Chocolate 5 Ways
Even as recently as the last decade the idea that you could go into the supermarket and pick up a cake of pure, unadulterated 100% chocolate would not have seemed a likely one, but today it’s no effort at all to get. Over the last century British chocolate tastes tended towards something sweet and creamy that seriously downplayed the actual element of chocolate. In recent years, however, there’s been a shift in people’s chocolate related interests. More and more people are starting to become curious about spicy or bitter possibilities as well as about where our chocolate comes from. The upshot of this is entrepreneurs like Willie Harcourt-Cooze going to Venezuela in order to provide your local supermarket with products like this. Interestingly, this “progress” in people’s tastes is, in fact, more of a return to traditional ways of tasting chocolate and this made me think about using my 100% cacao cake to make a dessert platter sampling different recipes that tell the story of chocolate’s past.
Much of what we are familiar with about chocolate these days has come very recently in the centuries long history of this bitter yet divine foodstuff. For much of its history chocolate has been almost entirely a drink and has only very recently been paired with the likes of milk and sugar, ingredients it can be hard to imagine it without.
Hefty encyclopaedic culinary tome McGee on Food & Cooking informs us that our word chocolate comes from the Spanish who coined the name by compounding the Aztec words “chocol” (hot) and “atl” (water). When Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez landed in what is now Mexico he was initially unsure that the native population seemed to value this hot water drink in the way he valued their gold, but he was won around to it by Aztec emperor Montezuma’s assurances of chocolate’s aphrodisiac qualities. Cortez brought chocolate back to Europe. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat remarks that Cortez always had a full chocolate pot on his desk for the rest of his life.
The Aztecs, though, were not the first users of chocolate. Further south, the Maya are the earliest chocolate consumers that we know of. The more tropical climate of what we now call Yucatan and Guatemala, the Mayan ancestral home, was perfect for growing cacao trees. It’s name in the Mayan language – “cacahuaquchtl” (from which we get “cacao” and “cocoa”) simply means The Tree, showing the significance with which the Maya people viewed it. Toussaint-Samat describes the Mayan way of preparing chocolate, as a hot drink: “You crushed them between two stones. You then mixed the powder you had obtained with boiling water and whisked it with little twigs – chac-chac, choc-choc went the twigs as they whisked up little bubbles. You could add to this boiling liquid (“tchacahoua”, as it was called in Mayan, or tchocoatl, in Aztec): either chilli, musk and honey, or ground maize when you were going to war and needed additional calories. Then you drank it.”
This, then, must be the starting point of my chocolate history dessert, a honey sweetened Mayan hot chocolate. I began by grating my cake of 100% Venezuelan Black cacao. Boiling some water I added cinnamon and vanilla and allowed them to infuse. Once the water had reduced I removed the vanilla pod and cinnamon stick and added my chocolate and honey. Finally, I whipped the chocolate into a foam as the Maya would have done with their chac-chac-ing twigs (only I used an electric whisk) and sprinkled in some crushed chilli flakes.
For the Maya and the Aztecs chocolate had divine associations and this fascinated Europeans. In fact Linnaeus (remember him?) when drawing up his system for classifying the natural world gave the cacao plant the scientific name Theobroma cacao (from the Greek “theos” – god, and “broma” – food, thus “food of the gods). The first Europeans really to see chocolate’s potential were the missionaries sent to the Americas to bring Christianity to replace this food worship. As Toussaint-Samat describes it: “The first concern of the missionary nuns in Central America was to use their culinary gifts to convert chocolate to Christianity. They thought, correctly, that it was only diabolical because of the spices and flavourings added to it. They replaced them with vanilla, sugar and cream and the result was delicious.” It was in this form, then, still a drink but with sugar and cream, that chocolate first became popular in Europe.
The French would first take to it during the reign of Louis XIV, despite the Sun King’s habitual distrust for this kind of thing. Louis allowed a man by the name of David Chaillon the sole privilege of making and selling chocolate throughout his kingdom. The interesting thing about this was that Chaillon’s royal charter allowed for the sale of chocolate “in a liquid form or as pastilles or in any other form that he may please’. Yes, chocolate was no longer just for drinking, methods of creating solid, moulded chocolate forms had arrived and, with them, the earliest examples of chocolate based baking. It’s this point that suggests a second recipe for my sampler.
The earliest English recipe books to use chocolate are from the 17th century. Hannah Woolley (remember her?) recommends a drink of chocolate, eggs and wine. But it’s not until the 18th century that recipes for baking with chocolate became popular. John Farley’s The London Art of Cookery and Domestic Housekeeper’s Complete Assistant was first published in 1783 and contained recipes for “chocolate cream” and “chocolate tart”. I decided to use the latter. Here is the recipe in full: “Rasp a quarter of a pound of chocolate, a stick of cinnamon, add some fresh lemon peel grated, a little salt and some sugar: take two spoonsful of fine flour, and the yolks of six eggs well beaten, and mixed with some milk. Put all these over a stewpan, and let them be a little over the fire: add a little lemon peel cut small, and let it stand to be cold. Beat up whites of eggs enough to cover it, and put it in puff paste. When it is baked, sift some sugar over it, and glaze it with a salamander”.
