You know in talent shows where everyone has their long-term love for singing/sob stories. Yup, that's me and chocolate. I've been told that maybe my relationship with chocolate isn't healthy, I'd just call it passionate.
My earliest memories include hoarding multipack chocolate bars after Mum's weekly shop into hidden spots over the house. Heaven forbid someone could eat some and not save me any when I wasn't around. A 5 pack of crunchies in the garage, who would have thought?
Then there was the phase where my Grandad, a non-dessert eater, would order profiteroles on family meals just so that I could have an extra share of the chocolate on top. My hero.
Now I can 'pretend' that its all in the aid of research. I do like to stay on top of things you see. Forget front page Daily Mail scandals, I need to know what bonkers combinations Cadbury's are releasing next and how many Lindt truffles I can get away with eating for lunch.
Now of course I know my commercial chocolate very well, but to me, single origin, roasting and whatnot is a bit of a mindfield. And that's exactly where the lovely Bake with Maria team step in.
As an introduction to their school's chocolate classes a small group of like-chocolate-minded people were invited into their Baking Lab to get chocolate savvy.
We started off with introductions to chocolate from Annamarie. Who took us step by step through process of bean to bar.
To start, there are a few different types of cocoa bean, one of the best being Criollo. If you spot this in the ingredients of your fancy single origin bars then you know you're onto a winner. Other beans, along with their greatly varying manufacturing processes, can be found in more mass produced bars. For example, you're likely to find Kraft and similar brands using Forced Arrow beans.
Once the cocoa beans are picked from a cocoa pod, the beans are left out in the sun to ferment. This fermentation process takes place on large sheets of banana leaves and ideally in a sheltered greenhouse-type place for hygiene. The beans are gently churned over frequently to ensure that each bean dries out evenly. The process not only allows the beans to develop in flavour and character, but to rid themselves of any bacteria they may be carrying and essentially to stop growing.
After anything from one week to three, depending on humidity and climates, the beans are ready for the next stage, roasting. Better quality chocolate will now be roasted steadily at a low temperature to ensure that no smoke forms and depletes flavour. Larger mass produced brands may roast at higher temperatures to ensure a quick turnaround.
Next up, winnowing. Machinery is used to separate the bitter outer husk from the bean itself. Once separated, the cocoa beans are now coarsely ground down form cocoa nibs, which are in turn ground down again to form a cocoa paste known as cocoa liquor.
Now this is the point that we start recognising chocolate as we know it. From the cocoa liquor, cocoa butter is extracted. Through conching, cocoa butter is then added back to the cocoa liquor but the amount largely depends on quality and brands. The mix is then churned to form a nice smooth consistency, ideally the longer the smoother the final product will be.
At this stage, the cocoa mix will be tempered and poured into moulds and bars to pass onto chocolatiers to create their own final chocolate product. And, as you can guess, the whole length of manufacturing process and tools used varies greatly between brands and their suppliers. Some of the commercial chocolate giants are more likely to be able to go from bean to bar in just a week with giant industrial processing.
Stuart is West London's answer to all things chocolate. His shop, Cocoa Bijoux, can be found in West Hampstead and is filled with all sorts of traditionally made chocolate made from the finest of ingredients.
He bought along a selection of his most popular bars for us to have a try.
I'm not usually too keen on dark chocolate to eat on its own, but I was very surprised to find how different they all tasted. The different percentages really do taste different. Some coat your mouth, some are more smooth and some have that bitter taste I was more familiar with.
My favourite being the Blanxart 72% Republica Dominicana. Think of a deeply rich homemade chocolate mousse, this bar tastes of exactly that. Another favourite, from the milk selection was the Mazet salted caramel milk chocolate bar. The crunch of the salt and the golden flavour of the caramel pairs beautifully together in this bar.
Truly chocolate inspired, Annemarie went on to demonstrate how exactly chocolate truffles are made by making ganache.
Dark chocolate ganache truffles
(makes about 50 rolled truffles)
125ml double cream
1 vanilla pod, split and beans scraped
50g unsalted butter, room temperature
75g 65-70% dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
pinch of salt
cocoa powder for dusting
optional: melted dark chocolate for coating
Stir the cream and glucose together in a medium saucepan. Scrape the vanilla beans into the pan along with the pod, and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil over a medium high heat, remove from the heat, and allow to sit for one minute. (For best results, allow to cool, transfer into a bowl, cover and infuse by refrigerating overnight).
Line the bottom and sides of an 8 inch square baking tin with cling film.
In a small/medium heatproof bowl, pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and stir together using a spatula in small concentric circles until the chocolate is incorporated fully and emulsifies into a homogenous mixture. Add the butter in small pieces and incorporate.
Pour ganache into lined tin and spread evenly into corners, smooth over the top. Cover with cling film and allow to set in the fridge, about one hour.
Place ganache onto work surface or chopping board, remove cling film and using a knife, cut ganache into 1 inch squares, dipping the knife into hot water and wiping between each cut. Wearing gloves, roll the ganache squares into balls, then roll and coat in cocoa powder.
Optional: melt down more dark chocolate until just melted, either over a bain marie or in the microwave. Dip ganaches into the chocolate using a dipping fork or using gloves and then roll into the cocoa powder.
The Bake with Maria school now offers two speciality chocolate classes: 'Introduction to chocolate making' and 'Chocolate desserts class'. In each class Annamarie, pastry chef and chocolatier, will take you through how to make ganache and to correctly temper chocolate. You'll have a chance to try some chocolate treats as well as making your own to take home.
For more information on Bake with Maria's classes, visit the website here. They also offer gift vouchers and can host private parties.
And seeing as chocolate comes from a plant, its healthy after all...so I made my own.
Thank you to Bella and Maria at the Baking Lab for having me. And to Annamarie and Stuart for imparting all your knowledge to me.
I was invited to attend the chocolate class, but all views are my own.