The Food of the Gods
It’s hard to find a person who doesn’t love some variety of chocolate. Many people, however, don’t understand the complex process by which chocolate is made. The main ingredient is the cacao bean, native to a thin swath of land within 20 degrees of the equator. The scientific name for the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods.” Three varieties are used to make chocolate: Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario. The most prized beans come from Criollo trees; their aroma and flavor are stronger and more nuanced than those from other types of tree.
Harvesting the Cacao Bean
Harvesters use machetes to remove cacao bean pods from trees. The pods grow all over the tree, growing darker as they mature. After harvesting, the bean pods are opened and scraped clean, then left to ferment for about a week. After fermentation, the beans move on to the next step, and the pulp in which they are nestled may be used to make simple beverages or confections.
Winnowing the Cocoa Nibs
Fermented cacao beans are spread out to dry; they must be thoroughly desiccated before they’re shipped to chocolate manufacturers. When the beans reach their destination, they’re immediately roasted; this intensifies their flavor and deepens their already dark appearance. Huge winnowing machines separate the seeds from their shells; the shells are discarded, and their contents (called “cocoa nibs”) are ground and pounded into a thick, aromatic paste. This production stage is the first in which the bean contents smell similar to finished chocolate. The paste is then placed in a press, and its cocoa butter extracted. The material left behind is a powder that blends easily with other ingredients to make chocolate bars, candy, chocolate drink mixes and other products.
Creating Milk Chocolate
Milk chocolate is made by mixing pressed cocoa powder with sugars, milk (or cream), and some cocoa butter re-added to the mixture. Vanilla extract is also a common ingredient in milk chocolate. After mixing, the chocolate is smoothed with giant rolling pins and then mixed for many hours inside conching machines; some manufacturers conch their milk chocolate for several days. Finally, the conched chocolate is cooled, molded and packaged for sale.
Tempering: Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder
Commercially available chocolate has a smooth, glossy appearance that does not come naturally to conched chocolate. To create this appealing presentation, manufacturers put their chocolate through a process called tempering, in which the mixture is repeatedly cooled and heated and cooled again. Untempered chocolates are still delicious, but their streaky, dull, mottled appearance is unappealing to many. It’s important to note that tempered chocolate loses its sheen if it’s melted; home bakers and confectioners who want a tempered gloss on their final products must temper the chocolate again. This is precise, tricky work that requires an accurate candy thermometer and a lot of patience; if the chocolate is tempered at too high or low a temperature, the process will not work.
Creating delicious chocolate from machete-harvested cocoa beans is truly gastronomical alchemy; the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Because the process is so lengthy and complex, chocolate production is rarely done at home (although this is certainly possible!); the final product, however, is easy to manipulate in the kitchen and remains an essential ingredient in many delicious cakes, pies, cookies and handmade chocolates.