Chocolate is an irresistible temptation with universal appeal. It’s appropriate any time of year, especially for springtime celebrations like Mother’s Day or a graduation celebration.
If you crave chocolate, whether in the form of a rich, dark cake, a heart, a bunny or a bar, scientists say it’s an urge your brain has remembered — thanks to the hippocampus — since your very first taste. For good reason, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus designated the chocolate tree Theobroma cacao in 1735. Theobroma means “food of the gods.”
Chocolate’s history is fascinating and complex. Its history spans from ancient Mesoamerica, when it was considered a “magical elixir,” to present day. The culinary consequences of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the New World and the subsequent “Columbian Exchange” were momentous for the world, and led to chocolate’s discovery. Chocolate (cocoa butter and cocoa powder) is derived from seeds (beans) in the oval pods or fruit of cacao trees growing within an area 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. Wild monkeys and parrots disperse the seeds.
Columbus didn’t introduce chocolate to Europe. From 16th century records, scholars say Columbus initially came into contact with cacao on a captured Maya trading canoe in 1502. Dominican priests and K’ekchi Mayan nobles carried this highly valued commodity — the esteemed drink of the Americas — to the court of Phillip II of Spain and Portugal. European aristocrats tasted chocolate for the first time as a strong beverage.
The Dark Side of Chocolate
The taste of chocolate is subjective. Many popular, American chocolate candies have a high West African cacao content with a full chocolate flavor. More and more people are gravitating to darker milk chocolates and the extra bitter chocolates loved in France. Grocery stores and gourmet shops carry quality 3- to 4-ounce chocolate bars with a high percentage of cocoa and a stronger chocolate flavor. Most are suitable for cooking or eating. A chocolate tasting party is a great way to get to know the nuances, flavor and complexity of each type.
Look for chocolate varieties with no milk and little sugar. Domestic milk chocolate often contains milk powder; imported Swiss milk chocolates contain locally made condensed milk. For the recipes in this article, choose chocolates that range from 50 to 70 percent butterfat. Quality chocolate has a fruity aroma, like wine.
Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
The high sensory appeal of chocolate — the unique taste, color and aroma — is immediate, but the benefits go deeper. Scientists discovered that the super-antioxidant dark variety has a large range of properties that are good for your health.
Don’t feel guilty about enjoying a chocolate treat now and then. When it isn’t loaded with sugar and additives, it is a good source of energy and a powerful source of antioxidants. We know from scientific studies chocolate can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. It may have anti-inflammatory powers and reduce cancer and dementia risks.
Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a chemical created by your brain that provides a sense of well-being and mimics the brain chemistry of a person in love. What’s not to love about chocolate?
Berry and Pistachio Bark
This candy was inspired by the incredible array of chocolate barks I discovered in London’s candy stores, where anything goes for the toppings. Beautiful candies, miniature cookies, dried fruits, nuts and seeds were only a few embellishments. It’s a great way to use up leftover snacks hanging around your pantry. Use quality dark, milk or white chocolate for the base or a combination of two. White chocolate can be tinted. Chocolate- or vanilla-flavored candy coating (or almond bark) works too. White chocolate can scorch within seconds; keep the heat low and pay attention. You can melt fine chocolate with a small amount of candy coating for a smooth, rich texture. White melted chocolate can be drizzled over dark chocolate bark in a pattern, if desired.
16 ounces of 60 or 70 percent dark chocolate, broken into chunks
Toppings: freeze-dried raspberries; roasted pistachio nuts; freeze-dried strawberries; dried cranberries; small, pink heart candies
Line the bottom of a large rectangular baking pan or baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat mat; set aside. In a large, microwave-safe bowl, heat dark chocolate in the microwave on high power for 1 minute. Remove and stir slightly. Continue heating chocolate in 30-second intervals, stirring between each interval until chocolate looks nearly melted. Remove and stir until smooth. Scrape chocolate onto prepared pan and spread about 1/4-inch thick with an offset spatula. Sprinkle top evenly with 1 to 1 1/4 cups of mixed toppings. Tap pan on counter one or two times. Let the bark sit at least 2 hours or chill until firm. Cut shapes with a sharp, large knife or with small cookie cutters or break bark into pieces. Serve on a decorative plate or package in cellophane bags and tie with ribbons to give as gifts. Store at room temperature.
