Valentine’s fruit

By
February 12, 2015 11:56

This is just the time to indulge your craving for chocolate.




Chocolate cake

Chocolate cake. (photo credit:INGIMAGE)

The term “food of the gods” has been used for eons to describe chocolate.

Therefore, not surprisingly, it is the literal translation of Theobroma cacao, the botanical name of the cacao tree.

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The Aztecs and the Mayans cherished the cacoa bean and its derivatives as far back as 200 BCE as a beverage (called xocolatl), a tonic, an aphrodisiac and even as currency. Christopher Columbus was first introduced to cacao in 1502, but it was not until 1585 that the cacao bean went transatlantic and became a popular, albeit grainy, drink in Spain. The voyage from bean to bar was to take another 300 years until confectioners created the first solid edible chocolate in 1847.

Cacao trees are indigenous to the equatorial regions of the world, Central Africa, Central America and Central Asia, areas with high temperatures, high rainfall and low wind. The cacao beans are derived from pods that grow on the tree. To obtain chocolate from the cacao bean is an intricate, lengthy process of fermentation, drying, cleaning, roasting and refining (conching).

The end product is called chocolate “liquor.” It is nothing resembling the familiar alcoholic dessert beverage but rather a substance that is solid at room temperature but liquid when warmed. The chocolate liquor is then separated into two main components: cocoa butter, which is pressed out; and cocoa solids/powder, which is the result of grinding the leftover cacao cake after the butter has been pressed out. The varied methods of processing the cacao bean, and most specifically the roasting and refining stages, determine the wide variety of flavors and quality.

Chocolate production to satisfy growing world demand has been fraught with controversy. The Ivory Coast in West Africa, the producer of more than 70 percent of the world’s chocolate, is notorious for using child labor in cacao plantations in a scenario much akin to conflict diamonds.

The unmistakable allure of chocolate, aside from its “spiritual,” aphrodisiac and other esoteric connotations, lies in its unique property of being solid at room temperature but melting at body temperature when placed in the mouth.

As a baker cleverly manipulates the ratios of flour, water, yeast and salt to achieve an endless variety of breads, so does a chocolatier play with different combinations of cocoa liquor, sugar and other ingredients such as milk and lecithin to conjure up myriad concoctions of chocolate. The more cocoa solids, the more bitter the chocolate.

Commercial chocolate bars are typically a mixture of cocoa butter, cocoa solids, sugar, fat, milk powder (optional) and emulsifiers such as lecithin. Cocoa powder is typically used for drinking chocolate, baking, etc.

Dutch cocoa powder, invented by Dutch chocolatier Conrad van Houten in the 1800s, involves treating cacao beans with an alkali, such as potassium carbonate, which results in a powder that is less lumpy with an intensified flavor.

Cacao is a bean with a temper. Due to its unique crystalline properties, chocolate must go through a process called “tempering” before it can be cast into bars or pralines. This involves heating the chocolate to a very precise temperature and then combining it with a “seed” of pre-crystallized chocolate that causes a chain reaction resulting in chocolate that, when set, has a crisp texture and a shiny finish.

While it is customary to buy members of the fairer sex a box of chocolates (with a bow) on Valentine’s Day, it is highly recommend that you do not feed chocolate to your pets. Chocolate can be fatal for dogs, even more so for cats, due to the presence of an alkaloid called theobromine.

While typically not toxic to humans due to their relatively high body mass and quick metabolism of theobromine, smaller critters like dogs and cats, which weigh less and metabolize the alkaloid slowly, are in mortal danger of poisoning. We also do not recommend that humans, especially the elderly, binge on chocolate or they may suffer similar symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, leading to seizures, heart attacks and even death.

If excessive consumption of chocolate is harmful, mild indulgence may be beneficial due to the presence of antioxidants and other alkaloids phenethylamine (PEA) and caffeine, which increase endorphin and serotonin levels in the brain. This means that eating chocolate makes you feel good. Not surprisingly, chocolate has been referred to as nature’s own analgesic or painkiller.

The flip side is that it can lead to cravings when you stop eating it. Other research has shown that mild consumption of chocolate lowers blood pressure and boosts your immune system.

While the cacao bean is undoubtedly a fruit, there are conflicting opinions over which bracha to recite on eating (processed) chocolate. Some say “ha’etz” (Auerbach), while others say “shehakol” (Feinstein).

Chocolate is undoubtedly one of the world’s most complex and loved foods.

Whether you eat it for the health benefits, to make you feel good or simply to feel that melt-in-the-mouth texture, Valentine’s fruit is sure to find a place in your heart.

CHOCOLATE CHIFFON CAKE
Makes 1 large 36x30 cm. cake

✔ 1⁄3 cup cocoa powder
✔ 150 gr. chocolate chips
✔ ½ cup boiling water
✔ 1½ cups cake flour
✔ 1 Tbsp. baking powder
✔ 11⁄3 cups sugar (1)
✔ 6 egg yolks
✔ ½ cup oil
✔ 1 tsp. vanilla essence
✔ 6 egg whites
✔ 2⁄3 cup sugar (2)

Pour boiling water over cocoa powder and chocolate chips. Leave for 1 minute and then stir vigorously to form an emulsion.

Combine flour, baking powder and sugar (1) in a bowl. Mix egg yolks, oil and vanilla into chocolate mixture. Slowly add dry ingredients to form a smooth batter.

Whip egg whites and sugar (2) until medium peaks form. Fold egg foam in three stages into batter until there are no streaks.

Pour into greased 36x30 cm. aluminum foil pan. Bake at 180º for 45 to 60 minutes (until center is solid). Remove from oven and let cool inverted. 

Master baker Les Saidel is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (www.saidels.com), which specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.

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