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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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Alexa Can Now Help You Find a Wine Pairing
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Even if you enjoy wine regularly, you may not know exactly how you’re supposed to pair it with food. But you don’t have to be a sommelier to put together a good pairing at home. According to Lifehacker, you can just ask Alexa.

An Alexa skill called Wine Finder is designed to help you figure out which wine varietal would go best with whatever food you’re planning to eat. You just have to ask, “What wine goes well with … ”

Created by an app developer called Bloop Entertainment, the Amazon Echo skill features a database with 500 wine pairings. And not all of them are designed for someone working their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The skill will also help you find the proper pairing for your more casual snacks. In one demo, the skill recommends pairing nachos with a Sauvignon blanc or Zinfandel. (Note that the latter also goes well with Frito pie.)

You can also ask it to find you the perfect wine to drink with apple pie and pizza, in addition to the meats, cheeses, and other wine-pairing staples you might expect. However, if you ask it what to pair with hot dogs, it says “water,” which is an affront to hot dog connoisseurs everywhere.

There are a few other wine-pairing skills available for Alexa, including Wine Pairings, Wine Pairings (two different skills), and Wine Expert. But according to user reviews, Wine Finder is the standout, offering more and higher-quality suggestions than some of the other sommelier apps.

It’s free to enable here, so drink up.

[h/t Lifehacker]

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Elsie Hui, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Sam's Club Brings $.99 Polish Hot Dogs to All Stores After They're Cut From Costco's Food Courts
Elsie Hui, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Elsie Hui, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In early July, Costco angered many customers with the announcement that its beloved Polish hot dog was being removed from the food court menu. If you're someone who believes cheap meat tastes best when eaten in a bulk retail warehouse, Sam's Club has good news: The competing big box chain has responded to Costco's news by promising to roll out Polish hot dogs in all its stores later this month, Business Insider reports.

The Polish hot dog has long been a staple at Costco. Like Costco's classic hot dog, the Polish dog was part of the food court's famously affordable $1.50 hot dog and a soda package. The company says the item is being cut in favor of healthier offerings, like açai bowls, organic burgers, and plant-based protein salads.

The standard hot dog and the special deal will continue to be available in stores, but customers who prefer the meatier Polish dog aren't satisfied. Fans immediately took their gripes to the internet—there's even a petition on Change.org to "Bring Back the Polish Dog!" with more than 6500 signatures.

Now Sam's Clubs are looking to draw in some of those spurned customers. Its version of the Polish dog will be sold for just $.99 at all stores starting Monday, July 23. Until now, the chain's Polish hot dogs had only been available in about 200 Sam's Club cafés.

It's hard to imagine the Costco food court will lose too many of its loyal followers from the menu change. Polish hot dogs may be getting axed, but the popular rotisserie chicken and robot-prepared pizza will remain.

[h/t Business Insider]

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