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8 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Chocolate-Makers

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Americans consume nearly 9.5 pounds of chocolate per capita annually, with December being one of the busiest seasons for chocolatiers. The sweet treat is made from the fruit of the cacao tree, native to Central and South America, although it’s now grown in regions all around the equator. When the fruit is harvested, the sweet, pulpy flesh is scooped out and fermented before the seeds are separated and dried. These seeds are the cacao beans, which are roasted (usually), ground, and processed into chocolate.

According to Michael and Sophie Coe’s book The True History of Chocolate, for most of its history chocolate was a drink. The Maya were the first to grow cacao millennia ago, drinking it hot or cold and blended with flavors such as honey, chili, or vanilla. Chocolate came to Europe in the 16th century, where it became wildly popular in part because it was the first caffeinated beverage introduced to the continent, predating tea and coffee. The first chocolate bars didn't come around until the 19th century, when, as Deborah Cadbury writes in her book Chocolate Wars, chocolate makers in Europe devised the process of blending ground cacao beans with extra cocoa butter (the fat present in the beans), as well as sugar, dairy, and other ingredients.

The process of making high-quality chocolate continues to be innovated today. Mental_floss spoke with Rhonda Kave of Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, Peter Gray of Raaka Chocolate, and Andrew Black of MAST Chocolate—three New York-based bean-to-bar chocolate makers—for their insights into this ancient confection.

1. KNOWING WHERE CACAO BEANS COME FROM IS IMPORTANT.

Most mass-produced chocolate is made from what's known as “commodity” cacao. Kave moved away from commodity cacao because she felt there wasn’t enough transparency in how the chocolate was sourced—much commodity cacao is grown on the Ivory Coast, where child labor is used. Gray feels similarly: “Bean-to-bar brings a lot of focus on to sourcing. You’re finding out where it comes from and letting the consumer know what they’re getting. For us, the most important step is sourcing.”

2. CACAO FROM DIFFERENT PLACES TASTES DIFFERENTLY—LIKE WINE.

Whereas commodity chocolate is made from beans from multiple regions that are blended to create a consistent product, being bean-to-bar—which means a company starts with unroasted cacao beans and oversees the process through to finished chocolate—entails embracing the variations in single-origin cacao beans. Not only do beans grown in different areas taste differently, but cacao harvests from the same farm can taste different during different seasons. Terroir, or the qualities of the place where chocolate is grown, can affect acidity, fat content, aromatics, and more.

“Where the region is, what grows around it, the nutrients in the soil … that all determines what the cacao tastes like,” Black explains. For example, he says the cacao that MAST sources from Madagascar tends to be really fruity and acidic, with a taste like fresh berries, while their beans from Tanzania are more earthy, toasty, and nutty, and have a higher fat content.

3. THERE WERE THREE MAJOR VARIETIES OF CACAO—BUT THAT’S CHANGING.

Generally speaking, there are only three varieties of cacao—criollo, forastero, and trinitario. (Most of the world’s production is made from forastero.)

“But that’s kinda all blown up with genetic profiling,” Kave says, pointing to the work being done by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. “What they’re doing is going out into the field in all the various cacao-growing regions of the world, getting samples of cacao people find pleasing, or have an interesting flavor, and then genotyping the trees.” The group hopes to understand each tree, so they can breed for certain qualities, or blend the chocolate in different ways. “There are a lot of different varieties of cacao now; much more subvarieties than previously thought. ... It’s kinda a cool time to be interested in cacao."

4. TWO BARS LABELED WITH THE SAME PERCENTAGE WON’T TASTE THE SAME.

When a bar says it’s 60% or 80%, the percentage refers to the amount of cacao solids in the bar. In general, a bar with a higher percentage is more chocolatey, but can also be more bitter. But two bars with the same percentage won’t taste the same: Not only do beans from different areas taste unique, but the remaining percentage can be made up of any combination of sugar, dairy, emulsifiers, and other ingredients. Kave mentioned a 60% from Brazil that uses goat’s milk and tastes vastly different from any other 60% bar on the market.

5. INSPIRATION COMES FROM INGREDIENTS.

Kave is known for the bold flavors of her truffles, which include pomegranate, sour cherry, key lime pie, pear-walnut-gorgonzola, pickle, and many more. Kave says, “I love to go to different markets and different shops, like Kalustyan’s on Lexington Avenue.” Kalustyan's is known to New Yorkers as an ingredients-focused store with an enormous spice selection, a huge offering of exotic imported foods, and even fresh produce like hatch chilies and makrut limes. “I can go in there and go ‘what the hell is this? I need to learn how to make something from this.’”

Raaka offers pink sea salt, ghost pepper, and smoked chai tea chocolate bars. Their motto is “Be as innovative as possible.” They’ve started a club called “First Nibs.” Every month, subscribers get two flavors that “are a little wild and experimental,” according to Gray—like porcini mushroom or pine needles.

