After Hours: Chocolate in the Kitchen

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research , and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

“Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands — and then eat just one of the pieces.” — Judith Viorst.

Chocolate has had us in its sway for at least 1,500 years. It hooked the Mayans and Aztecs in the form of a bitter drink, which they believed to have all manner of life-enhancing properties. Its popularity spread across the globe after chocolate came to Europe via the Spanish and met up with sugar. We Americans now consume 3.3 billion pounds a year — enough for 11.6 pounds per person — and that’s counting only confectionery (candy bars, truffles, and the like), without taking into account baking chocolate, syrups, ice cream, and its myriad other guises.

While I appreciate the manifold temptations of chocolate as much as anyone (more so, some eyewitnesses would argue), this edition of After Hours focuses solely on the wonders of chocolate as an ingredient in the kitchen. This month I rate chocolates for their culinary uses and spotlight some books to help you test my findings.

As for the best in eating chocolate, that research is up to you. Pity.

Understanding the Numbers

Specialty baking chocolates often state a percentage after the name of the variety. The percentage indicates the amount of actual chocolate (mostly ground cacao beans and a little cocoa butter) in relation to sugar and other ingredients. The higher the number, the darker and less sweet the chocolate is. The low 70s mark the outer limits of comfort for straight eating; percentages above that are best for baking.

Baker’s Best

After hours of testing, I am happy to report that I found no bad dark baking chocolate — only good, great, and dazzling. Although some proved better for specific uses, all the chocolates I tried (from three familiar brands and three specialty chocolatiers with some level of supermarket distribution) were perfectly acceptable for brownies and other general baking purposes.

The best hail from the Bay Area chocolatier Scharffen Berger and from Dagoba . No matter what the use, both companies’ products uniformly deliver intense, noticeably complex flavors. Scharffen Berger, one of the few producers to roast the cacao beans itself, makes 9.7-ounce baking bars in semisweet (62% cacao content), bittersweet (70%), and unsweetened (99%). Dagoba’s organic chocolates, which are less widely in stores (the likes of Whole Foods Market are your best bet), include tantalizingly bitter Chocodrops (73%) and dark (74%) or milk (34%) chocolate in a two-pound brick.

As for those aforementioned specific uses: Scharffen Berger Unsweetened Chocolate and Dagoba Chocodrops made the best brownies. The best dipping sauces came from Scharffen Berger Semisweet Chocolate, Dagoba Dark and Milk Chocolates, and Ghirardell i Milk Chocolate Baking Bar. Scharffen Berger Unsweetened Chocolate produced the most complex, smoothest frosting, while Ghirardelli Unsweetened Chocolate Baking Bar had a sweetness with more child appeal. In glazes, Dagoba’s Cacao Powder ranked with Scharffen Berger’s Natural Cocoa Powder as an entirely different food group from Hershey’s Cocoa.

Chocolate Chips

Once they are baked in cookies, it’s hard to tell Nestlé Toll House Semisweet Morsels (12 ounces for $2.59) apart from Ghirardelli Semisweet or Double Chocolate chips (11.5 ounces for $3.49), so let your budget make your choice. (Ghirardelli’s cost about a dollar more.) For special occasion, adults-only cookies, splurge on Dagoba Chocodrops, which interject a dark, dark bite, or Scharffen Berger Cacao Nibs, hard slivers that deliver chocolate tones with a nut-like crunch.

Drink It Up

The better hot chocolates speak to a variety of palates. For general appeal, I recommend the balanced flavor and sweetness of Green & Black’s Organic and Lake Champlain Old World Chocolate . Unlike the other, the Old World Chocolate is not a powder but shavings that could double as a sprinkling for ice cream and cakes. Lake Champlain Organic Chocolate delivers moderately stronger chocolate tones. The best of the bittersweet is Scharffen Berger Natural Sweetened Cocoa Powder, with a knock-your-socks-off, no-kids-allowed bite.

Lake Champlain Aztec Spicy Hot Chocolate deserves special mention for a cinnamon sweetness and lingering tickle that suit it well to holiday and apres-ski festivities. These hot chocolates, which cost between $7 and $10, are available in better supermarket and specialty stores. Or contact Belgravia Imports for Green & Black’s (401/683-3323), Lake Champlain Chocolates (800/465-5909; ), and Scharffen Berger (800/930-4528; ) directly.

What’s New

The King’s Cupboard, which makes chocolate sauces with the power to stop time, has now created an instant Triple Chocolate Dessert Pudding mix that passes for homemade. Add milk to and stir over heat for less than five minutes to produce a thick, rich pudding with deep cocoa tones and no cloying aftertaste. The 6.5-ounce mix yields four generous servings and sells for $5.95 in specialty stores, or from The King’s Cupboard (406/446-3060; ).

Try This At Home

Two small recipe collections will help you duplicate my research. The first is diminutive in dimensions only; The Little Black Book of Chocolate by Barbara Bloch Benjamin (Peter Pauper Press $9.95) packs more than 70 recipes for cakes, pies, fillings, cookies, and candies between a cover like a bachelor’s phone book from the days before PDAs. In Chocolate (Ryland Peters Smalls, $6.95), one-time chef to the British Queen Mother Linda Collister plots out a well-chosen handful of treats, accompanied by photographs of diet-breaking power.

Copyright 2005 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.

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