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A Primer on Fine Chocolates
Once upon a time, the US was primarily a nation of chocolate barbarians. Bonbons were manufactured and sold here, of course, but if you wanted something of really good quality, you either turned to European chocolate (if you could find a way to get it) or you were fortunate enough to have a good family chocolate business nearby. My, how times have changed! Both American knowledge and appreciation of fine chocolates have grown substantially (although there remains room for improvement), and there are some terrific chocolates being made right in the good ol’ USA. Even better, with the growth of internet commerce, you needn’t always live close to the chocolatier to get the chocolates! But with everyone and his dog making chocolates nowadays and promising only the best on their websites, how can you be sure you’ll get chocolates of excellent quality when you place an order?
The answer is that you can’t always know in advance. Until you try the chocolates, you simply won’t know if they suit your tastes. However, there are usually clues, things to look for that will help you determine if a particular brand of chocolates might be for you.
Initially, it helps to know how picky you are about what you eat. If you’re not especially finicky, it’s true that you stand a better chance of being happy with chocolates you order---and much of this article won’t apply to you. But if you think you were a cat in a former life, or might be feline in the next one, a good place to start with any chocolatier’s website is the terminology. If there is a claim that the chocolates are “artisan” or “artisanally produced”, ignore it. Why? Because it’s no guarantee of freshness, quality, or anything else. My Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines an “artisan” as “one (as a carpenter, plumber, or tailor) trained to manual dexterity or skill in a trade”. I don’t know who first used this term for chocolates, but within the past few years it’s spread like a plague. Use of the term doesn’t mean the chocolates are not worth your time and money, but on the other hand it doesn’t mean they are, either. Ignore any praise or reviews, too, whether they are from the press, celebrities, or individual consumers. Those people might well adore these chocolates, but they don’t possess your taste buds, and you’re the one ordering. Besides, a chocolatier wouldn’t put a negative review on their website, would they?
Look at the chocolates and assortments/collections available. Remembering that small-scale chocolatiers may run out of some flavors, especially at busy times of the year, can you customize your assortment? This will be a very important consideration if you have food allergies or if there are flavors you don’t care for. Think about the chocolates listed; are the flavors to your liking? If you’re a chocolate classicist, you might not care for a dark ganache center infused with Earl Grey tea and lemongrass, or a piece filled with a chocolate-curry mixture. Then again, if you’re more of a cutting edge individual in your preferences, a chocolate filled with hazelnut praline is going to be way too been-there-done-that for you.
Do the chocolates contain preservatives or any kind of wax? Preservatives, of course, extend shelf-life, making it possible to keep a box of chocolates for months. But good-quality chocolates are meant to be enjoyed as a periodic dietary indulgence, and they shouldn’t contain extraneous ingredients just so a manufacturer or retailer can store them for a long time before they’re purchased or consumed. And, while it isn’t often used any more, paraffin (also known as parawax or cooking wax) was sometimes formerly employed to make sure the exterior chocolate on a bonbon had a firm set and a nicely lustrous finish. I’m sure it worked beautifully, but it’s definitely something you don’t need to be eating!
How do you feel about the use of colors in your chocolates? Aside from any coloring agents used in the centers, it has become fashionable in some quarters for chocolatiers to decorate the exteriors of their pieces with color. There are several ways this is accomplished. The tiny, precise, repetitive designs you see on the top surfaces of square or rectangular pieces are usually the result of transfer sheets. Before the exterior shell sets, thin plastic sheets with the edible designs imprinted on them are laid over the tops of rows of chocolates. Once the exterior chocolate has set, the sheets are peeled off, and the designs stay on the chocolates. Other chocolatiers swab cocoa-butter-based colors into molds (or airbrush them in) before the chocolates are made, and I’ve heard there are even chocolatiers who airbrush their finished pieces. When colors are used judiciously, they make for showy, very professional-looking chocolates. Some of these “colorized” confections are simply breathtaking; I’ve seen assortments that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum of modern art. And it’s a way for chocolatiers to distinguish their products from the plethora available to consumers (if there exists a Handbook of Chocolate Marketing, I’m sure the first rule states “Thou shalt differentiate thy chocolates from all others out there”). On the other hand, you have to decide if you want to consume artificial colors (or any artificial flavors that might be used, for that matter). And I’ve experienced occasions when a flashy appearance comes at the expense of overall quality of the chocolates, though this isn’t always the case. People can get taken in by the gorgeous look of some confections, only to discover that the product itself is second-rate. In order for you to find chocolates you enjoy, their appearance must be alluring, but colorized chocolates are not the only way to assure an attractive look.