MAST, meanwhile, has a six-bar herb collection (with flavors like bay laurel, lemongrass, and sage) that Black says is inspired by springtime trips to the greenmarket, as well as a “fruity, savory” olive oil bar. But Black notes that adding flavors to chocolate can be tricky, since cacao has a strong taste on its own: “Sometimes you’ll add a flavor in there that you think may work well, but you can’t even taste it because the chocolate is too overpowering.”

6. STORE YOUR CHOCOLATE DRY—IF YOU’RE STORING IT AT ALL.

“You should always store your chocolate at room temperature,” Black notes. If you put it in the fridge, condensation can develop, and “water is the enemy of chocolate.”

Gray agrees. “It’s good to store between 55-70 degrees. But I’m always baffled by people who don’t eat it within a couple days ... at the most.”

7. YOU SHOULD EAT CHOCOLATE BECAUSE IT’S BIGGER THAN YOU.

Gray feels an almost spiritual connection with chocolate. “It’s something that’s been consumed for 3000 years. The consumption of chocolate has outlasted most cultures and societies and empires. It’s bigger than me. It’s rare that there’s something that’s good for your body, mind, and soul—and I think chocolate is that.”

Kave feels that “Craft chocolate makers now are doing really exciting and innovative work, and I love to see that ... It’s almost like a rediscovery.”

8. EVEN YOU CAN LEARN TO MAKE CHOCOLATE.

Roni-Sue’s, Raaka, and MAST all offer opportunities to learn about chocolate-making. Kave always starts her classes off with a chocolate tasting, while MAST offers tours that include tempering and wrapping your own chocolate. Raaka, meanwhile, will be launching classes on bean-to-bar chocolate-making in January 2017. Both Roni-Sue’s and Raaka also offer occasional chocolate-focused trips to cacao-growing regions; visit their websites for details.

With additional reporting by Bess Lovejoy.

All photos via iStock.

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Little Baby's Ice Cream
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Pizza and Cricket Cake Are Just Some of the Odd Flavors You'll Find at This Philadelphia Ice Cream Shop
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Little Baby's Ice Cream

Ice cream flavors can get pretty out-there, thanks to the growing number of creative scoop shops willing to take risks and broaden their customers’ horizons beyond chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Intrepid foodies can cool off with frozen treats that taste like horseradish, foie gras, and avocado, while Philadelphia's Little Baby’s Ice Cream is pushing the boundaries of taste with chilly offerings like everything bagel, Maryland BBQ, ranch, and cricket cake.

Cricket-flavored ice cream, created by Philadelphia-based Little Baby's Ice Cream
Little Baby's Ice Cream

Everything Bagel-flavored ice cream, created by Philadelphia-based Little Baby's Ice Cream
Little Baby's Ice Cream

As Lonely Planet News reports, Little Baby’s Ice Cream launched its first signature “oddball” ice cream—Earl Grey sriracha—in 2011. Since then, its rotating menu has only gotten quirkier. In addition to the aforementioned flavors, customers who swing by Little Baby’s this summer can even try pizza ice cream.

The store created the savory flavor in 2011, to celebrate neighborhood eatery Pizza Brain’s inclusion into Guinness World Records for its vast collection of pizza memorabilia. The savory, Italian-esque snack is made from ingredients like tomato, basil, oregano, salt, and garlic—and yes, it actually tastes like pizza, Little Baby’s co-owner Pete Angevine told Lonely Planet News.

Pizza-flavored ice cream, made by Philadelphia-based Little Baby's Ice Cream
Little Baby's Ice Cream

“Frequently, folks will see it on the menu and be incredulous, then be convinced to taste it, giggle, talk about how surprised they are that it really tastes just like pizza … and then order something else,” Angevine said. “That’s just fine. Just as often though, they’ll end up getting a pizza milkshake!”

Little Baby’s flagship location is in Philadelphia's East Kensington neighborhood, but customers can also sample their unconventional goods at additional outposts in West Philadelphia, Baltimore, and a pop-up stand in Washington, D.C.’s Union Market. Just make sure to bring along a sense of adventure, and to leave your preconceived notions of what ice cream should taste like at home.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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11 of the Most Extreme Junk Foods Ever Created
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It should come as no surprise that National Junk Food Day is traditionally celebrated on July 21—smack dab in the middle of the dog days of summer, when the streets run thick with ice cream trucks and county fairs boast the kind of fried treats that can only be described as “awesome” (both in the modern sense and the more dated, whoa, we are in awe of that usage). But National Junk Food Day shouldn’t be celebrated with commonplace junk food; oh, no, it deserves something far bigger and better. So save your potato chips and chocolate bars for another day, and get ready to try some truly wild treats.

