Saturday, January 10, 2009

Step 1 to Becoming a Chocolate Connoisseur

Theo Chocolate bars (and their 3400 Phinney bars) are available nationwide at all Whole Foods locations. They are the only chocolate company in the U.S. whose ingredients are certified Fair Trade; they also are the only chocolate company in the U.S. whose ingredients are certified organic. And did I mention that they are one of only 12 US chocolate companies that, bean-to-bar, does the entire chocolate-making process themselves. Where better place to learn how chocolate is made? They give daily tours, 7 days a week in their factory, located in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood.

Cacao (or the Americanized term cocoa) is the seed of a fruit—not technically a bean, though it is referred to as one—that grows from the trunk and lowest branches of the tree known as Theobroma Cacao. This tree can be seen in countries within 20ยบ of the Equator. To get to the seeds, the fruit innards—seeds and all—are pulled out to ferment for 7 days. (This is the stage that most affects the flavor of the bean.) The seeds are then dried on slats. The dried seeds are then bagged up and sent to a plant. At the plant, the beans are cleaned, roasted, and split with a “bean guillotine,” removing the shell and leaving only the brittle innards (pictured), or what is called the “nib.” (It takes about 70-80 beans to make one 3 oz. dark chocolate bar.) Then the magic happens.

The nibs are roasted, developing their flavor, before they are crushed into a paste with a consistency not unlike freshly ground peanut butter. It is then reduced into a more liquefied form, technically called “chocolate liquor.” Next the sugar is added, as well as the milk for milk chocolate. Next, more complicated things: the sugar particle size is reduced, the acid is reduced, until finally the cocoa solids that have been created are reunited with the cocoa butter (which was previously extracted from the bean). Next all that needs to happen is molding the chocolate, getting the temperature down and packaging it…or if you happen to own a chocolate factory for strictly personal use, forgo the packaging and eat right off the assembly line.

Another option is to add cream to the chocolate. The chocolate is completely processed and formed into a block. Next, remelt the block and mix in hot cream (possibly already fused with other flavors, such as mint. Then, use a marble countertop to temper the ganache—the name for chocolate with cream in it—so the cocoa butter doesn’t separate. Then you can use it for making truffles or other confections.

As I've said before, Theo’s products are incredible. Visit the factory and sample nearly all of it in their factory store, or take the tour and try a little more!

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