Well, it seems simple enough (apart from that bit about a salamander – presumably not a newt-like amphibian in this case), essentially it’s a lemon meringue pie with chocolate in it as well. However, Farley does share Woolley’s curious mix of accurate measurements like “a quarter of a pound” with the likes of “some” and “a little”. I mean, is “some” more than “a little”? If so, then how much more? I mixed the 100% chocolate, cinnamon, lemon peel, egg yolks and milk in a baine-marie and melted it together, adding flour and sugar gradually. At first the taste was incredibly sour as I’d gone a bit far with the lemon peel. Gradually, though, with regular tasting, I was able to get something that worked pretty well. Farley mentions puff pastry and, really, all pastry in the 18th century tended to be like this. I guess people in the 18th century were able to hire cooks to do this time consuming preparation, but I have to admit to cheating a little here and using shop bought puff pastry (I did have five desserts to make, after all).
Given the simplicity of Farley’s instructions I wasn’t sure whether to blind bake the pastry first, but, as I was making mini-pies I decided to try without, not wanting the pastry to puff up so much before I filled it. So, I rolled out discs of puff pastry and filled them with the chocolate-lemon mix and topped it with egg whites beaten into a (largely sugarless) meringue. Getting them out of the oven I realised I probably should have blind baked the casings a little first as they were a touch underdone, but the pie actually looked quite appetising.
At this point chocolate, whether for eating or drinking, was always pure, bitter dark chocolate used as an ingredient in something else. The 19th century, though, saw chocolate production and invention develop quicker in a few decades than in the centuries leading up to that point. As McGee puts it, chocolate is “one of the few examples of a food whose full potential was first revealed in industrial manufacturing”. In Holland the cocoa press was invented by Casparus van Houten in 1828. This machine enabled the production of cocoa powder. Adding cocoa powder to cocoa butter and sugar produced something far more like the sort of chocolate we recognise today and, in Britain in 1847, J.S. Fry & Sons of Bristol (of Fry’s Turkish Delight fame) produced the first mass marketable chocolate bar.
There was no milk or white chocolate, however, these early chocolate bars were all the dark kind. As I’ve mentioned before you can’t add liquids to melting chocolate without it forming a powder, so the possibility of producing a solid milk chocolate bar had to wait until somebody invented powdered milk. That somebody was Henri Nestlé who, in 1867, first developed the dehydrated milk on which the Nestlé empire has since been built. Nestlé’s neighbour was a man named Daniel Peter. Peter wanted a way to differentiate Peter’s Chocolate in a highly competitive market and saw the possibility of a creamy milk chocolate in mixing Nestlé’s powdered milk into his chocolate.
Milk chocolates were, therefore, the third component of my chocolate history dessert. So, I bought some dehydrated milk and combined that with the melting 100% cacao cake and some sugar to attempt to mould some simple 19th century milk chocolates. It proved pretty difficult to get the powdered milk to melt into the chocolate, though, giving a not entirely appealing gritty consistency. It’s hard to tell whether Daniel Peter’s early attempts had that kind of texture, but it’s fair to say milk chocolate has improved with practice.
The 20th century has been more of a case of refining methods and finding new recipes to utilise with chocolate than the rapid developments of the 19th. Diminutively statured painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec reputedly (slightly implausibly) invented the chocolate mousse in the 1900s. Up to that point mousses, which is just French for a foam whipped up from egg whites, had been primarily savoury. I decided to follow the absinthe chugging artist’s culinary advice and made my own chocolate mousse from melted chocolate, eggs and sugar.
In the 21st century we have more varieties of chocolate and ways to prepare it than ever before. Ganaches and truffles (a mix of chocolate and whipping cream) originated at the same time as Toulouse-Lautrec’s chocolate mousse, but have rarely been more popular than in the tortes and gateaus of modern gastronomy. For my final dish, then, I decided to make a chocolate ganache torte that highlighted how the popular flavours of chocolate had come full circle. Reflecting the ingredients in the first sample, the Maya hot chocolate, I infused whipping cream with cinnamon and chilli and used honey rather than sugar as a sweetener.
So, that’s a brief history of chocolate in a dessert. How did it taste? Predictably a mixed bag. The modern ganache had the best texture and its flavours nicely matched the Maya spiciness, but the hard and gritty milk chocolates were distinctly lacking in a melt in the mouth quality. John Farley’s chocolate and lemon meringue pie was the most interesting, though, I honestly can’t tell whether I liked the slightly unusual flavour or not. Either way, if all this has convinced me of anything, it’s that I’m glad I live today with all the food options available now.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I appear to be in some sort of chocolate coma. From most favourite to least (because anything with chocolate will always rate highly with me): Mayan hot chocolate, chocolate and lemon meringue pie, modern ganache, the mousse (which might have rate higher if it hadn’t split slightly), the milk chocolates.