It’s the holiday season, and many people’s thoughts turn to chocolate candy—for celebrating, splurging and gifting. As for me, I think about chocolate year ’round. Chocolate in any form has always been my favorite dessert. There’s something satisfying about how the thick richness tickles the tongue from front to back as new flavor notes are slowly released, lingering unlike other, less robust sweets.
Like most Americans, I was raised on sugary candy aisle products; I did not enter the greater chocolate world until well past the trick-or-treat years. I’ve since made it my vocation to seek out new chocolates wherever I am.
By sheer luck, my husband, Mike, and I were in Paris for the first Salon du Chocolat, an annual trade fair that has been held in various places around the world since 1994. That year, the event was staged as a pushback against proposed EU standardization of chocolate, the effect of which would have vitiated recipes that are 250 years old. Exhibiting were the triumvirate of professionals devoted to satisfying the worldwide craving for chocolate: the growers; the artisan blenders who turn the raw beans into basic product; and the chocolatiers who create the final confection from those products.
We sampled everything we could, marveling at the range of flavors and noting the widely varying characteristics of each chocolatier’s rich treat. One treat off limits were tiny truffles no bigger than the tip of your pinkie. Intended like all truffles to be eaten whole in order to fully savor the taste—those were reserved for les bébés, so their palates could be properly trained.
The taste of chocolate, like any plant product, is affected by the variety of bean and the growing conditions (the terroir so discussed in wine making), as well as the processing. In the case of chocolate, that includes bean fermentation and roasting, conching (grinding) is used to get a liqueur which can then be used to make products or further separated into solids and cocoa butter.
Variations in any of those factors affect the final product, so artisan blenders have multiple options in designing the basic chocolates used by chocolatiers. Inexpensive chocolates may only have 6 to 7 percent cocoa solids, finer chocolates up to 90 percent. Premium blenders design new chocolates yearly, much as vintners do wines. Happily for chocolate lovers, today even ordinary candy aisles offer specialty bars with high solids content.
Is there a “best” chocolate? That’s a personal determination based on your intended use, although higher quality chocolates blend solids with cocoa butter instead of vegetable oil. Having said that, Valrhona, a premium French chocolate made since 1922 in the small town of Tain-l’Hermitage in Hermitage, a wine-growing district near Lyon, is generally regarded as exceptional. That reputation was reinforced at a shop in Vienna, where I saw chocolates in two small trays proudly labeled as being all Valrhona.
Fortunately, you don’t need to go to Europe to find Valrhona; you can taste exceptional delights at A519 Chocolate’s kiosk at the Saturday Uptown Farmer’s market, which runs from May to October, or visit www.a519chocolate.com—custom designs are available. A519 chocolatier Amanda Wright uses Valrhona for her exquisitely painted, hand crafted creations.
“It’s a wonderful luxury, the highest quality with a beautiful, silky texture,” says Wright. “I like the flavor profile. There’s a complexity, a softer palate that’s not harsh like some dark chocolates, which are bitter and tanic. They produce a number of chocolates with different personalities.” Wright especially likes Valrhona 85 percent cocoa solids Abinao with a fruity, acidic note.
I dote on creating chocolate confections for my family and friends. Valrhona is my choice for special occasions; Valrhona’s Taïnori, with beans from the Dominican Republic and 64 percent cocoa solids, is fascinating. The notes released go from fruity, to sour—yes, sour—to bitter to sweet, as it reveals it’s secrets in your mouth. Callebaut, a Belgian chocolate now sold all over the world (You can find it at The Uncommon Market at Mitchell’s Corners.) is my brand of choice for everyday baking. My most pleasurable challenge is to decide how to complement the flavor components of each chocolate.
Which is your challenge as well as, I hope you are now inspired to make your own chocolate holiday gifts. Experimenting with all the combinations that chocolate affords is a delicious hobby, but it also can be a highly personal, subjective art. I like to pair the Taïnori with tropical fruits, salted caramel and brandy, tequila, rum or vodka. Wright uses honey and honeycomb brittle in one of her truffles.
You don’t have to aim for a complex plated dessert suitable for a pastry shop, or try to emulate Wright’s three-day start-to-finish creations, or even make uncomplicated cocoa dusted truffles.
If you’re a beginner, try super easy-to-make barks.
Barks are melted chocolate to which complementary ingredients are added, cooled, then broken into chunks. They are not only simple to make but also are a quick and easy way to experiment with flavors. A chart of compatible pairings is included to get you started, along with a recipe template applicable to all barks, plus one of my favorite, ultra-easy recipes.
You really can’t go wrong whatever you do because— truly—it’s all in good taste.
TEMPLATE FOR ALL BARKS
Ingredients and Equipment
- 30 oz. chocolate of choice, preferably at least 50% solids,
broken into pieces
- A 9” x 12” pan, lined bottom and sides with parchment paper Do not grease the pan!
- 1 T. of spices/herbs of choice, or to taste
- 2 – 3 cup combined dried/candied fruit of choice, toasted nuts and/or seeds, or to taste, all at room temperature
- Melt 24 ounces of chocolate over a double boiler or in a microwave at medium temperature in two minute segments. Stir the chocolate regularly by either method; microwaved chocolate can burn easily.
- Add the remaining 6 ounces of chocolate and stir until
melted; cool slightly.
- Add the paired ingredients of choice; stir until evenly
- Pour into the prepared pan. Spread evenly, banging the pan on a hard surface to aid the process.
- Put the bark into the refrigerator to harden.
- When cold, turn the pan upside down, shake out the bark, pull off the parchment paper and break the candy into chunks. Store covered and refrigerated. It can be eaten cold, but is best at room temperature.
CYNTHIA’S ULTRA-EASY WHITE BARK
30 oz. Callebaut (preferred) or other white chocolate
1 ½ cup toasted pistachios
1 ½ cup dried sweet, dark cherries
1 cup finely crushed lemon-lime hard candy
Follow the basic bark recipe directions to step 4.
Sprinkle the candy evenly on top.
Continue with steps 5 and 6.