Thursday, August 03, 2006

Chocolate, Unlimited

Christopher Elbow's "Rosemary Caramel"

I was in Citizen Cupcake, the baby sister of Citizen Cake patisserie/restaurant in San Francisco, enjoying a chocolate cupcake with a friend during one of those rare 85-degree days in the city. As we were eating and chatting, the wall at the front of the store caught my eye. It was lined floor to ceiling with chocolate.

Anyone who knows of Elizabeth Falkner, the owner, is well aware of her infatuation with chocolate. Her forthcoming restaurant, Orson, will even feature a chocolate sommelier. Have you ever heard of such a thing? And why aren’t there more of them?? When I went over to check out the wall of chocolate at Citizen Cupcake, I wished I had that sommelier next to me. There was a globetrotting array of chocolates spanning from Belgian chocolate bars to chocolate dipped figs. Mindboggling, really.

Chocolate quality and flavor profiles vary considerably from chocolatier to chocolatier. Some producers really love the ultra bitter qualities of the cocoa bean, while others like to revisit the sweet and mild varieties popularized by American candy bars. There’s a different style for every palate.

Here’s a tip for prospective buyers when you’re confronted with a limitless variety of chocolate before you. Higher end chocolates will list a percentage on their packaging. This refers to the percentage of cocoa liqueur (ground cocoa beans) in a bar of chocolate. The higher the percentage, the more bitter the chocolate will be. For example, a 72% chocolate will be categorized as “dark”, a 40% is “bittersweet”, a 20% is “semisweet” and 12% is “milk chocolate.”

As for white chocolate, there are really only two categories: real and imitation. Real white chocolate will contain cocoa butter as its only fat; imitation white chocolate will not. A lot of confections labeled as “white chocolate” are nothing more than bars made from sugar, milk powder, stabilizers and vanillin (fake vanilla). These imposters can be OK for eating, but don’t ever try and cook with them.

So, how do you decide which chocolate to buy? Taste, taste, taste! Take it from me – it’s the most enjoyable research you will ever do.

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