1. THE KFC DOUBLE DOWN

KFC

Perhaps the most unexpectedly clever way to create a new extreme junk food item is to turn a non-junky foodstuff into something that just oozes calories and decadence. Fried chicken giant KFC knew that—and played it up to major effect—when they introduced the KFC Double Down to America back in 2010. The sandwich foregoes the most traditional aspect of any sandwich (the bread!) and substitutes two fried chicken filets. In between the two pieces of chicken? Bacon, two different kinds of cheese, and the Colonel’s “secret sauce.” There’s no room for a bun here, folks.

2. PIZZA HUT'S HOT DOG STUFFED CRUST PIZZA

Pizza Hut

We may associate items like fast food pizza and hot dog-stuffed anything with all-American palates, but cheesy juggernaut Pizza Hut saw things a bit differently. In 2012, the chain introduced a pizza with a hot dog-stuffed crust to our neighbors across the pond, treating their UK customers to the kind of taste sensation some people might have had literal nightmares about. Is it a pizza? Is it a hot dog? Somehow, it’s both—and yet something much more.

3. FRIENDLY'S GRILLED CHEESE BURGERMELT

Friendly's

Once again, a wily restaurant chain took a normal food item—in this case, a hamburger—and amped up its junk factor by doing away with something as commonplace as buns, in favor of an entirely different (and, yes, very junky) item. In 2010, Friendly’s rolled out its very own spin on the Double Down, slamming a regular old burger between not one, but two grilled cheese sandwiches. Who needs buns when you can have four pieces of bread, gooey cheese, and unfathomable amounts of butter?

4. GUY FIERI'S CHEESECAKE CHALLENGE

Whiz-bang chef Guy Fieri has long drawn ire for his more wild culinary creations, but what sets his cuisine apart from that of other junk food aficionados is his steadfast dedication to the key elements of any extreme item: size and odd combinations. Fieri’s “Guy's Cheesecake Challenge” is currently on the menu of his Vegas Kitchen and Bar, but it’s easy enough to replicate at home: Just halve a cheesecake, throw it on a plate, and douse liberally with hot fudge, pretzels, and potato chips. (What, no bacon?)

5. DENNY'S FRIED CHEESE MELT

Denny's

In August 2010, Denny’s introduced the Fried Cheese Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with fried mozzarella sticks. Yes, it was served with both French fries and a side of marinara sauce, because it’s important to eat vegetables with every meal.

6. DUNKIN' DONUTS'S GLAZED DONUT BREAKFAST SANDWICH

Dunkin' Donuts

If you’ve ever hit up your local Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast and found yourself stumped when it came time to decide if you wanted a donut or a breakfast sandwich to get your morning motor revving, Dunkin' Donuts came up with a brilliant culinary brainstorm in 2013: the fast food favorite unveiled a breakfast sandwich that used glazed donuts as “bread,” wrapped around bacon and peppered egg.

7. JACK IN THE BOX MUNCHIE MEAL

Jack in the Box
What Jack’s Munchie Meals lack in creativity, they more than make up for in pure, unadulterated size and content. Each Munchie Meal—there are four total—features a massive sandwich (from the Stacked Grilled Cheese Burger to the Spicy Nacho Chicken Sandwich, and all sorts of wild fried things in between) accompanied with two beef tacos, “Halfsies” (a combo of fries and curly fries), and a 20-ounce fountain drink. These intense snack boxes are still available at most Jack in the Box locations, but you’ll have to wait until after 9 p.m. to procure your very own.

8. PIZZA HUT CHEESY BITES REMIX PIZZA

Apparently, there’s nothing that Pizza Hut loves more than using its crust as a delivery system for other junk food items. The hut that pizza built may have crammed hot dogs and hamburgers on to their pie sides, but there was something special about the Cheesy Bites Remix pizza. It featured fried cheese pockets stuffed with three different varieties of extra junk, from spicy seasoning to cream cheese and sesame to mozzarella and parmesan.

9. DEEP FRIED BUTTER

County and state fairs have long been hotbeds (sizzling, oily hotbeds) of wild, deep-frying invention. Dunking things in batter and then tossing them into a vat of oil is a nifty way to turn almost anything into a delicious crisp pocket of junky decadence, perfect for utensil-free eating—but that doesn’t mean that everything needs to get the deep-fried treatment. While deep-fried Oreos may be a stroke of brilliance, deep fried butter is just plain madness. Here’s a quick test: If you wouldn’t eat something if it weren’t deep-fried, don’t eat it if it is deep-fried. When was the last time you ate an entire stick of butter? See? Point proven.

10. THE BACON BUN BURGER

Not content to have a bacon sandwich between two chicken filets? Is a grilled cheese bun replacement not for you? Then try making your very own hamburger buns out of bacon. Carbs are bad for you, right?

11. FRIED ICE CREAM SANDWICH

The Florida State Fair is the proud home of the first fried ice cream sandwich, a junky treat that bears a name that doesn’t even begin to explain what it holds between its buns. It’s not a fried ice cream sandwich so much as a bacon cheeseburger (technically a sandwich) topped with a ball of fried ice cream. It might be a good meal for multi-taskers—no need to worry about dessert—but it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing good for anything else.

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