There are so many chocolates on the market these days. From white chocolate to the numerous kinds of varietal dark chocolates, one can easily get overwhelmed when shopping.
As we begin thinking about holiday baking, and gifting artisanal chocolates, many questions arise. To help us get to the bottom of the chocolate debate, we asked Michael Recchiuti, renowned San Francisco confectioner, and author along with Fran Gage of “Chocolate Obsession,” for some help.
Dark… And Darker
While some dark chocolate lovers consider milk chocolate a fraud, too cloyingly sweet, others prefer the creaminess of milk chocolate over the strong taste of dark chocolate. According to Michael, this significant difference in flavor is because "milk chocolate contains less cocoa mass and has milk solids and sugar added,” whereas “dark chocolate contains no milk solids, and is made with less sugar.”
Is one, therefore better than the other? Certainly not. Both chocolates serve important roles when making chocolates. Michael loves using dark chocolate when balancing infusions, as it “embodies the complexities and layers of flavor” he’s looking for, while milk chocolate is important in blending, as it helps “give a smoother body” to the finished product.
With the rising popularity of dark and artisanal chocolates today, we see fewer “bittersweet” and “semi-sweet” labeled packages, and more emblazoned with percentages. These percentages refer to the amount of cocoa (cocoa solids and cocoa butter) purely derived from the cocoa bean. The higher the percentage, the more cocoa – and the less sugar and other fillers – the bar contains.
- White Chocolate: around 20% cacao
- Milk Chocolate: 30-40% cacao
- Dark Chocolate: 50-80% cacao; includes semi-sweet ( about 64-66%), and bittersweet (about 70-80%)
- Unsweetened: 100% cacao
So, does it matter if you choose chocolate with 66% cacao over 80% cacao when baking or making chocolates? Michael believes that “the higher percentage chocolate is better for baking" and helps to create a more chocolate-rich flavor when making truffles. If you're making chocolate chip cookies at home, however, it comes down to personal preference.
Then there is white chocolate, which really isn't "chocolate" at all, as it is made from cocoa butter extracted from the cocoa mass, along with sugar and milk. Michael uses white chocolate in a couple of their truffle flavors, either as an ingredient along with other chocolates, or as a decorative shell for a few of their bonbons, like the Ginger Heart or Rose Caramel.
Baking with Chocolate
One may wonder, when baking a chocolate cake, why the recipe calls for cocoa powder, not chocolate. Because cocoa powder contains less fat, it blends well in cake and cookie recipe, Michael explains. He prefers to combine the two for a more intense flavor. “Chocolate is also difficult to add to a recipe that contains water, such as ice cream base,” Michael tells me, because “when you freeze pure chocolate, the cocoa butter seizes, and you run the risk of separating the chocolate from the water.” The end result would have a waxy texture – and no one likes that.
Many of us have experienced the salty-sweet pairing of chocolate and salt together (think chocolate covered pretzels or Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream), but have never thought about pairing chocolate and cheese. Michael finds these that the two “go well together," the earthy saltiness of the cheese mellowed by the sweetness of the chocolate. When pairing a cheese with chocolate, look for a cheese that "is not too strong, but has a nice tang,” he instructs. And no washed rinds.
Like beer and cheese, beer and chocolate are another happy pairing. Matching the flavor profile of a beer with that of a chocolate, Michael finds that "deep, rich stouts are great to pair with our Kona Coffee chocolate, while a spicy lager goes well with our Star Anise Pink Peppercorn chocolate.” His beer pairing box, with a selection of three different confections paired with three styles of beer, offers other pairing suggestions to explore.
Pairing Chocolates... To the Extreme
Experimenting with pairing different ingredients with chocolate is something Michael enjoys exploring. During the summer months, Recchiuti Confections hosts “The Taste Projects” in their kitchen, where Michael pushes the envelope, combining flavors that one would never consider, like mushrooms and chocolate. This dinner party cum educational discussion brings together small, like-minded artisans who then share their expertise and passion for their work with the attendees. At the mushroom and chocolate Taste Project, Michael presented a King Trumpet mushroom and chocolate Tarte Tatin. Though hesitant at first, his guests were delighted after tasting the sweet-savory combination. Later, at a bread and chocolate Taste Project, Michael created a beverage out of sourdough starter and combined it with burnt sugar, chocolate, balsamic vinegar, and seltzer, serving it like a float. Sounds crazy, but it “was tangy, effervescent and unexpected when the acid in the starter/vinegar drove the chocolate flavor forward.” Experimenting, indeed.
Shopping for Chocolate
When buying chocolate, whether it be for baking or eating, Michael urges people to taste before buying. “The type of chocolate you buy depends on what you’ll be using it for; baking or making truffles.” When baking, you want a chocolate that will balance nicely with what you’re making, like a deep, dark extra-bitter (70-80%), so the flavor isn’t diluted. When making chocolates, something lighter, like semi-sweet (65%) is better. In the end, just “trust your palate," he tells me.
Anyone who has ever taken a bite of a cold chocolate bar can attest, cold chocolate is just, well… Boring, lacking any pronounced chocolate flavors. Others, like me, adore nearly melted chocolate because the chocolate tastes more chocolate-y. There is truth behind this, as like red wines, chocolate flavors and aromas are more pronounced at room temperature. Michael prefers his chocolate between a range of 65-75 degrees, “just cool enough that it is not melting and warm enough for the flavors to open and develop.”
The best place to store chocolate is next to your red wine or olive oil. Chocolate keeps best between 55-75 degrees, in an odor-free place. Never, ever refrigerate chocolate, as this causes sugar bloom (the whitish film that forms on the surface, due to condensation) when it is brought back to room temperature. But why store chocolate when you can eat it?
One of Recchiuti’s latest confections is their Peppermint Thin, a labor of love for Michael. “Growing up, my favorite candy was (and still is) Junior Mints. It took me two years of researching and trial and error in development to finally achieve an elegant version of my childhood candy.” These minty thins, enrobed in a Recchiuti custom blend semi-sweet (64%) chocolate, are the perfect holiday season flavor – and gift. Plus, as Michael says, “they’re made with a lot of cheer and love.”