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Cocoa: The Source of Chocolate Flavor

by Stephanie Zonis

     We all know that real chocolate contains cocoa powder (called “cocoa solids” in chocolate manufacturing), and that cocoa is what gives chocolate its flavor and brown color. But how much do you know about cocoa itself? There’s more to this powder than just a hot chocolatey beverage for cold weather! 
     As we know it today, cocoa in the familiar powdery form has not been around for very long. There is evidence that people have been drinking chocolate in one form or another for at least 1500 years, but it wasn’t until 1828 that a chemist in the Netherlands, C.J. Van Houten, took out a patent for a process to manufacture a chocolate with a much-reduced fat content. This chocolate, which was made in block or cake form, could be easily reduced to a fine powder. Van Houten accomplished this by means of a hydraulic press. This powdered chocolate could now be made on a large scale, meaning that it would become more affordable for more people. In addition, a lower fat content made the cocoa easy to digest and, in some cases, less likely to go rancid than chocolate with the usual higher fat percentage.
     Today, hydraulic presses are still used in the manufacture of cocoa powder. Roasted cacao beans are cooled, then the shells are cracked by large rollers. Puffs of air are used to blow the broken bits of shells away, leaving the cacao nibs, or edible parts of the bean (also called “nibs”). The nibs are then crushed in mills and ground into a fine paste, a process which breaks open their cellular structure and causes release of the fat in the nibs (cocoa butter). Friction during this process produces enough heat to melt the cocoa butter, and the combination of crushed, ground nibs and cocoa butter produces chocolate liquor, which most people know better as unsweetened (or baking) chocolate. This chocolate liquor (which contains no alcohol, despite its name) is compacted by powerful hydraulic presses so that much of the cocoa butter is pushed out of it. The resulting blocks or cakes of cocoa are crushed to make cocoa powder.
     There’s more than one kind of cocoa powder available to today’s consumers. There are variations in fat content, depending upon how much cocoa butter is pressed out of the chocolate liquor. Standard cocoa powder is listed as “10/12”, which means it has between a 10 and 12 percent fat content. But there’s also “22/24”, cocoa powder with a fat content of between 22 and 24 percent.
     Originally, Van Houten processed his cocoa with alkaline salts. This alkali-treated cocoa powder came to be called “Dutch processed” or “Dutch process” cocoa, a name it retains to this day. Dutch process cocoa powder has a darker color, a higher (more alkaline) pH, and is easier to blend into liquids than non-Dutch process (often called “natural” or “nonalkalized”) cocoa. Dutch process cocoa powder also has a milder chocolate flavor. Substituting one type of cocoa powder for the other in recipes can be tricky, because their acidity levels vary enough to cause them to react differently to some chemical leavenings, such as baking soda. There are a few other varieties of cocoa powder as well, including a black cocoa powder (also called “Black Onyx”). According to www.savoryspiceshop.com, this black cocoa powder, much darker than standard Dutch process cocoa powder, has been much more heavily alkalized. While it lends a beautiful depth of color to baked goods, it should not be used by itself, because it contains less fat and may therefore result in a product with a dry texture. This website, as well as another I’ve seen, recommends using a 50:50 blend of black onyx and standard Dutch process cocoa powders for optimal results.
     There’s also a controversy about Dutch process cocoa these days. Perhaps a decade ago, Dutch process saw a great rise in popularity within the United States. It was all the rage among many famous chefs, and a lot of recipes specified its use. It became much easier to find in this country. More recently, however, Dutch process cocoa has fallen out of favor. It’s been claimed that the Dutching process is used to cover up a cocoa powder made from beans of inferior quality. I cannot speak to this claim one way or another; I simply don’t have enough information to do so. But even if the accusation is true, it’s no guarantee that natural cocoa powder is always made from the best-quality beans. Unfortunately, the largest manufacturer of Dutch process cocoa in the US recently changed their formula. I will not name this manufacturer, but I will tell you that they are located in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They continue to produce Dutch process cocoa powder, but it is absurdly high in sodium (their previous formulation, which I used and recommended for years, contained exactly none). I always use less salt than is called for in a recipe, but I dislike the flavor this new cocoa gives to brownies, cakes, etc.
     Does that mean I’ll no longer use Dutch process cocoa powder? No, because there are other manufacturers who sell what I believe to be good-quality Dutch process cocoa. Natural cocoa powder has its uses, but I like the darker color that Dutch process lends to baked goods (and hot cocoa). It’s much easier for me to combine Dutch process cocoa with liquids, a big advantage if one bakes a lot (as I do). Perhaps there are palates in this world sophisticated enough to taste a brownie or cup of hot cocoa and pronounce that the cocoa powder used for it was manufactured from poor-quality beans, but mine isn’t often one of them. My advice? If you’re following someone else’s recipe, don’t substitute natural cocoa for alkalized (or vice versa) if the recipe contains leavening. If you like to experiment, do your own taste test. Make two pans of brownies without leavening. Use the same recipe for each, but use one type of cocoa in one pan, and the other in the second pan. See what you prefer, and go from there; you may even find that you like different types of cocoa powder in different recipes. Don’t let others determine your taste preferences! Whatever type you decide upon, you’ll recognize the merits of Van Houten’s invention.


