PUBLISHED: 3:52 PM on Wednesday, February 14, 2007
For the love of chocolate: Tidbits, recipes

Photo by Abby LaForce
  Pots de cr?me and chocolate-vanilla shortbread hearts are sweet treats fun to make any day.
Of all the foods we consume on a daily basis, chocolate is by far a favorite for most. From deep dark chocolate with nuances of coffee, vanilla and berries to meltingly sweet and softly flavored milk chocolate, there is nothing more pleasurable or satisfying. And yes, a bag of Hershey's mini candy bars secretly stashed in the dark fathoms of office desks for emergencies isn't unusual.

I once did a tasting of over 50 different types of chocolate from all over the world ranging from Brazil, Mexico, Africa and Switzerland to Germany and was surprised at the variation in taste and texture. Some chocolates were mellow and silky smooth while others were waxy and bland or semi-smooth and spicy. Where cocoa beans originate from and how they're processed make a significant difference in the final product.

In the 18th century, chocolate was known as Theobroma meaning "food of the gods," a Greek term coined by Swedish botanist Botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Cocoa, where chocolate comes from, is thought to originate from the Olmec culture (thrived in the Veracruz and Tobasco provinces in Mexico between 1500 and 400 BC) and the first to grow cocoa beans as a domestic crop. From 250 to 900 CE, the Mayans incorporated cocoa as part of their restricted diet, drinking it in liquid form.

In the 14th century, the Aztecs adopted the Mayan tradition and the cocoa drink was popular among its upper classes; they referred to it as xocalatl, meaning bitter or warm liquid. By the 1500s Columbus encountered cocoa beans, and gifts of chocolate were brought to the future Philip II of Spain by Kekchi Mayans.

As a commodity of trade, cocoa beans began to travel to Spain and by the 17th century the country was well-known for its chocolate. It was just the beginning of chocolate's introduction to Europe.

Cocoa beans come from the cocoa tree, an evergreen that is indigenous to the regions of Latin America. The tree produces pods and flowers throughout the year; harvesting only takes place twice a year. Ripe pods are collected, split and scraped out. The beans or seeds are then dried, fermented, roasted and ground before they even resemble chocolate.

Efficient extraction of cocoa butter leaves a residue and is then marketed as cocoa powder.

The cocoa nib, the cotyledon of the seed, is the part used for chocolate manufacture. It is ground to a paste and in its liquid state known as chocolate liquor-the essential ingredient for chocolate manufacturers.

From then on it's a matter of sweetening additions, flavors or milk solids added along with massive production to result in your beloved candy bar or chocolate chip.

To identify chocolate quality: a few American and most European brands print the percentage of chocolate liquor on the label. For example, a label of 65 percent means the chocolate bar contains about 65 percent chocolate liquor and around 35 percent sugar.

Unfortunately, many American brands don't list the percentages; however in the United States by law, dark chocolates must contain at minimum 35 percent chocolate liquor. Semi-sweet and bittersweet chocolate contain less sugar than milk chocolate, which contains higher contents of sugar and also milk solids.

Lastly, white chocolate is not actually chocolate but cocoa butter combined with flavorings, milk solids and sugar.

Rainbow Foods offer bars that uphold the essence of true chocolate: look for the brand names, Dagoba Organic Chocolate or Pralus, produced from a range of worldwide cocoa beans and flavor additions. Grocery store brands that have increased their chocolate liqueur content include Nestle, Baker's Chocolate, Ghirardelli or Guitard.

On Valentine's Day, consumption of chocolate skyrockets as gifts of candy proclaiming love and affection are dispersed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 13.9 billion dollars worth of chocolate and chocolate products shipments were distributed throughout the United States in 2003.

To learn more decadent details about chocolate, Alice Medrich and Deborah Jone's informative cookbook, "Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate," is a gem.

To tease your senses, the films "Chocolat" and "Like Water for Chocolate" (the book is just as good and contains recipe inserts) are deliciously entertaining.

