By Claire Spampinato
Chocolate is almost synonymous with Valentine's Day, but it's doubtful that Saint Valentine even tasted it. During the martyr's lifetime in third-century Rome, chocolate was still limited to native South America. Today chocolate is enjoyed by people the world over, with some 2.3 billion pounds of chocolate consumed in America each year. That amounts to 10.8 pounds per person.
Chocolate is made from the beans of the tropical cacao tree, named Theobroma Cacao, or "food of the gods," by Carl Linneaus, the 18th-century Swedish botanist. (This tree is in the same family with the cola tree, or Cola acuminata.) Beans are picked from the cacao tree and fermented before being dried and shipped to chocolate manufacturing plants. There, they are roasted, their shells are removed and the nibs (processed insides of the cocoa bean) are pressed to remove cocoa butter and chocolate liquor. With the removal of the cocoa butter, the chocolate liquor becomes a thick paste that, unsweetened, becomes baking or cooking chocolate. To make cocoa powder the liquor is melted, thereby removing more cocoa butter. The resulting hard mass is ground into a fine powder. For eating, chocolate is flavored with sugar and vanilla, and cocoa butter is reintroduced. For milk chocolate, milk is also added.
Here are a few reasons why chocolate is so irresistible: its sensuous texture and melt-in-your-mouth property result from the body-temperature melting point of cocoa butter. Also, each 100 grams of chocolate contains 660 mg of phenylethylamine (C6H5(CH2)2NH2), a stimulant similar to the body's own dopamine and adrenaline. Phenylethylamine raises blood pressure and heart rate, and it heightens sensation and blood glucose levels. In fact, it is identical to a hormone produced by the brain when a person feels infatuated-which could explain the chocolate/Valentine's Day connection. That same 100 grams of chocolate also contains 5 milligrams of methylxanthine and 160 milligrams of theobromine, both caffeine-like stimulants. When taken in large quantities, these stimulants can induce nausea and vomiting-a good reason to limit your Valentine's Day nibbling to a few chocolates. Don't give the rest to your dog, though. Theobromine is toxic to dogs, and one ounce of chocolate could kill a 10-pound canine.
Chocolate was important in the Americas as early as 300 A.D. during the Mayan civilization, when cacao was first domesticated. An ancient Toltec myth identifies Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, as planter of the cacao trees in the tropics of southern Mexico. He was called "the god of light, the giver of the drink of the gods, chocolate." Both the Mayas and Aztecs regarded chocolate as a potent aphrodisiac. Aztec legend Montezuma drank chocolate from a golden goblet before visiting one of his many wives. The word "chocolate" comes via the Spanish from the Aztec xocolatl, which means "bitter water" and helps explain how they consumed it-as a drink with chili peppers and allspice, sometimes chilled with snow. They imported their chocolate into central Mexico, where it was so valued that it was used as a form of currency, with 100 beans worth the price of a slave.
Chocolate was taken to Europe in the 16th century by Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes when he returned from Mexico. The Spanish sweetened it with sugar, cinnamon and ground almonds. About 100 years later, hot chocolate joined coffee and tea as popular and prestigious European drinks. But unlike coffee, which contains no significant nutrients, chocolate has some protein (15%), starch (15%) and fat (30-50%), in the form of cocoa butter. In later years chocolate was modified for eating by Dutchman Conrad Van Houten, Swiss Rudolph Lindt and Henri Nestlé, American James Baker and Pennsylvania's own Milton Hershey.
Yield: 2 cups
2 tablespoons cocoa, Dutch-processed if available
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
1/4 cup water
13/4 cups milk
In a small saucepan (or microwaveable pitcher) combine cocoa, sugar and enough water to make a smooth paste. Add the rest of the water. Bring the mixture to a simmer and let cook about 30 seconds. Whisk in the milk and heat to desired serving temperature. Try not to exceed 175 F, as this will affect both flavor and texture. Pour into cups and serve. Top with whipped cream or marshmallows if desired.
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate*, finely chopped or thickly shaved with a knife
8 ounces fresh, heavy cream (36-40% butterfat)
Optional: 1 teaspoon of one of the following flavorings: pure vanilla extract, orange or any other liqueur (ie: Grand Marnier) or brandy
Slowly bring the cream to a full boil and then let it simmer 15 seconds to kill any bacteria that may be present. Transfer cream into a metal bowl and let cool about one minute. Pour in the chocolate and wait for it to begin to melt around the edges. Using a plastic or rubber spatula, fold in the chocolate until the mixture is homogeneous. Stir in flavoring, if desired. The resulting mixture should be smooth and glossy. Use the chocolate sauce, known as a ganache (pronounced gah-NAHSH), warm for topping ice cream or fruit, room-temperature as an icing (then cool cake in refrigerator for easier slicing), or cold scooped into truffles. If you're not using the sauce immediately, cover the surface with plastic wrap and let it cool completely before refrigerating. The mixture will firm up as it is chilled. It should stay fresh about a day at room temperature, a week in the refrigerator, and up to a month in the freezer. Seal container well to prevent contamination by moisture or odors.
*Grocery-store chocolate will produce a good sauce, but a higher-quality chocolate, such as Belgian Callebaut, will produce even better results. Or for top-of-the-line quality use coverture (coating chocolate). It contains more cocoa butter and is from higher-quality beans.
Claire Spampinato is an education coordinator in the Kitchen Theater.
Visit the Kitchen Theater at Carnegie Science Center to learn more about the science of cooking, and get a taste of what we're cooking and a recipe to take home. For a schedule of daily cooking shows, check the schedule board in the Science Center lobby on day of visit, or call (412) 237-3400. Be sure to ask if there is a guest chef appearing. The Kitchen Theater at Carnegie Science Center is sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.