Chocolate: Beans, bars and baking

by Clare Gazzard14 October 2015

With the help of pastry chef and consultant Daniel Fletcher, we delve a little deeper into the wonderful world of chocolate; from the subtleties of different beans, to the pitfalls of cooking with chocolate, we take you a journey from bean to finished bake.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

I don’t normally need an excuse to think about chocolate at the best of times, but National Chocolate Week seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up on. Master chocolatiers across the country will be showing their wares and demonstrating their skills with rivers of molten brown deliciousness in Willy Wonka-style fashion – it seems you can have anything you like made from chocolate, from the most delicate of truffles, to the most extravagant of wedding cakes.

It seems that our love of this confection has outgrown simple corner-shop bars and buttons – we are demanding more and more from our chocolate in terms of both creativeness and provenance. Where does it come from? What cocoa percentage is it? How is it shaped? How is it flavoured? And how can most of us humble home-cooks actually achieve this in our own kitchens? Looking for cocoa perfection, I turned to pastry consultant Daniel Fletcher, a man who’s cooked with a few bars of chocolate in his time, for advice.

Characteristics and composition

The main buzz words with chocolate are ‘cocoa content’, although these are only half the story when looking at the final flavour profile. The cocoa content refers to the percentage of the final product that is made from cocoa solids, and broadly helps divide the most common chocolates into three categories: dark, milk and white. Daniel explains that ‘dark chocolate is a mix of cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar. Milk is a mix of the same but with the addition of milk solids. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids, so is a mix of cocoa butter, milk solids and sugar.’

I look to add chocolate to my chilli, and it's also good to use in sauces for game

The exact percentages of each of these ingredients can dramatically alter the taste, and it is increasingly common to see chocolate bars on shop shelves named according to their cocoa percentage, traditionally around the 60% mark for a standard dark eating chocolate, although higher percentages (around the 80-90% mark) and even 100% versions are now available. ‘The cocoa content defines the overall taste of the chocolate, the higher the percentage the more bitter the chocolate.’ 100% cocoa content is very bitter, and the fact that no other ingredients are added, means that the flavour of the beans themselves is on full display.

Origin and quality

Thus the other half of the story, the origin of the beans themselves. This can have as much of an impact as the cocoa content, perhaps even more so. ‘Where the beans are grown and how they are harvested also affects the overall taste and characteristics of the chocolate, just the same as in wine production where the climate and soil play an important role.’ Most commercial chocolate is made from a blend of beans, with the majority produced in Western Africa, however there is a move towards more artisan production techniques where single origin chocolates, often from Central and South America, are crafted from beans all grown in one country (or even on one estate).

Already compared to wine, chocolate can also be compared to coffee, in that the beans have to be harvested, fermented, dried, roasted and ground before chocolate can be made – with each step altering the taste of the finished bar. One of the final steps is ‘conching’ where the cocoa is kneaded with the other ingredients – this can be done over a few hours or a few days.

A longer production method usually results in a higher quality chocolate as it has a more refined texture – even if you start with the best quality beans, a rushed production can result in poor quality chocolate . ‘I always make sure I source a good quality chocolate’ says Daniel, as he emphasises the need for a ‘consistent product’ when mass producing desserts in a restaurant kitchen, you need to make sure you will get the same end result every time.

Cooking and techniques

Although more obvious when eaten ‘neat’, making the most of these attributes when cooking can be a little trickier. The composition of the chocolate, in terms of bitterness and sweetness, affects how it reacts to heat; ‘you have to be a little more careful when using milk and white chocolate as they tend to burn more easily due to the increased sugar content and the addition of milk solids.’

Not to be completely dismissed, white chocolate can still be used in a variety of ways, and its tendency to burn can actually be a plus, as you can caramelise the fat and sugar for a completely different flavour and result. A more commonly used technique for chocolate is tempering, which gives the finished chocolate a ‘shine and a snap’. Tempering is a process of melting and cooling the chocolate to exact temperatures to create a glossy texture and is ideal for dipped chocolates and decorations.

Baking with chocolate is one of the most common uses, and there’s nothing quite like a gooey chocolate brownie, towering chocolate cake or melt-in-the-middle chocolate fondant. This can either be using melted chocolate, adding chocolate chips or chunks, or with cocoa powder. The latter is occasionally a useful substitute for liquid or solid versions as Daniel explains, ‘cooking with cocoa powder is good for sauces and sponges, in particular when you want a chocolate flavour but don't want to alter the texture or appearance of the finished dish.’

Daniel’s main advice is to be very careful with the cooking time when using chocolate or cocoa – ‘it is hard to tell when something is cooked due to the colour, so people tend to overcook dishes as they don’t have the confidence to know that it is ready.’ So in true Great British Bake Off fashion, watch the oven like a hawk and don’t just rely on sight to tell if it is baked, utilise your other senses and test by touch, sound and smell: does the sponge spring back, does the skewer come out clean, does it sound hollow or crisp when tapped, and if all else fails… does it smell burnt?!

Flavours and combinations

In terms of flavour pairings, the world is quite literally your oyster (think chocolatier Paul A Young’s Port and Stilton truffles…) but there are certain things that work well; ‘if it is a dark chocolate you can match it with more robust flavours, for example using spices… I like to add chocolate to my chilli, and it’s also good to use in sauces for game. With milk and white chocolate I would be more inclined to use herbs or fruits with a cleaner finish as both of these are sweeter.’

Often dismissed as not a real chocolate, even the creamy white chocolate does have its place in the kitchen. ‘I personally like cooking with white chocolate, as it is more of a challenge to be able to marry it with other flavours due to its sweetness. I think people see it as a chocolate that is only enjoyed by children... but if you use a good quality chocolate it has characteristics that you may have not experienced before.’ Daniel’s top tip for cooking with white chocolate is to add yoghurt to the recipe ‘as the acidity balances well with the sweetness and complements the flavour of the chocolate.’

Try to avoid the temptation of using too many other elements as this can overpower the taste of the chocolate. Likewise, using too many varieties of chocolate can be a common pitfall: ‘I might use different types of chocolate in a dessert when I’m trying to showcase each of their specific characteristics, but it is all about balance… I wouldn’t tend to use all three types in one dish as I find together they all result in a neutral taste.’

So, what’s the perfect combination for Daniel? ‘My favourite chocolate dessert is a chocolate fondant. I know it is a little bit boring but it’s a simple classic that brings a smile to everyone’s face when they eat it. The perfect fondant has to have a liquid warm chocolate centre, served with a contrasting ice cream.’ Sounds pretty good to me, too.

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