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Texas Loves Its Chocolate: An Ancient Treat From The Mayans Just Gets Better

Aug 17, 2007
Very few of us don't have at least one good memory of chocolate. Remember warm chocolate chip cookies after school, or brownies pulled straight from the oven on a cool, fall day? Hot chocolate is still the beverage of choice for many children, and few of any age can resist a scoop of chocolate ice cream. With a hot Texas summer approaching, and cities like Dallas, Houston, and Austin already getting a hint of the heat to come, a hot fudge sundae just might be the cooling cure for a lot of maladies. Not even health insurance can provide a sweet cookie and fresh glass of milk when it's really needed, after all.

The first records of chocolate consumption date back to the Mayan Classical Period, or between the years 250 and 900 on our modern calendar. Cacao beans were cooked, ground, and made into a paste. When mixed with water, a bitter beverage important to Mayan, and later Aztec, ceremonies was created. That means chocolate has not only survived thousands of years of conquests, changing political maps, shifting cultures, and natural disasters, but also managed to grow more popular. That's fairly impressive.

When Spanish conquistadors came to the Mesoamerican areas now called Belize, southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador, they, too, discovered chocolate from the indigenous peoples. The Spaniards soon brought the seeds of the cacao back home with them, where the traditional recipes were modified and sweetened. The modern uses of chocolate in Texas and the rest of the Western world are now so varied as to be impossible to name in brief -- from a shake or two added to cooking pinto beans, to rich layers worked into decadent flourless cakes.

One of the reasons quality chocolate is so prized is that the preparation process is long and sensitive. The pods must be harvested from the trees at the right moment, dried and fermented for the right amount of time, and then ground, mixed, aerated, tempered, molded and otherwise processed to perfection. The level of quality depends on the beans, as well as the composition of the final mixture, the roasting, and the types and amounts of additives. The most sought-after chocolate is organic, single-bean origin chocolate, which simply means that all of the cacao beans were grown organically and gathered from the same source. Most commercial chocolates, for instance, will mix inorganically grown cacao beans from different regions in different countries, and of varying qualities.

There's been a boom of higher grade chocolate sold in American markets recently, including in Texas. It's common now to see a supermarket or health food market devote an entire section to various types of gourmet chocolate -- and one need not go to cities like Austin, Dallas, or Houston to find them. They're all tempting, oh so tempting, but it's easier not to give into that temptation when it's unclear how to use them properly.

"What's the difference between dark chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate?" "Should I pay attention to all the percentages? This one says it's 65% pure chocolate, and that one says it's 45%. Which one do I want?"
The best choice depends on for what the chocolate will be used. To make giving into temptation that much easier, here's a basic run-down of the main categories of chocolate:

White chocolate usually has very little chocolate in it. In other words, the cocoa content in white chocolate is very low, and most of its composition will be of other ingredients: butter, sugar, milk, emulsifier, vanilla, and flavors. Because there are no non-fat ingredients from the bean, its appearance is very pale. Some "white chocolate" marketed in the U.S. may not even have any cocoa content at all.

Genuine white chocolate is usually used for specialty deserts.

Milk chocolate is roughly 10 - 20% cocoa solids, although some gourmet varieties will have more. The rule is that milk chocolate should have no less than 12% milk solids. It's not usually used for baking -- except in cases of cookies, of course.

Dark chocolate is a sweetened chocolate with high cocoa solid content. The more cocoa content, the more bitter the taste. Dark chocolate contains a maximum of 12% milk solids, although many gourmet brands have no milk at all. Varieties of dark chocolate include sweet, semi-sweet, bittersweet, and unsweetened.

Dark chocolate is used in many recipes, including a lot of baking recipes. These directions are usually very specific, however, and, when it calls for semi-sweet dark chocolate, for instance, use it. Each type of dark chocolate has specific baking properties.

Semi-sweet dark chocolate is often used for baking cakes, cookies, brownies, and other sweet treats. Its composition is 40 - 62% cocoa solids.

Bittersweet dark chocolate is a sweetened, dark chocolate that contains at least 35% cocoa solids. Good quality bittersweet bars will have a much higher percentage, though, usually between 60 and 85%. The more cocoa, the less room for sugar. That means the higher the cocoa content, the more bitter the taste.

Unsweetened chocolate is very bitter and is only used for baking. It is almost 100% cocoa solids, half of which may be fat (or cocoa butter).

So now that you've had a brief history lesson and run-down of the different types of chocolate, a whole world of cooking has opened up. Try a traditional chocolate beverage recipe, dare to bake that luscious chocolate flourless cake, and try a bar of bittersweet dark chocolate, with at least 65% cocoa content, to really appreciate the true taste of its main ingredient -- cacao. Watch out: over time, you, too, will become a chocolate connoisseur, passing up low-grade chocolate for that organic, single-origin, Venezuelan bar.

Moderate chocolate consumption, according to many studies, is not harmful, and may even be good for you. What you put in your body will certainly affect your health as you age, and eventually your wallet.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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