For us chocoholics, what could be more heavenly than the thought of chocolate growing on trees? Fantasy? Well, yes…and no!
The fact is chocolate actually does grow on small evergreen trees called Theobroma cacao, which translates to “food of the gods.” It was so named because of the goodness of its seeds. The cacao (pronounced both ka-Kayoh or Kaa-cow) produces fruit pods containing the seeds (or beans) that are used to ultimately make cocoa and chocolate.
But as enticing as it sounds, don’t be thinking you can go to one of our local gardening stores and buy one of these to plant in your own backyard for an unlimited supply of chocolate. If only it was that simple!
First, you would need to live in a more tropical area of the world for it to thrive, most notably parts of South and Central America, Africa, or, in the United States, Hawaii. Second, you would have the additional challenge of converting the cocoa beans into the ultimate of consumption, candy. It is an involved process that makes one wonder how this edible discovery was made in the first place.
In Latin America, cacao trees grow wild, and were most likely the discovery of the Olmec and Maya Indians for its culinary usages. By most accounts, it was the Mayans who first created an unsweetened bitter beverage using crushed cocoa beans, which eventually became a luxury drink enjoyed by royalty. But there is clearly recorded evidence that chocolate was equally important in the Aztec empire, and it is believed that they were the ones who gave Christopher Columbus a sack of the dark, almond-shaped beans to take back to Spain on his last voyage to the Caribbean.
Harvesting and converting the beans into chocolate is a laborious, multistep process. Making one chocolate bar can take several days. After the beans are removed from the pod, they are fermented, dried, roasted, and cracked to separate the “nibs” which contain a high percentage of cocoa butter, a naturally occurring vegetable fat. The nibs are then ground to extract some of the cocoa butter and what is left is a thick paste called chocolate liquor. This elixir is then separated to be used in everything from candy, to beverages and baked goods, even skin products and cosmetics.
There is an extensive range of chocolate available in the marketplace for both eating and cooking. Unsweetened chocolate has no sugar added to it, and is used mostly for baking. With the addition of sugar to varying degrees, chocolate progresses from unsweetened to bittersweet, semisweet, and sweet. Flavorings such as vanilla or milk solids may also be added to enhance the flavor. Always mindful of my diet, I don’t make desserts very often, but when I do it’s usually something chocolate. I have lots of chocolate loving friends as well. In my The-Devil-Made-Me-Do-It Bundt Cake recipe, a mixture of dark and semi-sweet chocolate is used, and if that isn’t rich enough, I make a cream cheese frosting to go along with it! The same chocolate combination is also used to make Wendy Blanks’ Chocolate Truffle Cake finished with a chocolate ganache.
Semi-sweet dark or milk chocolate is used to make The Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten’s delectable French Chocolate Bark, a great confection with dried fruit for snacking or I’ve been known to give it as gifts.
One of my favorite cookie recipes of all time is Janet Sheppard’s Magic Mint Cookies, chocolate cookies topped with mint wafer candies that melt and make a luscious frosting. Janet has been showcased in Dining In several times over the years for her multiple winning ways at the Dallas Morning News annual holiday cookie competition.
Semi-sweet chocolate is also the basis for Candice Ort’s creamy chocolate mousse whipped up in minutes in a blender or food processor. The base can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen until ready to serve. Ann Tompkins uses semi-sweet and unsweetened to make her frozen Peanut Butter and Chocolate Pie, and I use semi-sweet to make my always well received Choclava that I serve with frozen yogurt.
And if you want to make something out of the ordinary for dessert, try one of my favorites from Bon Appetit, chocolate and hazelnut waffles flavored with cocoa powder and unsweetened chocolate. The warm waffles are served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, homemade fudge sauce, and garnishes of nuts and toffee bits. Yummy!
Despite its popularity for centuries, it is just in more recent times that we have learned that eating plain chocolate in moderation, mainly dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao, may be beneficial to our health. Studies have shown that cocoa butter may in fact have a positive effect on blood cholesterol levels.
Antioxidants found in dark chocolate like phenols and flavonoids may also offer additional protection against vascular disease, the cause of heart attacks and strokes, and improve insulin resistance. It is also a good source of magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc. But that doesn’t mean you should trade in your daily servings of fruit and vegetables for chocolate, since it still can be high in fat and calories, especially if it is the basis of a sugar laden dessert.
Chocolate, no doubt, is one of the most craved foods in the world. But most of us are not eating it for the health benefits, but rather for the sheer enjoyment its sweet, rich, creamy taste imparts.
A little bite of chocolate every day can be a good thing.