Thursday, March 4, 2010

Theobroma Cacao - The Chocolate Tree

I love everything about baking - the science of it, the structure of a recipe and, of course, the end product. Many of my recipes involve chocolate because, well let's face it, it's the best thing to ever grow on a tree. I'll confess now that I am absolutely addicted and obsessed (call it what you may) with chocolate. I believe that it belongs in a food group of its own. It's so interesting. Think about it - it is made from seeds (i.e. cocoa beans) that grow within a giant pod on a tree Theobroma cacao. It's basically a fruit! Right? It is a source of protein, polyphenols (antioxidants) and even fiber! The only reason it got a bad reputation is because "candy" manufacturers began to adulterate it by loading it up with.....I hate to say it....hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Cocoa-containing products that contain vegetable oil cannot be called chocolate, since chocolate has a standard of identity which protects its right to contain 100% cocoa butter. The Canadian Food and Drug Regulations state that "Chocolate, Bittersweet Chocolate, Semi-sweet Chocolate or Dark Chocolate" shall contain cocoa liquor or cocoa powder, cocoa butter and a sweetening ingredient. There is no room here for imitation fats!

How Chocolate is Made:

Cocoa pods are first harvested from trees of the species Theobroma cacao. They are split lengthwise and the seeds are removed from within their white pulp. These seeds are immediately fermented under the sun, and it is the length of this fermentation process (2 to 8 days) that determines the species of cocoa produced. During this period, the chocolate flavour begins to develop and the fermented seeds are called cocoa beans.

Cocoa beans are then dried, cleaned and roasted. Once cooled, roasted cocoa beans are cracked to remove their outer shell and expose the interior kernels, called cocoa nibs. These cocoa nibs are the basis of chocolate-making. They undergo a grinding process which produces cocoa liquor.

Further processing separates cocoa butter from cocoa solids, which are then combined in different proportions to produce semi-sweet, dark, bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate. The cocoa solids can also be alkalized, crushed and ground into fine powder by large machines.

Alkalization involves treating cocoa solids with an alkali salt such as sodium or potassium carbonate. This increases the pH value and neutralizes the acidity of cocoa powder, resulting in a darker and richer colour. This also makes cocoa powder more soluble. Personally, I prefer the taste of natural, non-alkalized cocoa powder; however, I find it very difficult to find it in stores these days.
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