Sources say the Aztecs used chocolate as an aphrodisiac, and it's lower in caffeine than coffee or tea. Other sources indicate it's loaded with antioxidants that may help prevent cancer and heart disease-that's a good enough excuse to make chocolate part of my daily diet.

Listed below are a few of my favorite and simple chocolate recipes that are great for entertaining or sweet comfort at home. I find that semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate lends the best flavor overall in baking and cooking with chocolate.

Easy Pots de Crème

Makes 6-8

This decadent French dessert is similar to a cr?me br?lée but more intense due to the addition of chocolate, and thicker in consistency. My variation doesn't require any oven time and is quick and easy. It pairs well with an espresso or strong cup of coffee.

2 cups whipping cream

10 oz. good-quality dark chocolate, chopped

2 tbs. cold unsalted butter

3 egg yolks

1 tsp. espresso powder

Pinch of sea salt

Optional: 1 tbs. favorite flavored liqueur (i.e. hazelnut, raspberry, orange, etc.)

In a heavy saucepot, bring whipping cream and espresso powder to a simmer but do not let it boil. Place chopped chocolate in food processor or blender. While chopping or blending at a continuous speed, pour in the hot cream through lid opening. Once chocolate begins to melt and emulsify with cream, add in the egg yolks, one by one. Lastly add in the butter, sea salt and optional flavored liqueur. Process until butter is completely melted and chocolate mixture is an even mass. Pour portions of chocolate mixture into six 4 oz. round ramekins. Chill in refrigerator for 2-3 hours or until completely firm; this dessert can be made up to two day in advance. This dessert is best left out at room temperature for 15-30 minutes before serving.

Garnish with lightly whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

Best Ever Hot Chocolate

Serves 4-6

The heady perfume of bittersweet chocolate combined with the floral vanilla bean is heaven in a cup. For a liquid dessert, add a shortbread cookie to round out the finale.

8 oz. good quality dark chocolate (between 60-70%)

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup cream

3 cups whole milk

1/2 cup sugar, or more to taste

1-Vanilla Bean

1 tsp. Vanilla extract

Scald the cream and whole milk with vanilla bean in large saucepot, but do not boil. Add in the sugar, dark chocolate and cocoa powder. Stir until sugar and chocolate is melted, off the heat. Add in the vanilla extract. Remove vanilla bean, and save for later use. Pour into mugs and garnish with lightly sweetened whipped cream and finely grated chocolate.

Chocolate-Vanilla Shortbread Hearts

Makes about 3 dozen

These cookies are simple to prepare, lovely to eat and keep well for several days. They pair nicely with ice cream or fruit/berry compote for a special dessert.

1 cup cold unsalted butter, diced

3/4 cup sugar

2 1/4 cups flour

2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch processed)

1/2 tsp. sea salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup finely chopped dark or semi-sweet chocolate

Combine butter and sugar in mixing bowl of stand mixer. Mix over low speed until sugar and butter are combined. Add in flour, cocoa powder, salt and vanilla. Mix until dough begins to stick together and form ball. Add in chopped chocolate, and mix until evenly combined. Pat dough into a flat disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least one hour before removing. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Unwrap dough, and place on very lightly floured surface. The dough will be cold at first, but continue rolling dough until it begins to soften (this gives dough a flakier texture). Roll dough out to ?-inch thick. Using a 2 to 3-inch heart cookie cutter, cut out heart shapes and place on cookie sheets. Re-roll scrap dough and proceed. Bake for 12-18 minutes or until dough is set and lightly golden. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks. Store in air-tight containers. These cookies also freeze well.

*Note: The essence of vanilla makes a difference in this cookie; use a good quality vanilla such as Madagascar Bourbon, which is available at Costco.

For a nice finishing touch, drizzle cooled shortbread hearts with melted chocolate.