Remember the old days, when take-out coffee came in small, medium and large ... and chocolate came in Hershey bars, Toll House chips, and unsweetened Baker's that you were never, ever supposed to eat but was only for baking?
Bye bye, old days.
High-quality chocolate is everywhere. The small market in my rural Rhode Island village — not exactly a hotbed of nouveau anything — now displays bars of organic bittersweet chocolate next to the cash register, right there with the tabloids, horoscope booklets, beef jerky and breath mints.
Hello, infinite possibilities.
Cocoa grows in tropical regions, primarily in Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, West Africa, and Malaysia. Each cocoa pod contains cocoa butter and chocolate liquor (solids). Bittersweet (also called dark) chocolate is the liquor, to which sweeteners and some cocoa butter have been added. According to US government standards, to be called bittersweet chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor (in Britain, the minimum is 43%). The best chocolates contain 70% or more chocolate solids; the higher the percentage, the more deep the flavor.
[Here's a fun way to teach children about chocolate and vanilla: Buy some artisan chocolate truffles or chocolate bars from different countries (easiest to do at a specialty shop, but most high-quality bar chocolate has the country of origin printed on the label). Spread a large world map on your dining table or countertop. Give each child a stickie and one of the chocolates, and ask him or her to place the stickie on the country where the chocolate is grown. Then, do the same with vanilla, using a different color stickie. Have everyone put a finger on the Equator, and look at where the stickies are in relation to the fingers. You'll see that all of the cocoa is grown in bands just a few degrees north or south of the Equator, and that vanilla is grown in bands closer to 20 degrees latitude. You'll definitely have an "aha" moment!]
I'm happy to report that bittersweet chocolate is good for you, too. (I hope my doctor is reading this.) Eating two ounces (50 grams) a day of bittersweet chocolate with a minimum content of 70% chocolate solids may help protect against heart disease and high blood pressure, and provides some iron, calcium and potassium, vitamins A, B1, C, D, and E. Dark chocolate contains a good dose of antioxidants, but at a whopping high calorie price of 531 calories per four-ounce portion.
King Arthur Flour sells several top brands of chocolate, in bars and baking nibs, including Callebaut, Merckens, Scharffen Berger and Valrhona. For the money, though, the best buy has to be Trader Joe's, where a one-pound-plus bar of bittersweet Belgian chocolate sells for just $6.99, less than half the price of the "name" brands. If well-wrapped in aluminum foil, and stored in a cool dry place with good air circulation, bittersweet chocolate will keep for several years — though it would never last that long in my house.
According to The Gourmet Atlas, chocolate has "a more feminine character than coffee, perhaps because when it was first brought to Spain it was often prepared by nuns and drunk by upper-class Spanish ladies." I never thought of it in that way, but it surely explains chocolate's affinity for the presumably more "male" coffee, as in Chocolate Coffee Cake, Mocha Pudding with Espresso Creme, Coffee Buttercream Cupcakes, and truffles.
There's still time to make these elegant treats for the holidays, as the actual working time is less than 15 minutes. A small size quick-release ice cream scoop, called a disher in restaurant kitchens, makes easy work of forming the truffles. Slightly adapted from a recipe in Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris. Makes 20 truffles.
5 oz bittersweet chocolate
2 oz milk chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp prepared coffee
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
Optional toppings: cocoa powder, confectioner's sugar, chopped walnuts, chopped pistachios
Cut the chocolate into fine pieces (a serrated knife works well for this), and place in a large heat-proof bowl. In a small saucepan, scald the cream, and pour it over the chocolate. Stir with a whisk until the chocolate melts and is smooth and glistening. Stir in the coffee and vanilla. (You've just made a ganache!) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and chill for at least one hour.
Place each desired topping in a small bowl or on a rimmed plate. With a small ice cream scoop, or two spoons, scrape off small blobs of the chilled ganache and form into rounds. They should be somewhat irregular and look like something a pig would sniff out of the ground (which, of course, is how chocolate truffles got their name). Gently roll each blob in one of the toppings, and place on a clean plate lined with parchment paper. Refrigerate for at least an hour, or longer. Serve slightly chilled.
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