There aren’t many things better than chocolate — though it’s a high-calorie sweet, a little bit here and there can be a healthy indulgence. To get you in the mood for Valentine’s Day, here are some basic facts and, of course, irresistible recipes.
Cacao to Chocolate
Originally grown by the Aztecs 2,000 years ago, pods of the cacao (pronounced “kah-KOW”) tree are mashed into a paste to make this world-renowned confection. There are actually many steps to get from the cocoa bean to a delicious chocolate treat. Beans are usually roasted to enhance their flavor, cracked, ground and pressed into a thick substance called “chocolate liquor,” which contains cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Think of cocoa butter as the natural fat of the cacao bean -– it gives chocolate that melt-in-your-mouth quality. In some cases, chocolate makers remove remove cocoa butter and grind pure cocoa solids into cocoa powder — great for smoothies or hot chocolate.
Special combinations of chocolate liquor, cocoa solids, milk, sugar and cocoa butter join to create all those lovely chocolate varieties. Milk chocolate is at least 10% chocolate liquor and 12% whole milk, the Bittersweet kind is 35% liquor –- different manufacturers add varying amounts of sugar and cocoa butter to create their signature flavors. White chocolate is simply cocoa butter, sugar and flavoring. Some die hard chocolate lovers refuse to accept it as chocolate since it contains none of the prized cocoa solids.
Think you’re a choco-wiz? Take the Chocolate Challenge.
Cocoa beans contain oodles of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A and E, B vitamins, calcium, iron and potassium –- there is a nutrient to benefit just about every part of your body. Cocoa is also packed with numerous antioxidants (more than green tea or red wine). Theobromine is a powerful antioxidant; it’s good for reducing inflammation and lowering blood pressure but bad for pets (this is the substance in chocolate that is toxic to dogs and cats). The cocoa butter alone also contains unique antioxidants as well as some heart healthy, unsaturated fat.
It’s important to recognize that COCOA contains all these fabulous nutrients, which is why eating pounds of CHOCOLATE (also rich in sugar, milk and, therefore, calories and fat) can lead to weight gain. While you may not be able to justify eating pounds of the stuff, enjoying it in moderation can be good for you. Dark chocolate varieties contain more cocoa, which means more nutrients. When it comes to calories and fat, they are about the same. An ounce of milk or dark chocolate has about 150 calories and 9 grams of fat.
As for calling chocolate an aphrodisiac, there’s not a large amount of scientific proof, but it does contain a bit of phenylethylamine, a substance linked to feelings of happiness or love. I say go with it!
Ways to Enjoy
However you prefer to drizzle or nibble, you can’t really go wrong. Cookies and cake are obvious choices. Fruit dipped in chocolate gives you the best of both worlds. Make your own chocolate candies with any combination of nuts and dried fruit. Sip on a cup of warm chocolate kissed with cinnamon. Enhance the flavor of chocolate by adding coffee (a tip from Ina Garten).
Chocolate doesn’t have to be for dessert. Cocoa powder and unsweetened chocolate work well in chili and other sauces (like Mole sauce) to add richness and depth of flavor.