Chocolate Recipe:
Hot Cocoa Mix

     Four ingredients. Keeps for a couple of months if stored cool, dry, and airtight. Mixes up in a jiffy with hot water. No extraneous artificial ingredients. Don’t say I never gave you anything!!

This is a ratio recipe. The ingredients you need are instant nonfat dry milk powder (dated as far ahead as possible), Dutch process cocoa powder (this might work with natural cocoa powder, but I haven’t tried it), granulated sugar, and salt. For one cup of instant nonfat dry milk powder, you’ll need two-thirds cup of Dutch process cocoa powder (it’s easier to measure this if you sift it or stir it with a fork first), one-half cup of granulated sugar, and a pinch of salt. Combine all ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process in three “bursts” of about ten seconds each, until mix is an even color and in very fine particles. Store cool and dry in an airtight container. The recipe scales up easily.

For each cup of cocoa you want to make, place one-third cup of mix into a mug. Heat 6 ounces of water just until it boils. Add to hot cocoa mix and blend very thoroughly, for about a minute. Don’t forget the marshmallows!  Note: It’s possible to use milk instead of water to make up your cocoa, but milk results in a much sweeter cocoa and the mix doesn’t dissolve as well in milk as it does in water.


Chocolate Find:
7:3 Chocolates

     I have no proof that Yelena Malcolm, the head chocolatier of 7:3 Chocolates, dreams in chocolate when she sleeps. But I’ll bet she does. How else could she come up with some of her amazingly innovative flavors? Everybody and their brother is making pates de fruits these days, but not in the types she offers, which include lychee and a white peach-garam masala. Ms. Malcolm is especially clever at giving her creative truffles appealing names. There are varieties for the flavor purist, to be sure (such as the “Fresh”, which is pure bittersweet; a “Play it Cool” peppermint; and an espresso truffle called “Jitters) as well as those seeking something a trifle on the wilder side (how about the kiwi-and-black-pepper “Fuzz”; the “Indochine”, with hazelnut and Chinese five-spice; or, my favorite name, “Bad Fairy”, a blend of brandy and sugarplum?). If you’re wondering about the name of the company, 7:3 Chocolates is named after the bittersweet chocolate used to enrobe all of their truffles (70% chocolate liquor, 30% cocoa butter).

     Another thing I like about this small business is the care I see given to eye appeal. The truffles always look beautiful, and 7:3 Chocolates has a charming signature hatbox for their assortments. Don’t forget about the “Year of Chocolate”; if someone you know is especially deserving; you can send them four, six, or twelve months of these delightful products. Best of all, these are truly fresh confections, made with good-quality chocolate and other ingredients. I understand that macaroons will soon be introduced into the product line-up, too. Party favors, custom orders, or corporate gifts? But of course! The experts here can assist you with anything you might need in any such situation. And remember this company for holiday gifts in good taste (pun intended!). For more information, surf over to www.7to3chocolates.com. Take a peek at the flavor roster, and you’ll believe that Yelena dreams in chocolate, too. 


Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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