten spoonful of a hot chocolate soufflé can send even culinary stoics into sheer ecstasy. And while most chefs have a favorite use for chocolate, few know the secrets of making it from scratch.
The origin of chocolate–in all of its delicious forms–can be traced back to the magical practices of expert chocolatiers. Using a single and uniform scientific process (practiced in European workshops for nearly two centuries) to yield the flavorful bars, chocolatiers play with both time-tested and innovative techniques to reflect their own personal tastes–just as vintners do with their wines. Some seek satisfaction in rich, dark complexity, while others yearn for lighter, creamier candies–either way, the process approaches art. Masters begin by selecting, sorting, and roasting the best beans to bring out their characteristic aroma. Then, flavor and body are developed through processes called winnowing, conching, and tempering, in which the chocolate is mashed, blended, and homogenized with controlled heating and cooling systems. Adjusting these processes until pleased with the properties of the chocolate, the master chocolatier transfers the mixture into molds, allowing them to form into the shiny dark bars that we love so much.
While there’s much artistry to converting bean to bar, taking chocolate from the wrapper to the table can be a risk-free crowd pleaser. Added to doughs, melted into icings, or molded into garnishes, chocolate offers an infinite variety of delectable delights. Meanwhile, chocolate’s powdered cousin, cocoa, integrates easily into most cake batters and cookie doughs for dark, intense flavor enhancement. In puddings, mousses, and ganache (a rich truffle-like icing), chefs finely chop chocolate, then melt it slowly over a double-boiler before combining it with additional ingredients for smooth, creamy results. While that’s heaven for some, others prefer chocolate as a simple accent: Chunks in a peanut butter cookie, chips in a pound cake, or shavings on top of coffee ice cream, chocolate can spike up flavor without stealing the show.
With an obsession that may have started with mom’s fudge cake or grandma’s chewy brownies, professional pastry chefs and home cooks alike continue to play with these classic temptations while inventing new concoctions along the way. Tastes and forms are the baker’s biggest targets. While there’s nothing new about mixing chocolate with mint or pairing it with peanut butter, restaurant chefs are now seasoning their specialties with more exotic ingredients like cinnamon, chile peppers, herbs, and fruits. And that’s just the beginning. Amidst mounds of cakes and cookies on a menu, pastry chefs are offering chocolate-filled raviolis and cream-based chocolate soups. Now, who needs an entrée? Whether your choice is a simple bar or a composed dessert masterpiece, there’s always room in the end for this sinfully bittersweet indulgence.