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Sexy Ingredient # 2

Really Good Chocolate

It’s the pinnacle of the sweet pantry. Well, it is if you’re me. I have a bit of a thing, actually; I’m never more than arm’s reach from a bar of at least 70%. No, I’m not exaggerating. Even my kids’ friends know it. “REGAN! WE-NEED-CHOCOLATE-AND-DON’T-TELL-US-YOU-DON’T-HAVE-ANY!” from across the playground every two days. Bloody cheeky, if you ask me, but they’re always right, so I go through a lot.

And it has to be good. Banish memories of the overly sweet Easter Bunny you drooled over when you were 5. Today, there’s just no excuse for eating (or baking with) mediocre chocolate. Even my corner 7-Eleven sells bars of Lindt 70% dark chocolate, right beside the KitKat.

So what’s the difference?

While it’s used in baking as a single ingredient, chocolate is actually a compound of several ingredients. The main component is cocoa solids, also called cocoa liquor. This is the paste made from grinding or conching roasted cocoa beans. It is extremely bitter, and quite variable in flavour: here’s where you will get the unique characteristics depending on the beans’ particular variety, origin, and method of processing. Next comes cocoa butter, the natural fat from the bean. It has a very delicate flavour, but we’ll get to its real value in a bit.  Added to this base is vanilla, to round out the flavour; a measure of sugar, depending on the desired sweetness; and usuallly lecithin (from eggs) as an emulsifier. Milk chocolate also has milk solids added.

In good-quality chocolate, great care is taken in the process. Many artisanal chocolatiers are crafting single-origin chocolate made from beans grown in a single location; or single varietal chocolate, made from one particular type of bean. Only pure vanilla is used, and nothing beyond the ingredients listed above are included in a good plain dark chocolate.

In cheap chocolate, including the big-name brands sold in newsstands and grocery store aisles, the focus is on creating a homogeneous product as cheaply as possible. They use many artificial ingredients to compensate for the qualities missing when they don’t use the few good ones.  These big companies start with huge batches of blended cheaper cocoa solids, selected for hardiness and consistency rather than quality. Artificial flavour and artificial vanilla are standard, both of which ruin the inherent flavour of the beans. Vegetable shortening generally replaces all or most of the more expensive cocoa butter.  The problem here is that one of the most magical things about good chocolate is it’s mouth feel: cocoa butter, unlike butter, vegetable shortening, or other fats, melts at body temperature, which accounts for that luxurious experience of holding a piece of chocolate in your mouth and feeling it slowly cover your tongue. Your tongue tastes it incrementally, in much the same way you taste wine: with overtones, differences between flavours at the front or back of the mouth, and lingering aftertastes.

With the cheap stuff, what you taste is what you get: one-dimensional, artificial, even vaguely metallic or plastic-tasting. And if that’s what you’re using in your baking, that’s the best you can hope for in an outcome.

People occasionally tell me they don’t think “fancy” chocolate would make much of a difference to them. After all, chocolate is chocolate, right? Especially if it’s baked into something. “Besides, I like ANY chocolate – it doesn’t have to be expensive!”

Liking chocolate is one thing, but deceiving yourself into thinking you wouldn’t notice the difference between waxy, artificially flavoured supermarket chocolate and the complex, silky richness of the good stuff is like saying you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the difference between coffee out of a hockey arena vending machine or a freshly ground, freshly made espresso. They’re both coffee, but they’re not in the same league. And really, if you’re going to have coffee – I mean, chocolate – make it as good as you can.

There has never been a time when the average baker has access to so much outstanding chocolate. And each one is as unique as fine wines: some are distinctly fruity, others earthy, still others have overtones of coffee or spice. I go into more detail about the unique qualities of chocolate from different countries and even brands in the book; also when to use what types for best results. In general, though, any recipe that relies heavily on chocolate – brownies, chocolate mousse, flourless chocolate cake – is a perfect opportunity to explore the gourmet chocolate section at the local market or fine food shop.   And if cost is a factor, try combining two or three different chocolates of varying prices in the same recipe. I do this often, and finds it adds a depth and complexity to the flavour of the finished dessert. The thing is, I can make the exact same recipe, using the same technique and all the other identical ingredients, but when I use really good chocolate, it’s like cheating: I get so much more depth, richness and extraordinary flavour. It’s incredible what a difference it makes.

Plus, who doesn’t love an excuse to try great chocolate? Think of it as an assignment: Go Forth, Find Chocolate, Taste, and Bake. You’re welcome.

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