The best experience I’ve had with chocolate took place at Colonial Williamsburg. I was attending a conference there in February (a Colonial brrrr) and signed up for a post-conference experience: making chocolate the Colonial way.
Ten of us met at a cooking cabin at 7 a.m., where the cows had already been milked, but the rest was up to us. We divided labor. Getting the dried beans into a huge fry pan to roast over the open fire (done by a staffer), cracking the beans (ah the aroma!), followed by hours and hours of grinding and pounding by us all. No matter the cold, we had the door open, letting in the biting wind we all welcomed with our sweaty labor.
Only at the very end, maybe the last hour, we added some spices–we chose cayenne and cinnamon–and milk. Sugar wasn’t readily available, but we were given a cone to scrape off for our mixture.
After twelve hours, yes really, we each got to taking home a sliver of this drinking chocolate. Even mixing it with warm milk, the concoction was pretty chalky.
From the primitive to the sublime, I happily braved the Connecticut cold to go to my public library for a presentation by the self-taught ‘Chocolate Lady‘ Maria Brandriff, another Hamden resident. She gave us an abbreviated history of chocolate, which comes from an Aztec word meaning “bitter water.” They apparently made their drink much like we did at Williamsburg, and it was a beverage for the Kings, believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Not until the mid-1800s was chocolate used to make candy. The discovery was conching–using huge mixing machines with slowly rotating blades to blend the heated chocolate and get rid of excess moisture. It takes an Industrial Revolution to give us the really good stuff.
But candidly, the packed house was there for the goods. And Maria didn’t disappoint. First she had us taste decent grocery/drugstore chocolate, after deriding most of the readily available stuff, including Hersey and other mass-manufactured packaged chocolate. Out of Lindt, Ghiradelli, and Trader Joe’s, I liked the latter’s 54% and 72% ‘Pound Plus’, made with chocolate from Belgium.
I couldn’t really tell all that much difference between the two levels of bitterness, which really references the amount of cacao to other ingredients, although generally, I like up to 80%. I not a fan of sugar. If you try the Trader Joe’s Pound Plus, let me know what you think. It’s quite reasonably priced.
Then Maria showed us how to make truffles. First you want to know that the word truffle really does reference the mushroom, because the best chocolates are irregular and gritty and earthy like the pig-discovered thing from the ground.
Anyway, you start with a ganache–an emulsion of heavy cream and chocolate, created by whisking. You can used canned coconut milk instead of the cream, if for some reason, you’re being health conscious with your truffles.
Now, ganache is pretty tricky. You need to temper your chocolate so that it will both have a snap when you bite into it and melt on your tongue. Are you getting in the mood yet?
The problem is your ganache can curdle, called “broken ganache” just like a hollandaise or mayonnaise. Maria says after many years of making the good stuff, it still happens to her. Yep. I’ve already written off trying this at home. Still it was great fun watching Maria make truffles right in front of us, dipping the formed chocolate in cocoa powder (we each got to sample one. Luscious.)
If you get your ganache, you have to decide if you’re going to add flavor through addition or infusion. Our goodie bag (this was unexpected for a free public program) included Maria’s tea-infused truffle, with its marinated tea leaves creating a juice that was infused into the ganache. Adding coconut meat and lime juice to white chocolate made the piña colada truffle. I don’t like these kinds of coconut candies in general, but Maria’s was pretty tasty.
So what you need to know is that the health benefits of chocolate start at 70%, the dark, dark stuff. Different beans can make the chocolate taste totally different, even at the same percentage of cacao. Your beans might be citrusy or smokey or fruity, depending on where they come from. The best beans come from South and Central America, but most of what we get is from the Ivory Coast, where the beans are most prolific, cheapest, and least flavorful. The price you pay will vary by all these determinants.
But really. At this cold moment at the end of January, who cares? Go have a nice piece of chocolate and let it melt on your tongue. Life is good.