Additional topping blends:
• Toasted pecan halves, blanched almonds and cashews; top with a few pinches of fleur de sel sea salt.
• Banana chips, toasted walnut halves, toffee chips and white raisins.
• Macadamia nuts, chopped chocolate-covered coffee beans and toasted coconut flakes.
• Melted white chocolate and white rice cereal with melted caramel swirled in. Top with toasted pecan halves.
Cherry Walnut Fudge
One of the first places fudge appeared in the United States was at Vassar College in 1890. From there its popularity spread rapidly to other women’s colleges. This easy version calls for sweetened condensed milk and it isn’t as prone to crystallization as traditional fudge. Let your imagination run wild adding additional ingredients for different tastes and textures. The fudge can also be made in the microwave on high power for one minute, then in 30-second intervals. Stir often until smooth.
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 ounces quality bittersweet or semi-sweet dark chocolate bars or chocolate chips, chopped (2 cups)
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon unsalted, softened butter
1/2 teaspoon each vanilla and almond extracts
3/4 cup dried tart cherries, chopped
1 cup toasted walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
Trim parchment paper to fit the bottom of a buttered 8-inch-by-8-inch square cake pan, preferably nonstick. In the top bowl of a double boiler, stir together the condensed milk and cinnamon. Mix in chocolate and butter. Place the bowl over simmering water (bottom of pan should not touch water) to melt the chocolate, while stirring continuously with a rubber spatula. Once chocolate is melted and smooth, stir in salt, butter, vanilla and almond extracts. Mix in cherries and walnuts. Scrape into prepared pan. Refrigerate to firm up. Lift out of pan; remove parchment; cut into shapes.
Variation: Omit pecans: substitute 1 cup of crisp, chocolate rice cereal like Cocoa Krispies.
Strawberry-Rose Vanilla Fudge
Although it isn’t really chocolate, the cachet of white chocolate is unquestionable. For best results, stick with quality brands such as Callebaut® White Superior, Lindt White Swiss, Guittard Choc-Au-Lait White chips or Ghirardelli Premium Baking Chips, Classic White. Rose flavor imparts a delightful essence to white chocolate. Use strong-scented, organic, edible rose petals from your garden or locate edible petals online. Rinse fresh flowers in salt water to debug; gently pat dry. Avoid fresh flowers that are sprayed with chemicals.
16 ounces quality white chocolate
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon pink Himalayan or other sea salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon quality rose water, to taste
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 to 4 tablespoons fresh or freeze-dried edible rose petals, torn (or other flower petals)
1/2 cup freeze-dried strawberries
Trim parchment paper to fit the bottom of a buttered 10-inch square cake pan, preferably nonstick. In the top bowl of a double boiler, stir together white chocolate, condensed milk, butter and salt. Place the bowl over barely simmering water (bottom of pan should not touch water) to melt the chocolate slowly, while stirring continuously with a rubber spatula. Once the chocolate is melted and smooth, stir in rose water, vanilla, 2 tablespoons flower petals and strawberries. Scrape mixture into prepared pan. Sprinkle with remaining rose petals. Refrigerate to firm up. Lift out of pan; remove parchment and cut into shapes.
Chocolate Banana Bread
This chocolaty, moist quick bread can be mixed quickly by hand. The recipe calls for non-alkalized, natural, unsweetened cocoa, which is acidic but neutralized with baking soda for a balanced chocolate flavor. Don’t substitute baking powder. Overly ripe bananas provide the best flavor. If yours have bright yellow skins, ripen them quickly by baking in the oven at 250 F for 15 minutes until dark. Cool, peel and mash.
3 medium, overripe bananas (for 1 1/4 cups puree)
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 packed cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup natural, unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup broken walnut halves
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-5-inch, nonstick loaf pan. In a large bowl, mash ripe bananas with a fork until smooth. Whisk in applesauce, both types of sugar, butter, egg, vanilla and salt. Set aside. Put flour, cocoa powder and baking soda into a medium bowl; whisk one minute until well combined. Pour flour mixture onto banana mixture. With a rubber spatula, mix and combine until flour disappears and batter is well combined. Don’t overmix. Pour into prepared pan and bake 35 to 40 minutes or until bread rises and the top is glossy and slightly cracked. If using a slightly smaller loaf pan, increase cooking time a few minutes, if necessary. Test for doneness with a cake tester, which should come out dry. Cool completely, then remove bread from pan. Slice and serve. Bread can be frozen.
