Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ingredient of The Week......Chocolate!

White chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate.....one of the greatest culinary creations known to man. This week we get to dive into chocolate (figuratively speaking, of course).

There have been many studies linking cocoa and dark chocolate with health benefits. Cocoa and chocolate contain a large amount of antioxidants (flavinoids). The darker chocolate with the most concentrated cocoa will be the most beneficial. According to an Italian study, a small square (20 g) of dark (bittersweet) chocolate every three days is the ideal dose for cardiovascular benefits. Eating more does not provide additional benefits, except on an emotional level maybe. ;-) Bottom line - if chocolate is going to be good for you at all, it's the dark chocolate, and here's why. Cocoa beans contain polyphenols (similar to those found in wine) with antioxidant properties which are health beneficial. These compounds are called flavonoids. The antioxidant flavonoids reduce the blood's ability to clot and thus reduces the risk of stroke and heart attacks. The higher the level of cacao in your chocolate bar, the more flavonoids. Okay, enough of the scientific stuff. Now to some fun stuff.

Many modern historians have estimated that chocolate has been around for about 200 years and for 90% of it's history it was strictly a beverage and sugar had nothing to do with it. While we're at it, let's clarify a couple of things: the term "cacao" refers to the plant or its beans before processing, while the term "chocolate" refers to anything made from the beans.

Sweetened chocolate didn't appear until Europeans discovered the Americas and sampled the native cuisine. Legend has it that the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included drinking chocolate, having tragically mistaken him for a reincarnated deity instead of a conquering invader. Chocolate didn't suit the foreigners' tastebuds at first –one described it in his writings as "a bitter drink for pigs" – but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular throughout Spain. By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe. The creation of the first modern chocolate bar is credited to Joseph Fry, who in 1847 discovered that he could make a moldable chocolate paste by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa.

By 1868, a little company called Cadbury was marketing boxes of chocolate candies in England. Milk chocolate hit the market a few years later, pioneered by another name that may ring a bell – Nestle.

In America, chocolate was so valued during the Revolutionary War that it was included in soldiers' rations and used in lieu of wages. While most of us probably wouldn't settle for a chocolate paycheck these days, statistics show that the humble cacao bean is still a powerful economic force. Chocolate manufacturing is a more than 4-billion-dollar industry in the United States, and the average American eats at least half a pound of the stuff per month.

In the 20th century, the word "chocolate" expanded to include a range of affordable treats with more sugar and additives than actual cacao in them, often made from the hardiest but least flavorful of the bean varieties.

But more recently, there's been a "chocolate revolution," marked by an increasing interest in high-quality, handmade chocolates and sustainable, effective cacao farming and harvesting methods. Major corporations like Hershey's have expanded their artisanal chocolate lines by purchasing smaller producers known for premium chocolates, such as Scharffen Berger and Dagoba, while independent chocolatiers continue to flourish as well. (adapted from smithsonianmag.com)

Whatever the history, whatever the scientific components and data, we have had a love affair with chocolate for hundreds of years and it only seems to be getting better. Culinarily speaking, chocolate has tons of applications from steak to cheesecake. I hope to explore some of those this week and nurture our love for this amazing creation of God's.

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