26 February 2011

Chocolate, Part I: Not your mother's candy

It has healthful qualities! It quiets children from the first whiff of the crinkly dark brown wrapper which protects it. It calms us and give us reprieve, however temporary, from the heartache of break-ups, lay-offs and  PMS. Chocolate.

My feelings about chocolate are those of love, adoration, admiration and, sometimes, hatred. How can we love something so much, something that adds inches to our waste-lines and cavities to our pearly white smiles? Simple. Chocolate is one of the world's most perfect foods. Calling it a "food" seems a little funny as we often consider food to be of a savory variety, while sweets are usually found under the "treats" category. If you think about all the applications of chocolate throughout the world, however, it is most certainly a general food for use in dishes of both sweet and savory varieties. Consider the wonderful Molé sauce found among traditional mexican cuisine.

Let's start with what I'm guessing was one of the first chocolate experiences shared many of us who were in the kitchen with our parents, baking, cooking, rifling through cupboards for a secret sweet treasure. It went something like this...

           We climbed up on the kitchen stool, started poking around the packages, boxes and canisters of baking ingredients, and not finding much at first. Then, AH-HAH! Chocolate in a beautiful box, wrapped in thin foil and divided into perfect squares has found its way to our delicate fingers. Carefully, we open the box, snap off a square and quickly, before mom notices, pop the entire square in the watering mouth in one speedy motion. We bit down longing for the sweet creaminess we'd heard so much about from friends, older siblings, adults enjoying truffles and caramels. What we taste instead is the most dreadful, and more-so, disappointing taste ever to belay our young palettes. We've discovered unsweetened baking chocolate, and it is rotten.  Soon begins the spitting, the frantic search for a beverage to rid our mouths of the bitter, dirt-like taste trying desperately to find its way to our stomachs.  Little did we know Mom, all knowing and all seeing, has been watching the entire time and lying in wait for the end game, the taste of forbidden, and rightfully so,  special baking chocolate.  "Why? Is this rotten? Is it bad? Why does it taste so yucky?" The laughter from everyone over the age of 6 ensues while the crying, from everyone under (me), simultaneously beings. I thought, for days, it was a cruel joke, my sister tried to pull a trick on me, get me in trouble. Even after it was explained what that specific chocolate was for, I was as bitter as the nearly black square that tried to make a fool of me.

And now? Now, chocolate and I are on much better terms. It's love. I started to forgive chocolate and enjoy the traditional candy bars of youth made of, or covered in creamy American milk chocolate. As I got older, and my palette matured, I became curious about the dark side. Dark chocolate was mysterious, brought about an air of fanciful indulgence, of entitlement which seemed too rich for this lower-middle class girl. While I experimented now and then with a creamy truffle here and a Special Dark bar there, I didn't really feel I was worthy, or ready for all the dark side had to offer, and I still had a lot to learn.

That was 15 years ago. Today, when you go into a grocery candy aisle, you see all the standards staring back at you mixed in with fruit candies, tart candies, gum and mints.  If you amble just beyond the  brightly colored 12-count paperboard boxes of caramel bars and peanut nougat, you arrive in a magical land of specialty chocolate bars and chocolate covered fruits and nuts. This, dear readers, is a land which, until recent years, was unheard of within the average neighborhood market.  There has long been unsweetened baking chocolate, my bitter enemy, resting comfortably in the baking aisle, along side the ever growing variety of chocolate and flavored chips we use in our cookies, brownies and as decoration atop those Halloween cupcakes or mixed in to add a unique touch to our rice cereal treats. Now, now we are living in a beautiful time where  whatever we desire to taste in the world of glorious chocolate whether it be, salty, sweet, bitter, low-cocoa, milk, dark, semi-sweet or any combination of those can be found a stone's throw away. What a charming place it is.

There are a great many things to know about chocolate for cooking and baking versus "eating" chocolate. When buying chocolate for baking, aside from chocolate chip cookies, you usually want to look for a bar chocolate without stabilizers as the recipe you're using will very likely call for melting the lovely dark brown velvet for folding, whipping, blending or enveloping. This is when you want the goods from the baking aisle. You must then look at cocoa percentages, and depending on the recipe, this can really be up to you for the most part. I tend to go for a dark or semi-sweet bar with as much as 70% cocoa. What does that mean? Well, the higher percentage of cocoa the lower the percentage of additives like sugar and fat, thus giving a more bitter, but much more rich and elegant flavor, to your molten cakes and hand rolled ganache truffles.