Double Chocolate Walnut Brownies
The origin of the brownie — America’s favorite chocolate bar cookie — is unclear, but evidence shows it probably originated in New England in the late 19th century. One of the first recipes was printed in the Fanny Farmer Cookbook in 1906. Brownies were named after the good-natured Scottish fairies called Brownies, which were popularized by The Ladies’ Home Journal in the late 19th century. Chocolate brownies can be cake-like or fudgy; this recipe offers the best qualities of both. A hint of espresso and the toasted nuts enhance the chocolate flavor.
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup natural, unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 to 1 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup lightly toasted pecans or walnuts, broken, or spicy mixed nuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate bar or 2 Heath® Toffee Bars, coarsely chopped
Heat oven to 350 F. Line an 8-inch-by-8-inch square cake pan with foil then grease foil. Put butter and cocoa into a small saucepan over medium-low heat; stir constantly until mixture is smooth. Stir in salt and espresso powder. Remove from heat after 10 minutes. In a large bowl, use a fork to beat eggs, both sugars and vanilla until slightly thickened. With a spatula, scrape in the chocolate and combine. Whisk flour and baking powder together; add to egg mixture along with nuts and chocolate. Stir ingredients together only until the flour disappears. Scrape batter into prepared pan; bake 20 to 25 minutes. The edges will pull away from the pan slightly, and the top will be shiny. The cake tester should pull out of the center with a few crumbs attached. Cool 2 hours then remove from the pan, pull off foil and cut into squares or other shapes. Makes 16 squares.
• Double recipe; bake in a 13-inch-by-9-inch pan. Cut into hearts or other shapes with sharp cookie cutters.
• Bake in a heart-shaped pan then frost and drizzle with melted white chocolate.
• Mix tiny, chilled cubes into cheesecake batter or ice cream.
• Top brownie squares or hearts with scoops of cherry, vanilla bean or fudge ice cream and homemade, tart cherry or chocolate fudge sauce.
• Frost brownies with Dark Chocolate Ganache.
• Bake in small fluted molds or mini muffin tins lined with paper liners. Unmold and decorate as desired.
Decorate frosted or plain brownie shapes with any of the following: edible fresh or sugared flowers; fresh berries; seasonal candies; artisan filled chocolate pieces; frosting flowers; stenciled confectioners’ sugar design; chocolate lace drizzle.
Chocolate Chiffon Pie
1 Chocolate Cookie Crust (recipe included)
One 14-ounce envelope unflavored gelatin
3 tablespoons cold water
3 ounces quality, unsweetened chocolate bar, broken into pieces
6 tablespoons strong brewed coffee
3 very fresh, organic, large eggs (or Davidson’s Pasteurized Eggs, if desired), separated
9 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup heavy cream
Sweetened whipped cream, made from 1 cup whipped heavy cream, 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1 to 2 tablespoons dark rum
Bittersweet chocolate curls or shaved chocolate
Prepare cookie crust. In a small bowl, dissolve gelatin in cold water to soften. Melt chocolate in coffee in the top bowl of a double boiler placed over simmering water. Stir in the softened gelatin until dissolved; turn off the heat. Whisk eggs yolks well with 5 tablespoons of the sugar. Slowly drizzle into the hot chocolate mixture, whisking constantly, until smooth. Blend in vanilla. Scrape mixture into a medium bowl; set into a larger bowl of ice water; whisk until it begins to thicken, about three minutes. Remove from water bath. With an electric mixer, beat the 3/4 cup cream until thickened; set aside. Wash bowl and beaters, the whip egg whites slowly adding 4 tablespoons sugar. When stiff, but not dry, fold into the chilled chocolate in 2 or 3 portions. Fold in whipped cream. Pour filling into the crust; chill at least 4 hours. Prepare sweetened whipped cream; spread over the pie. Decorate with chocolate curls or other edible decorations.
Chocolate Cookie Crust
Fill this dark, rich crust with your favorite chocolate pie filling.
