The Romance of Chocolate
The Romance of ChocolateMilk, Dark or White; Solid, Fruit-Dipped or Caramel-Filled — Chocolate is the Sweetest Way to Celebrate Valentine’s Day By Wendy O. Dixon
Few things have the universal appeal of chocolate. We eat it to celebrate big occasions (a birthday, an anniversary, an A on an exam). And we use it to comfort us in times of stress or sorrow (a break-up, a bad day, a D on an exam). According to the American Confectioners Association, Americans consistently name chocolate as their favorite flavor in desserts and snacks. During World War II, the U.S. government recognized chocolate’s role in the nourishment and spirit of the Allied Armed Forces, so much so that it allocated valuable shipping space for the import of cocoa beans. Today, the U.S. Army’s Meals Ready to Eat contain chocolate bars and U.S. astronauts have taken chocolate into space as part of their diet.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, a lover will bestow an elegantly wrapped box of chocolates, a child will give the sweet treat to her kindergarten teacher and a secret admirer will leave the unexpected gift of chocolate on a coworker’s desk as a token of affection. What long ago started as a spicy drink has evolved into one of the most celebrated foods in the world.
As far back as 2,000 years ago, in the tropical rain forests of Central America and Mexico, the Mayan Indians were the first to mix the native cocoa beans with various seasonings to make a spicy, frothy chocolate drink. Later, Spanish conquistadors brought the seeds back home to Spain, and eventually the drink’s popularity spread throughout Europe, becoming a sought-after drink only the rich and elite could afford. The popularity of chocolate eventually made its way to America as Europeans capitalized on the California Gold Rush in the 1850s.
“Many of the European chocolatiers moved west and set up businesses in San Francisco, which became one of the great chocolate manufacturing centers in America,” says Peter Ehrlich, owner of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Silver Sands Factory Stores. Ehrlich buys his chocolate from the Guittard Chocolate Company, which is based in San Francisco. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is another example of a European chocolate manufacturer that set up shop in San Francisco during that time.
Chocolate was still a rare European luxury when Milton S. Hershey was born in Derry Church, Penn. in 1857 (renamed Hershey, Penn., in 1906). According to hersheys.com, he worked for a confectioner as a youth, but always longed for his own candy company. When he was 18, he established his first candy business, which failed after six years. Not giving up, Hershey spent years experimenting with sweet ingredients, which led to him making a delicious and popular caramel. With the success of the candy, Hershey became a rich man. And it was during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that Hershey bought a German machine that could make chocolate. Because of his persistence and passion for chocolate, Hershey finally invented the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar in 1900. And because of the Industrial Revolution and mass production methods, Hershey was able to reduce the cost of his chocolate bars and offer to everyone the sweet treats once reserved only for the rich. The bars were an instant success.
According to research by Simon Fraser University in Canada, chocolate is North America’s favorite flavor, with 71 percent of its chocolate consumers preferring milk chocolate. But we’re not even one of the top five chocolate-loving nations in the world. Who loves chocolate more than we? Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Germany and Norway. The United States holds 11th place in terms of the number of pounds consumed per year.
Chocolate’s evolution has led to endless varieties, textures and potencies of the candy. Many people include it as their daily dessert, even incorporating chocolate into a healthy diet.
The use of chocolate for medicinal purposes has been gaining scientific validity in recent years. In addition to making life sweeter, a few pieces of chocolate per month may extend life, says the Harvard School of Public Health. The school’s survey of healthy 65-year-old men revealed that those who ate sweets containing chocolate reportedly live longer. Those who consume chocolate in moderation had a lower mortality than those who indulge three or more times a week. Those who abstained from chocolate had the highest mortality of all the groups.
The Harvard school also found that women who ate one to three servings of chocolate a month had 26 percent fewer cases of heart failure. Those who ate one to two servings a week had 32 percent fewer cases.
The research team conducting the survey speculated chocolate might reduce heart failure by lowering blood pressure.
But moderation is key, says Elizabeth Mostofsky, the author of the research report, who added too much chocolate (like most other foods) can lead to weight gain, offsetting its benefits.
Other studies suggest flavonoids found in cocoa can improve blood flow and blood vessel function. The Journal of the American College of Nutrition found these flavonoids have potent antioxidants, and that cocoa and chocolate products have the highest concentration of flavoniods among commonly consumed foods.
If you’re adhering to the “all good things in moderation” mantra, it’s important to choose the highest quality chocolate made from the freshest ingredients.
