Chocolate 101: A Valentine's Day Primer

Chocolate is practically synonymous with Valentine's Day, but not all chocolate is created alike. You have to choose carefully to make sure that your sweet gift is appreciated. Learn more about the ins and outs of chocolate in this lesson on chocolate basics.

History of Chocolate

The cacao tree, whose seeds are the source of all things chocolate, hails from the jungles of Central and South America. The recorded history of chocolate as a food dates back to 1000 BC and the Mesoamerican natives of what is now Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala. Later, the 15th and 16th-century Aztec civilization cultivated the cacao tree and created a variety of dishes, including the forerunner of today's Mexican mole sauce.

Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate, invented by Henri Nestle in the 1800s, is a Valentine's Day favorite. This is a chocolate designed to be eaten, not used in cooking. Milk chocolate must, by law, be made of at least 10 percent chocolate liquor (the ground nib of the cocoa bean), 3.7 percent milk fats, and 12 percent milk solids. The better, usually more expensive, brands contain more than the minimum chocolate liquor, and European brands generally use condensed milk, whereas American manufacturers use a milk and sugar mixture. For the best taste, avoid chocolates with artificial flavoring or other ingredients. Good choices include Lindt's, Cadbury, and Nestle's. Milk chocolate can be stored for up to one year, in a cool, dry place.

Dark Chocolate

The term, "dark chocolate" refers to sweetened chocolate that doesn't contain milk. Because of the lack of milk, this confection, also referred to as bittersweet chocolate, has a browner color, hence the name. Recently reported to be good for your heart and general health, dark chocolate has a vivid, intense flavor. By law, American dark chocolate must contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor. Dark chocolate produced in Britain must contain 43 percent chocolate liquor. These are just the minimum requirements; the best chocolates contain in the neighborhood of 65 percent. Good choices are Ghirardelli, Lindt's, and Green and Black's organic chocolate. Dark chocolate will keep for several years, stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Semi-sweet chocolate

A type of dark chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate is primarily a baking chocolate. The Swiss define semi-sweet chocolate as that with half as much sugar as cocoa.

White Chocolate

Purists will say that white chocolate is not truly chocolate because it does not contain chocolate liquor. Still, this creamy, off-white confection deserves a place in any candy basket. White chocolate is made with cocoa butter, sugar, milk solids, and vanilla. Good white chocolate is ivory. Reject any white chocolate that's too white or that is made with vegetable fat. Both are signs of an inferior product. White chocolate can be eaten as is or used for cooking. Most good chocolate manufacturers make a white chocolate. Particularly good is Lindt's white chocolate. White chocolate does not keep quite as long as darker chocolates. Stored in a cool, dry place it should keep for six to 10 months.

Chocolate Truffles

Chocolate truffles, created in France in the late 19th century, are a particularly festive way of presenting chocolate. Traditionally, these are made with a granache (a chocolate cream) center and covered with dark, white, or milk chocolate. The balls, which are made to resemble the truffles that grow under trees, are often rolled in powdered sugar, nuts, or cocoa powder.

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