Chocolate for eating is completely up to your taste buds. While you might enjoy a nice Swiss dark chocolate covered hazelnut truffle now and then, you might just as soon get a late night craving for a good old milk chocolate bar or some peanut butter cups. We all do, and thank heaven for that incredible candy aisle to accommodate all our needs and desires in the land of chocolate. It is a place of such diversity that we can now find  lovely designer boxes cradling bars of chocolate mixed with everything from sea salt to bacon, from blueberries to chili and herbs! In recent years, chocolate of the darker varieties has also been given the green light for a wonderful source of healthful antioxidants, as well as promoting heart health and lowering cholesterol, as if we need another reason to adore it.

It is also worth noting if you are fortunate enough to live near a local candy shop, the one where you can see a small old woman, who might closely resemble your great granny, hand-dipping peppermint patties in the window, (shout out to the delightful, and always delicious Trudy's Sweets of Ferndale, CA and an old hometown favorite Sjaak's/Venlo Chocolates of Eureka, CA!) or you are near a large metropolis like Seattle or San Francisco, you are very likely to find a plethora of chocolate dreams created right in your own backyard. In the Fremont area of Seattle we are very fortunate to have Theo Chocolates. They are owned and fully operated there and offer tours of their facility, as well as an amazing sample room where you can taste (and purchase, of course) bars of chocolate with bread, toasted coconut and on and on. Even better, all Theo Chocolate products are created with free-trade, organic beans from roasting to the final product we have the pleasure of tasting. (www.theochocolate.com) Look around your hometown, large or small for your local candy store, chocolatier, or sweet shop and be sure to stop in. I can bet you'll find something you've never tried before, and when you do, stop by often, and let the hard working candy makers know how you feel about the fruits of their labor. San Francisco has Joseph Schmidt and Ghirardelli, Seattle has Fran's (great chocolate candies!) and Theo, and your city is likely to have a chocolate haven just as good, if not better. Seek it out, know it, share it with friends, give a box tied with sparkly ribbon for a noteworthy gift, send some home to family.

Don't be afraid, though, when that craving strikes in the late night hours and all the local chocolatiers are home snuggled in bed like the perfect truffles they wrap in tiny metallic papers. I'm guessing if you bundle up, cruise to the market, find that special candy aisle and walk a little further than you used to, something sweet, or not so, depending on your tongue, will find its way into your basket, and maybe it'll bring a new salty, fruity, or nutty friend along for the ride. And when you're done with the candies, it's time to hit the freezer and see what all the local chocolate ice cream makers  have been up to...

NEXT WEEK: Chocolate, Part II: Lovin' from the oven!

07 February 2011

Comfort foods, comforters and comforting.

There has been an enormous need for comfort in my life of late. A dreadful run of family illnesses, close, old friends dealing more than one death in the family and even joyous  occasions have given me cause to indulge in, and more importantly to provide, comfort to those around me.

In my world comfort foods are those that bring me back to my childhood, sitting around the family table or around the TV watching "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" with my mom and sister. To say I have a few favorite comfort foods is an understatement.  A few dozen might be closer to the accurate. Things like thick, chunky soups with crusty bread for dipping, french toast covered in butter and powdered sugar, and mounds of mashed potatoes and gravy on the side of juicy fried chicken with a perfect crisp crust are all foods that make me long for the days of climbing into mommy's bed getting lost in her beautiful white fluffy comforter. I remember staying home sick from school and being in mommy's bed enrobed in the comforter with an orange soda, in a glass bottle, in one hand and a book in the other.

I think memories like this are why comfort foods are just that; comforting. They tend to remind us of care free times, of moments in our lives when all we had to do was eat simple foods, enjoy one another with an evening of game shows or board games, and play outside in the street until dark came and parents called us home.  They are usually warm, starchy not-so-healthy foods, foods that might need a little extra time to bake or simmer, and they always fill us with, or help to remove us from, whatever we need as we partake, whether it be love, remembrance, sorrow, or simply time we've lost and yearn to  grasp again even if only for a moment.

While each of us finds comfort in varying things including, but not limited to food favorites, my wish for all of you is that your need for comfort is limited, but when you need to be comforted, you find just the right memory and accompanying meal to wrap you in warmth and take you home, wherever that is for you.

NEXT WEEK: For the love of chocolate!