From Cacao Beans to Chocolates
It’s the final day of July, which means that Chocolate Month is over. Having explored its history and combined it with new and unusual flavour pairings, made dinosaurs and recreated childhood treats, I’ve got a lot out of chocolate this month, but for the final words on chocolate July I wanted to take things back to basics. Last week I expressed my pleasure at the possibility of buying a cake of solid 100% chocolate, but, of course, even this pure, single ingredient item has had numerous processes to get to this point. But, what if I wanted to take chocolate right back to its raw plant form and go from there? This week I tried making chocolate for myself from scratch.
I mentioned last week the Theobroma cacao plant from which we get chocolate. This tree is native to southern Mexico and Guatemala, although these days most chocolate comes from the west coast of Africa with the world’s top producer, the Ivory Coast, known more for this than the precious animal product that gave it its name. Cacao trees can only grow in tropical climates, meaning a fairly narrow band of countries across the world that can actually grow it. Chocolate grows on these trees in huge pods of various shades of yellow and brown. Each 500g pod contains anywhere between 20 and 60 seeds, the cacao bean. Because of the difficulty of preserving the cacao pod and shipping it oversees, it’s not really all that possible to acquire the raw ingredient at this stage. Before they can be shipped, the beans need to be dried and fermented. It is only after this process that we in Britain get to see raw cacao beans. This is what chocolate is made out of by chocolatiers and factories over here and so this is what I was able to begin with.
I managed to order some raw, unprocessed cacao beans online from a health food shop whose website seems stuck in the 90s that suggests simply “nibbling on the nibs”. There are, though, several other sites that offer step by step instructions on making your own chocolate from scratch and, if you’ve clicked any of those links, you’ll have noticed that they imply that making your own chocolate is a process that requires an enormous amount of specialist equipment, from a marble slab to a cocoa mill to a “stone chocolate melanger”. Even the “cheaper option” for the home chocolate cook on a couple of the advice sites is a Champion Juicer, a £300 beast of a kitchen gadget! No way am I going to be able to afford anything like that, so I was determined to find out how reasonable a chocolate I could manage with the equipment already in my kitchen.
The first thing to do with any dried cacao beans is to roast them. Roasting brings about the chemical reactions that release the chocolate flavours we all know and love. On top of that it sterilises the beans, which may have picked up harmful bacteria during the fermentation process, and separates the outer husk from the bean inside, making the next stage easier. Fortunately, the roasting stage is one where my kitchen is relatively well equipped, what with me owning an oven and baking tray and all. The advice suggests starting at a high heat, for the sterilisation to work, and then gradually lowering the heat as the beans roast. Heats and timings seem to vary. I began my beans at a temperature of 150ºC, lowering it to 125 after five minutes and continuing to lower the heat as I allowed the beans to roast for around half an hour. The way to tell they’re done is when the husks start to crack, so I took the roasting beans out as soon as it reached this point.
Despite the discussion of roasting drums in the various advice sites, the oven did its job perfectly well. Part of the major appeal of chocolate is its glorious smell as much as its taste and the high point of the roasting process was a release of a delicious chocolate smell that filled the flat for much of the afternoon as I progressed on to the cracking and winnowing stage. This is the point in which the husks of the beans are removed and cast aside to leave you with the brown roast insides of the beans. In the absence of a cocoa mill, the suggestion is to crack the beans with a hammer and then blow away the husks with a hairdryer. However, despite the long, flowing locks in the picture at the top of the screen, a hairdryer is a piece of equipment that has not yet graced my home. Once again, then, I was left with the most simple DIY approach, cracking every bean by hand. It was a pretty efficient system, actually, given I was never looking to make a vast amount, and ensured I didn’t blow any vital ingredients away. It did, however, take forever to do and I can certainly see why, if you wanted to make any significant amount of chocolate, this system wouldn’t be for you.
The inside of the cacao beans are what’s known as cocoa nibs and those are then ground and refined to make cocoa liquor. It was at this point that my lack of useful equipment (or the legendary Champion Juicer) became a problem. My second hand 1980s food processor managed nothing but breaking the cocoa nibs up into smaller cocoa nibs. I then attempted to run the nibs through a pepper mill, but that didn’t manage to grind them at all. Doing it by hand with a pestle and mortar seemed like an option, but it would take even longer than the hand cracking. I finally had to admit that I was going to have to invest in a better grinding device, albeit one that cost a bit less than £300.
An electric coffee grinder a tenth of that price later and I was able to grind my cocoa nibs into a finer powder. The coffee grinder, though, was obviously not well geared up to deal with the fact that chocolate becomes liquid the finer it’s ground. Trying to use the finer grinding settings just ended up with cocoa liquor clogging up the machine. Eventually, I was only able to produce a vaguely satisfying result by adding cocoa nibs to the machine a small amount of the time. I’ve got to admit, this would probably be easier (and smoother) with the juicer!
Refining and conching the chocolate is what allows it to take on a smooth texture with smaller particles of cocoa solids and sugar crystals. This is the point at which other ingredients can also be added to the mix. My chocolate was still 100% cocoa, which is a bit bitter for an eating chocolate, so I added fine icing sugar. Cocoa butter, the fat portion of chocolate that can be extracted from the cocoa liquour, is also often added in order to contribute to the smooth texture. I was able to acquire some cocoa butter from the same place I got the beans, so I added 10% cocoa butter to my chocolate mix.
In the absence of a melangeur, instructables suggests a good conching can be achieved by heating a pestle and mortar and grinding the chocolate liquor into a smooth, less viscous or harsh chocolate. I managed about 5-10 minutes of conching with my hot from the oven mortar, but without a strong enough grinding and refining process, my chocolate remained a little gritty. Nevertheless, its texture had definitely improved.
Finally, then, I could temper my chocolate and pour it into moulds. I’ve already talked a couple of weeks ago about my lack of a marble slab for tempering. Once again, therefore, I had to use the seeding method (even though it meant contaminating my homemade chocolate with a little of the shop bought kind). Tempering such a small amount of chocolate can often be difficult to manage successfully, but I managed to produce something that at least had the shine of good chocolate.
So, how did my truly homemade chocolates turn out? Were they worth doing? Well, no, probably not. They certainly had the rich, pleasing taste of a good dark chocolate, but there was no disguising a somewhat sandy texture resulting from my lack of a decent grinding tool. The whole process was fascinating to understand, but one thing that I have definitely come to understand is why most people don’t tend to make their own chocolate from scratch!
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: So, it turns out cocoa beans aren’t like coffee beans. Whoops. The various processes all smelt incredible (especially the roasting) but it’s a shame the end result was so gritty.