1 1/2 cups chocolate wafer cookies or chocolate graham crackers (about 6 ounces)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 to 5 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter, as needed
Pinch sea salt
Preheat oven to 350 F. Process cookies in a food processor until finely ground. Add sugar, cinnamon, butter and salt; process quickly to blend. Pat the mixture onto the bottom and sides of a 9-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom or 9- or 10-inch pie plate. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until fragrant. Cool completely.
Chocolate Pecan Torte
Rich and addictive, even a thin slice of this dessert will satisfy the most intense chocolate craving. Decorate the top with sweetened whipped cream and candy decorations. Serve with fresh raspberry sauce, if desired.
1 unbaked Chocolate Cookie Crust (recipe included, variations noted below)
2/3 cup toasted pecans, finely chopped
16 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate bars
1 cup heavy cream
6 large eggs, whisked to blend
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, sifted
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon each pure vanilla and pure almond extracts
Preheat oven to 350 F. Prepare Chocolate Cookie Crust recipe as directed, but stir in pecans. Press onto the bottom and about 1 inch up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Set aside. Melt chocolate in cream in the top bowl of a double boiler placed over simmering water; stir often to blend. Scrape chocolate into a large bowl and set aside. In an electric mixer on high, beat eggs and sugar 5 minutes or until thickened. Add flour, salt and extracts; beat 2 minutes more. Gently fold egg mixture into chocolate in portions. Scrape filling into crust. Bake 40 minutes or until puffy around the edges; center should be slightly moist. Cool 30 minutes then refrigerate at least 2 hours or until serving time. Top will crack slightly. Carefully remove pan rim; add toppings. Serves 16.
Dark Chocolate Ganache
Use this melt-in-your mouth chocolate mixture to frost your favorite cakes, brownies or cream puffs. Choose a quality, bittersweet chocolate that tastes good to you and heavy cream that is close to 40 percent butterfat. Avoid lower-fat whipping cream. Ganache is versatile; adjust the chocolate/cream ratio to change the consistency. For a light-colored, fluffy filling or frosting, chill ganache overnight then whip in an electric mixer on medium speed about three minutes; do not over beat. For chocolate truffles or candy centers, roll the cold chocolate mixture into balls. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids in a dark chocolate, the more firm the ganache will be. Some bakers stir 1 tablespoon of soft, unsalted butter into the warm mixture. For additional flavor, stir a small amount of ground spice, espresso powder, coffee concentrate or 1 tablespoon of spirits like rum or orange liqueur into the hot cream.
12 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate bars, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
In a medium saucepan, heat cream until it barely simmers, but do not allow it to boil. Remove from heat and add chocolate, pushing it down into the cream. Let the mixture sit a few minutes, then use a rubber spatula to stir gently until smooth. Lukewarm ganache can be poured over a frosted or unfrosted cake. Cool at room temperature at least 2 hours or chill briefly to make it spreadable. To store, refrigerate seven to 10 days. Bring to room temperature before use, or heat gently in a double boiler or on medium power in the microwave. Makes about 2 cups.
A “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake
The recipe for this moist, irresistible chocolate cake — one of America’s favorites — is from The Hershey’s Company. Americans quickly fell in love with chocolate cakes when they were popularized in the late nineteenth century. For many people, this cake produces a sense of nostalgia. My mother baked it for decades; my 4-year-old granddaughter made 2-1/2 dozen cupcakes recently for her daddy’s birthday; they were a huge hit. There’s no need to mess with perfection, however, you can personalize this classic recipe by substituting hot coffee for a portion of the hot water or melted butter for the oil. The hot water helps “bloom” the cocoa and works with the leavening to enhance the cake’s deep color. A handy tip: line the cake pans with parchment rounds coated with cooking spray for easy removal.
2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (stir flour then spoon into measuring cups)
3/4 cup Hershey’s® natural, unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
Heat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans or three 8-inch round baking pans or a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan. Whisk together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl to blend. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of a mixer two minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour into prepared pans. Bake 30 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frosting options include Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Frosting (on the back of Hershey’s cocoa box) or Dark Chocolate Ganache spreadable frosting with stabilized whipped cream for the filling (keep cake refrigerated). Decorate top as desired. Recipe is slightly adapted from Hershey’s Cocoa.
Note: Cover the whipped cream filling with well-drained, sour pitted cherries from a jar or fresh raspberries.