When ordering fine chocolates, it’s crucial to allow time for the chocolatier to work. Most chocolatiers producing these delights have a small staff. As their chocolates are meant to be consumed fresh, their inventory will not be large. These chocolatiers usually become very busy, if not frantic, around major chocolate holidays. I hope you’ll be reasonable and respect the fact that their outputs are limited!
Perhaps the one question I hear most often with fine chocolates involves price. Why are they so expensive? Think about “industrial” chocolates for a minute, the sort you’re always seeing in boxes in your local drugstore. Chances are they have preservatives, and thus a lengthy shelf-life. It’s likely that their manufacturers don’t use top-quality ingredients. The makers of these chocolates also tend to be mega corporations. Their factories might well produce as many chocolates in an hour or two as a small-scale chocolatier can make in a week or two, if not more. In short, large-scale manufacturers can make their longer-lasting chocolates far more cheaply and quickly. What you end up paying for are the freshness and quality and time that go into fine chocolates. Shipping costs may be higher for fine chocolates, as well, because the object is to get them to you quickly, so you can enjoy them in their prime. Even I find it discouraging when the cost of shipping equals that of the product I’m buying, but I’ve been writing about chocolate for a decade now, and shipping and its costs are the bane of any small-scale chocolatier’s existence.
After all of this, you’ve finally received your long-anticipated chocolates. Open the box. What should you see? Good looks, first of all. The chocolates needn’t be gaudy, but they should look appetizing. Crushed or broken chocolates, or grey-white streaks or blotches indicative of bloom, are great detractors from visual appeal. Fine chocolates should also have a pleasing aroma. When you open a box, even before you choose a chocolate to try, you should detect an aroma of, well, chocolate.
When you bite into a fine chocolate, the exterior shell should be thin. Some chocolatiers manage exterior chocolate coverings little thicker than a sheet of paper, a feat that fills me with admiration. Not all chocolate shells will be quite that thin, but it just isn’t pleasant to bite into a very thick exterior coating; it’s hard on your teeth! The exterior shell should be perfectly smooth on your tongue, and it should genuinely taste like chocolate.
Now, think about the center. If it’s supposed to be a smooth filling, is it, in fact, smooth? I just tried chocolates from a chocolatier new to me; of four pieces I tried, three had fruit-flavored centers, and all of those were unpleasantly gritty. That’s not what you want to find! How else would you describe the texture of the center? Once in a while, you’ll run across a filling with a very stiff texture or, conversely, a texture that’s too loose. Again, neither is what you’re looking for. If your piece is a caramel, how’s the “chew”? Is it too chewy? Not chewy enough? Or is it, like Baby Bear’s porridge, just right?
What’s the flavor like? If the filling is supposed to be mocha, for instance, does it taste like both coffee and chocolate? Is the flavor so strong that it overwhelms the piece, or so faint that you can’t taste it? Does the coffee overwhelm the chocolate? You’re looking for a harmonious blend. The filling should taste good by itself, and have a flavor true to its name, but it should also taste good in combination with the exterior shell. Is one or the other (center or shell) too sweet? Not sweet enough?
Appearance, aroma, flavor, texture. To sum it all up, a truly fine chocolate should have balance. It should be pleasing to your senses and make you smile.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to judge chocolates properly simply by looking at a website photo. Alas, we inhabit no such place. Over time, I’ve ordered a good number of chocolates from websites. Sometimes, I can look at a photo and know immediately that what’s depicted is not the type of chocolate I want. Once in a while, I’ve been taken in by gorgeous pictures and descriptions, only to be disappointed by the chocolates when they arrived. I believe this is bound to happen in any area where subjectivity rules the roost, as it must in matters of individual taste. But I also know that I’ve found chocolatiers (online as well as offline) who have got it all together and produce absolutely first-class confections. You may have to kiss some frogs to find a few princes in the world of chocolate, but once you find the royalty, you’ll forget about the amphibians pretty quickly!
