Chocolate indulgences delight

by Mary Capriotti

I realized last week, when searching through my wondrous book, Chocolate, that I have not paid nearly enough attention to the "food of the gods." To rectify the situation, a bit of history is in order.

The first people to use the cocoa bean were the Olmecs, an ancient Mexican civilization. They first used cocoa beans as a beverage. The Maya and Aztecs saw even greater potential in these beans, and used them as a form of currency. The Spanish Conquistadors were exporting this brown gold to Spain by the end of the 16th century. The 17th century saw cocoa's introduction into France and Italy, still in a beverage, and in a very coarse raw form. It was not until 18th century Europe that cocoa beans were used for desserts. The process of Alkalization was invented in 1828 in Holland by Conrad van Houten, and really good, smooth chocolate bars were not produced until the last quarter of the 19th century, thanks to Swiss chocolatier Rudolphe Lindt. Another Swiss chocolate technician, Jean Tobler, made it even more palatable by adding extra cocoa butter, and milk chocolate was given to us by another Swiss, Daniel Peter, who used some of Henri Nestle's dry milk in another chocolate formula. The Baker family has been supplying us with chocolate for beverages, and later baking, since 1765. Milton Hershey found how to use actual milk, as opposed to milk powder, in the making of chocolate the results of which are still mass produced in Pennsylvania today.

As for the actual stuff, the cocoa beans come from one tree, the Theobroma cacao. The genus name Theobroma being a word derived from Greek, meaning "food of the gods." It grows in a region delineated as 20 degrees north and south of the equator. A very small percentage of the flowers on any given tree will produce a fruit, which encases 20 to 40 beans the only part that becomes chocolate. These beans must be fermented at 120 degrees until they begin to germinate, then they are uncovered and left to dry in the sun. The beans are then roasted, husked, and shipped off to factories, or shipped with the husks still on, depending on what sort of chocolate is to be made.

Lots of other technical processes happen to these beans at this stage in order to make them into chocolate. Ingredients such as sugar, vanilla flavorings, emulsifying agents, and extra cocoa butter (the naturally occurring fat which is extracted to obtain the pure chocolate solids, or liquor). This is all very confusing to your humble reporter, and she will attempt no further explanation.

Chocolate comes in many forms: cocoa powder, powdered or ground, baking, couverture, eating, and compound coating. There are also many differences in flavors: unsweetened, bittersweet, semi-sweet, sweet and milk. Each of these flavors has a different amount of liquor, sugar and flavoring additives. Note that "White chocolate" contains no liquor, and can therefore not truly be called "chocolate". It is made from oils and flavorings, but sure is a pretty contrast on desserts.

Grand-Maman's Chocolate Cake

Makes one 8" round cake, about 8 servings.

In France, this popular chocolate cake is one of the simple desserts almost everyone prepares at home. This version is adapted from Le Patissier Chocolatier by Daniel Giraud (Edition S.E.G.G., 1986).

3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, very soft
4.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
3/4 cup all purpose flour
powdered sugar for finishing

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat eggs and sugar together for a really long time, until they are light and increased in volume. (An electric mixer on medium speed for 4 minutes will do it) Beat in the butter, then the chocolate, beating until smooth after each addition. Fold the flour in by hand with a spatula. Scrape the batter into a greased 8" round cake pan and smooth the top. Bake the cake for 30 minutes, until well-risen and still moist in the very center. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then invert onto a rack to cool. When cooled, slide onto a serving platter. Dust with the powdered sugar just before serving.

This plain cake is great with any kind of ice cream accompaniment. To store the leftovers, keep them at room temperature tightly covered, or wrap and freeze for longer storage.

Chocolate Walnut Biscotti

3 eggs
pinch of salt
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick of butter, melted
1 cup (4 ounces) coarsely chopped walnut pieces
2 cups (12 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup alkalized (Dutch process) cocoa powder
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In mixing bowl, whisk eggs and salt until liquid. Whisk in sugar and vanilla until smooth. Whisk in melted butter, then stir in nuts and chips. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a separate bowl, then gently fold into the batter, until all the flour is absorbed. The dough will be very soft. Spoon dough onto 2 cookie sheets, lined with tin foil, making one log on each sheet. Each log should be about 1 inch thick, 2 1/2 inches wide, and about 15 inches long. Use a rubber or metal spatula to adjust the shape if necessary. Bake the logs for about 30 minutes, or until well-risen and firm when pressed with a fingertip. Cool on the pans until room temperature. Use a sharp serrated knife to slice baked logs diagonally every 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Return biscotti to pan, cut side down, and bake up to 20 minutes longer, or until crisp and dry. Cool on the pan.

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Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 128, Number 7, October 29, 1999

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