The Jewish Palate: A chocolate kiss

Chef Dennis Wasko explores the the historical connection between Jews and the ultimate dessert and introduces a Valentine's treat: Chocolate pound cake.

Chocolate (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Most people are unaware of the significant connection between Jews and chocolate.  Most Jews enjoy eating chocolate, but did you know that the Jews played a key role in elevating chocolate from its humble beginnings to the velvety decadent treat we know and love today?
As chocolatiers across the globe prepare for their busiest day of year, I decided to take a closer look at chocolate and how it spread from the jungles of Central America to your kitchen cabinet and some of the chicest shops around the world.
It was the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, who first introduced chocolate or xocolatl to the Spanish Royal Court.  At that time, this Aztec elixir was far from the chocolate that we know today - it was a mixture of ground cacao beans, hot chilies, herbs, honey, vanilla, and hot water. This "sacred" beverage was drunk by  the Aztec emperor and believed to increase fertility; while the Spanish Nobility was quite taken by the extraordinary new beverage, they did not care for its bitter taste. So, to make xocolatl more palatable, sugar and milk were added to the recipe and the fiery edge was eliminated by removing the chilies -  xocolatl began to resemble the drinking chocolate that we know today.
At that time, Spain and Portugal controlled the cacao trade and kept the secret of chocolate making closely guarded.  This was also the period following the formal expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497) - the time of the Conversos, or “Secret Jews”.  To survive in Spain, any remaining Jews needed to hide their true identity.  As chocolate became more popular, these Jews were increasingly exposed to the art of chocolate-making.  However,  when the Inquisition became suspicious of these “New Christians”, the Jews fled the country, taking their knowledge of chocolate making with them. 
From Spain and Portugal, these Jews settled in regions across Europe including the French city of Bayonne- which later, thanks to its new Jewish population, become the first city in France produce chocolate.  Jews also started making chocolate in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Austria.  Over time, chocolate shops began to spring up all over Europe and by 1800 chocolate was the king of confections.
Another famous Jewish contribution to the world of chocolate occurred in 1832, when the Austrian Prince Metternich demanded a new chocolate dessert to dazzle his guests.  Unfortunately, the Prince’s head Chef was taken ill, and the daunting task fell on the shoulders of the chef's 16 year old Jewish apprentice, Franz Sacher.  However, the young boy succeeded, creating  Sachertorte - today the signature dessert of Vienna.
Many other Jewish Chocolatiers fleeing Nazi oppression emigrated to the pre-state of Israel as well as New York City.  There they opened new chocolate houses - Elite in Israel and Barton’s in New York.  Modern day Jewish chocolate houses include Scharffen Berger in California and Max Brenner in Israel.
With Valentine's day quickly approaching, here is a chocolate recipe to warm your heart: My Ultimate Chocolate Pound Cake.  Incredibly moist, delicious and fudgy, this cake will satisfy any chocolate craving. 
Dennis’ Chocolate Pound Cake
-1¼ cups all purpose flour
-½ cup best quality cocoa powder (I prefer Valrhona)*
-¼ cup potato starch
-1 teaspoon baking powder
-1 teaspoon kosher salt
-2 sticks (8 ounces) non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
-1 cup dark brown sugar
-1 cup white sugar
-4 large eggs
-½ cup coconut milk
-2 teaspoons vanilla
-1 cup boiling water or coffee
Chocolate Glaze
-½ cup powdered sugar
-2 tablespoons cocoa powder as above
-2 -3 tablespoons water

1.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.  Generously spray a 12 x 4 inch loaf pan with nonstick spray.
2.  Whisk the dry ingredients together and set aside.
3.  Cream the shortening with sugars until they are light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, and beat with each addition until each egg is fully incorporated.
4.  Add the dry ingredients into the sugar mixture and then add the coconut milk and vanilla and mix until it is fully incorporated.
5.  Turn the mixer to the lowest setting and slowly add the boiling water. Increase the speed slightly, be careful not to splash the hot water, and mix just until combined. Do not over mix or the cake will be tough.
6.  Place the loaf pan on a cookie sheet and bake in preheated oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool the cake until it is comfortable to handle. Remove it from the pan and place it on a cooling rack to cool completely.
For the glaze
7.  Whisk the powdered sugar and cocoa powder together in a small bowl with a whisk. Slowly add the water and whisk until the mixture forms a thick glaze.
8.  Pour the glaze over the cooled cake.
* All 100% cocoa powder is kosher and does not require hashgacha. Valrhona cocoa powder is available on line or in gourmet shops.