Recipe of the Month:
Wendy's Honey-Chocolate Sauce
I must tell you about my wonderful friend Wendy. She is an amazing woman who lives in a world that revolves around rare books/manuscripts, medieval music, cats, her charming husband, and good food—especially good chocolate. She kept telling me that someone she knew had a recipe for a honey-chocolate sauce made with garlic, a statement I flatly refused to believe. But one fine morning, the recipe arrived via e-mail. I spent 12 days carefully steeping raw garlic cloves in honey as part of the preparation for making the sauce. Despite the promise contained in the recipe that the finished product would not smack me in the taste buds with the power of that herb, it did, and I am here to tell you there is nothing stranger than a chocolate sauce that is redolent of garlic.
But that experiment produced a valuable by-product, because I set out to prove that a chocolate-honey sauce without garlic could be much pleasanter. For a simple and delicious springtime dessert, serve this, gently warmed, over vanilla ice cream with strawberries. You must use the best-quality bittersweet chocolate you can find (remember, if it isn’t smooth in bar form, it won’t be smooth in the finished product, either). Despite the use of honey, the sauce is not particularly sweet, although you can adjust the amount of honey to taste. You’ll want to use a light honey for this—orange blossom, clover, or a light wildflower would all be fine choices. Once made, the sauce will keep for at least a week in the fridge, but, because of the honey, it does not freeze.
4 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, very finely chopped
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small bits
Few grains of salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp. mild, light honey
In small heatproof bowl, combine chopped chocolate, butter bits, and salt. Set aside.
In small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, heat cream until very hot, stirring often (cream can also be heated in the microwave). Remove from heat. Immediately pour half of hot cream over chocolate mixture. Allow to stand for a minute or two, then stir or whisk gently until smooth. Add remaining cream in several additions, stirring gently after each addition until smooth. Stir in honey. Cool briefly, then chill, covering tightly when cold.
To serve, scrape only as much sauce as you'll need (repeated heating and rechilling can make the sauce grainy) into a small heatproof bowl. Place over simmering water on low heat (water should not touch bottom of bowl); stir only until melted and warm. Remove from heat and hot water. Alternatively, scrape only as much sauce as you’ll use into a microwaveable bowl. Microwave at medium (50%) power for short intervals, stirring well after each, only until melted and warm.
Serve as desired. Sauce will harden somewhat over ice cream or sorbet.
About 1 cup sauce
Chocolate Find of the Month:
Capogiro Gelato Artisans
If you understand that the seeking out of good gelato is an inalienable right and a task as pleasurable as it is necessary, this is a gelato/sorbetto business right up your alley. Stephanie Reitano is obsessive about ingredients, and uses only what’s fresh, much of it local. Frozen desserts produced from fruits, herbs, spices, and the occasional vegetable (such as sweet potato) come and go with the seasons (you’ll always find some chocolate flavors available, though). You’ll find some varieties you don’t usually expect to see in your neighborhood gelateria, as well. Avocado? Chrysanthemum tea? Rosemary Honey Goat Milk? Lime Cilantro? Yup, they’re all here, as well as the more typical Cappuccino and Dulce de Leche. Stephanie and her crew love to experiment, so you never know what you’ll find on the flavor list, but I have a few recommendations. If you can find Clementine Sorbet here, go for it, ditto the Bacio, a chocolate-hazelnut gelato with bits of caramelized hazelnut. A great Burnt Sugar is often available (the texture of gelato, the taste and color of the top of a crème brulee; any questions?). The Pistacchio Siciliano is fabulous, too, as is the Nocciola Piemontese (hazelnut).
Capogiro Gelato Artisans has two retail locations, both in Philadelphia: one is at 119 South 13th Street, and the other is at 117 South 20th Street (the Rittenhouse location). Both cafes serve lighter fare (good sandwiches and the like) as well as coffees, teas, a lovely seasonal hot chocolate that’s rich and thick, and, of course, those incomparable gelati and sorbetti. If you don’t live near Philadelphia, you’re still in luck; Capogiro is sold in pints in an ever-increasing, though still limited, number of stores. Still no joy? No problem, as Capogiro will ship to your very doorstep. Stephanie has collections of flavors she has pre-selected (Italian Classics, Seasonal Sorbetti, Herbs and Spices), but you can also select your own flavors (within reason). There’s even a Gelato for All seasons package, where 6 pints will be sent to a lucky recipient four times a year. You may scream for ice cream, but this gelato and sorbetto will produce nothing but blissful sighs. Surf over to www.capogirogelato.com for more information.
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.