At Kilwin’s in Grand Boulevard Sandestin Town Center, owners Kirsten and Paul Nykamp make chocolate-dipped Rice Krispies treats, chocolate-pecan “tuttles” and chocolate-covered pretzels in addition to the chocolate made in the “Kilwin Kitchen” in Petoskey, Mich.
“It’s all handmade and specially marked to identify the candy,” she says. “A chocolate cream has a ‘c’ on it for chocolate, a vanilla cream has a ‘v’ on it.”
Nykamp suggests that what makes chocolate so special is that it’s an instantly gratifying, attainable luxury.
“It’s not something that’s expensive,” Kirsten Nykamp says, “but it’s a great way to reward ourselves for a job well done, a way to cheer someone up or show someone you care.”
The most romantic way to enjoy chocolate, says Kirsten Nykamp, is to pair it with strawberries. But they need a little TLC during preparation.
“The strawberries need to be at room temperature before dipping,” says Kirsten Nykamp. “If they are too cold, it will cause the chocolate to bloom.” Chocolate blooms when it gets too hot or too cold and the fats in the cocoa butter separate out from the chocolate.
“It tastes fine,” she adds, “but it has white streaks on the surface of the chocolate, which affects the appearance.”
Washing the strawberries is a special task when it comes to dipping it in chocolate. Strawberries absorb a lot of water, and rinsing them under a faucet introduces too much water into the berry. Instead, use a damp paper towel to clean them, Kirsten Nykamp advises.
When melting the chocolate, know that it burns easily. Do not melt chocolate directly in a pan, she warns. Use a double boiler method, which applies indirect heat to the chocolate.
According to ghirardelli.com, the microwave method for melting chocolate is as effective. Place chocolate chips into a microwave-safe bowl and cook for about a minute at 50 percent power. At the end of a minute, stir the chocolate to evaluate its softness. Melt longer if needed.
It’s important to not allow the chocolate’s temperature to rise above about 130 degrees, as it scorches easily, according to the website.
But Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory owner Ehrlich warns it’s easy to botch the results by making the chocolate too hot or cool, which results in a bloom as the chocolate returns from a liquid to a solid.
“All the stores have a tempering machine to maintain the proper temper, which means the chocolate continues to shine,” he says. “But if you do it at home, it is difficult to do. If you don’t maintain the proper temper, the chocolate is always going to bloom. If you’re hoping to get dipped or molded chocolates like the ones at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, forget it.”
If you decide to leave it to the experts, keep in mind that, for Valentine’s Day especially, presentation is important too, says Ehrlich, who sees many a desperate man rushing into the store during the hours leading up to the big day to buy his beloved a sweet treat.
“They’re dashing in on their lunch break and are in a dead run,” Ehrlich says with a laugh, “and they’re looking for the fanciest heart-shaped box. It must work, because they come back year after year for it.”
Chocolate causes acne.
Fact: Neither chocolate nor any other food causes acne. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne is a skin condition caused by the over-activity of oil glands in the skin.
Chocolate causes migraine headaches.
Fact: Chocolate is not a significant cause of migraine headaches. While some foods may be associated with the onset of migraines, one recent study suggests chocolate is not one of them. The study, conducted at the Pittsburgh State University, placed 63 women prone to get migraines on diets that included chocolate or the chocolate substitute, carob. Chocolate proved to be no more likely than carob to trigger a headache.
Chocolate causes obesity.
Fact: Neither chocolate nor any other food causes obesity. When calorie intake exceeds calories burned through activity, a person gains weight. Studies conducted on the calorie contribution of foods found that chocolate contributes only .7 to 1.4 percent of calories to the average American diet.
Source: National Confectioners Association (candyusa.com)
Perfect Chocolate-Covered Strawberries
To make chocolate-covered strawberries at home, use a dozen large strawberries at room temperature, patted clean with a moist paper towel.
Melt 12 oz. of chocolate chips or chunks.
While the dipped berries are still moist, add toppings such as stripes of white and milk chocolate, nuts, coconut flakes and mini chocolate chips. To drizzle chocolate stripes, use a zip-lock bag and make a small cut in the corner, fill the bag with chocolate and squeeze it onto the fruit.
Allow berries to cool in an area away from heat and sunlight, but not in the fridge or freezer. Putting chocolate in the fridge or freezer is a common mistake because lowering the temperature of chocolate to less than 65 degrees will cause it to bloom.
Berries are best made and enjoyed in the same day.
Courtesy Kirsten Nykamp, owner of Kilwin’s in Grand Boulevard Sandestin