Chocolate can be dated back to Central America almost 4000 years ago when it was made into a bitter drink, usually with spices added to it. Chocolate was seen as being very valuable and was even used a currency by the Aztecs in 1400BC. It wasn’t until the exploration of Christopher Columbus in the 16th century that chocolate was brought to Europe, where it quickly became popular with the addition of sugar or honey. Chocolate was considered a luxury as its production was labour heavy and time consuming, it wasn’t until the invention of machines to mill the cocoa in the early 1700’s that the price dropped and chocolate was more accessible. The cocoa press was invented in 1828, this machine used hydraulics to press the cocoa butter from the nibs resulting in chocolate that could be powdered and it was only a matter of time until the chocolate bar as we now know it was created. In 1879 Lindt introduced the first conching machine, a process that involves slowly mixing the chocolate for many hours to develop flavour and smooth texture. Cadbury’s are generally credited with the popularity of chocolate here in the UK after the introduction of Dairy Milk chocolate in the early 20th century chocolate was affordable to all, for the first time including the working classes.
Today over half of the world’s chocolate is produced in the Ivory Coast where the seeds are harvested, fermented then dried. They are then cleaned before being roasted and ground to a paste.
Chocolate is one ingredient that will simply never go out of fashion. Most chefs will have a chocolate dessert on their menu year round, it is a favourite in kitchens for its versatility, and of course it’s fantastic flavour.
There are 3 types of chocolate bar, white, milk and dark chocolate. White chocolate is not actually chocolate but is made just from cocoa butter, sugar and milk to give a silky sweet taste. Milk chocolate is chocolate with the addition of milk and sugar and in the UK the chocolate must contain at least 20% cocoa solids. Dark chocolate is sweetened but no milk is added. This is the most widely used chocolate for cooking as the rich, bitter flavour is more prominent.
Chocolate varies greatly in quality with a good marker being the percentage of cocoa mass. Chocolate should have only cocoa mass, cocoa butter sugar and soya lecithin listed as the ingredients, avoid chocolates which substitute cocoa butter with vegetable fats as they will be poor quality.
Chocolate usually comes in bar form however it is available in pellets and drops for cooking. Look for chocolate that is certified fair trade, this ensures that the workers have been given a fair price for their cocoa beans.
Chocolate can be used as an ingredient in most recipes with no preparation at all. If a recipe calls for chocolate to be tempered, this is a skill to be mastered in itself.
Recipes by professional chocolatiers such as Paul A Young or intricate patisserie will often require using couverture chocolate and careful tempering before use. Though quite a technical skill, all you really need is a thermometer and a little confidence. It involves slowly heating and then slowly cooling the chocolate so that the fats crystallise uniformly and the chocolate ‘snaps’ rather than crumbles when broken. Once tempered, the chocolate can be piped, or turned into cylinders, shards and curls. Always use the best quality chocolate you can find as this will affect the taste of your final dish. Higher cocoa content will depict a greater depth of flavour.
There are no strict rules about baking with chocolate – partly because its uses are so varied, from chocolate sponges to chocolate ganache and even caramelised chocolate.
The applications for chocolate are seemingly endless. Paul Heathcote’s Chocolate pots are wonderfully simple if you are strapped for time or if you would like to move on to something more adventurous have a go at Lisa Allen’s challenging Dark chocolate cylinder. Paul A Young makes wonderful chocolate truffles such as Pimms cocktail and gingerbread-spice ganache. Daniel Clifford makes a tempting Chocolate soufflé while Paul Ainsworth keeps it cool with a Chocolate sorbet. There are also chocolate mousses, brownies and cakes to be enjoyed when cooking with chocolate and don’t forget chocolate sauce with vension.
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