Chocolate 911: Go for the Good Stuff

By Nick Malgieri
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Valentine's Day means chocolate, whether it's a box of fancy confections or a homemade dessert. Not to take away from the love (or money) required to buy beautiful chocolate candies at astronomical prices, but it's surely a greater expression of affection to make something yourself.

You don't need to spend a week in the kitchen. Some of the best chocolate desserts are the easiest, because the quality of the chocolate -- not the work you put into it -- is what determines the flavor and texture of the finished product.

It used to be easy to choose chocolate for desserts; packages of thick, one-ounce squares of baking chocolate, semisweet or unsweetened, were right in the same supermarket aisle as the cocoa powder. And although the little squares are still widely available, we can also choose among much higher-quality chocolates made in the United States, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Italy, Venezuela and Colombia.

The difference in quality derives from the variety of cacao beans used to make the chocolate, how carefully the beans are fermented and roasted, and how they're processed into finished chocolate. Those chunky squares are made from cheap, plentiful cacao beans that are quickly processed into fairly gritty chocolate that is thick and heavy when melted and whose flavor is one-note at best.

Better-quality chocolate is made from beans that yield a stronger, more complex taste. Better chocolate also contains a higher percentage of cacao solids (the ground-up cacao beans plus added cocoa butter, the natural fat derived from cacao beans) for a smoother texture and greater fluidity when melted.

Fortunately, most high-quality American chocolate and imported brands are now labeled as to their cacao solid content. Semisweets fall into the 50 to 60 percent range, and bittersweets mostly 65 to 75 percent, but some get as high as the 90s. Unsweetened chocolate is usually labeled 99 percent; it contains some soy lecithin as an emulsifier, as all chocolate does.

Many recipes for chocolate desserts and confections now specify the percentage of the chocolate to be used. The rest is up to you: Taste a few different brands and see how you like them. Some chocolates emphasize either acidity or bitterness, so each will yield a slightly different chocolate flavor when combined with other ingredients in a recipe. Even with plenty of sugar, high-quality bittersweet and semisweet chocolates don't taste sugary, but floral or fruity.

The tasting can be fun and instructive, but be careful that you don't overdo it. After all, you need enough chocolate to make dessert.

Cookbook author and former pastry chef Nick Malgieri directs the baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company