Chocolate

 

As we make our way toward the tail-end of this rather mild winter, you may find yourself celebrating Valentine’s Day. For different couples, this day has various associations. Perhaps it’s an excuse for a romantic getaway. Maybe it’s a vibrant bouquet of flowers to dispel the winter’s dreariness. Or, if you’re anything like me, it’s all about the chocolate. Is it any wonder that we give this delicious, unique, and versatile treat away as a sign of our affection? Let’s dig a bit deeper into the world of chocolate, using the resources available in the Ivy Tech Northeast Library, to help understand what makes this confection so special.

A world without chocolate sounds like a dark place, but depending on where your ancestors hail from, that may have been the case. Made from the seeds of the cacao tree, chocolate was known for centuries as a treat, usually in the form of a drink, to Central American civilizations such as the Maya and the Aztecs. While we have come to associate the food with chocolatiers from Switzerland or Belgium, chocolate didn’t hit European shores until the Spanish conquistador Cortés encountered it during his New World exploration in the 16th century. As this Modern Marvels segment, available from the Films on Demand database, points out, chocolate as we know really came to be in 1828 when Dutch chocolate maker C.J. Van Houten created a press that allowed for the processing of cacao seeds into a dry powder, which in turn allowed in to be pressed into bars or baked into all the delectable treats we know it for today.

Since this development, the uses for chocolate have become many and varied, from the simplest bite-sized chocolate bar to the most elaborate cakes and pastries. The book Chocolate Passion from Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty is chock-full of “choc”-full recipes that feature the ingredient in delightful ways. For something relatively simple, the “Pain au Chocolat” is the perfect treat. The light, flaky croissant crust is the perfect way to deliver a rich, melted chocolate filling. If you’re feeling a bit more daring, try the unique fusion of flavors in “Ganache-filled Fried Wontons with Ginger Ice Cream and Chocolate Sorbet.” This recipe teaches you how to make everything, from the ice cream itself made with fresh ginger, to the ganache filling with bittersweet chocolate and cognac. The “Asian-spiced Dipping Sauce,” with its cinnamon, cloves, and anise is a perfect example of the many flavors that can complement and enhance your chocolate eating experience.

If you’re looking for something solely chocolate-focused, try Lisa Yockelson’s “Chocolate Savannahs, Remodeled” from her appropriately Chocolate Chocolate. As Yockelson describes, “The intense flavor reaches a chocolatey plateau in the dough through use of cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened chocolate, and chocolate chips in the dough.” I’ll take a dozen.

Are you a diagnosed chocaholic? Ok, that may be a made-up condition, but our curiosity about chocolate from a health standpoint is definitely real. From the MedlinePlus database, an article from the National Institutes of Health entitled “Claims about Cocoa: Can Chocolate Really Be Good for You?” explores the various health claims about chocolate and its place in our diet. It details an interesting study about the Kuna people off the coast of Panama whose low risk of cardiovascular disease and blood pressure was found to be inconsistent with their salt intake and weight. Could this be good genetics? Not likely. The article also states that “those who moved away from the Kuna islands developed high blood pressure and heart disease at typical rate.” One unique aspect of their diet that piqued the interest of researchers was the fact that, as Dr. Brent M. Egan said, the amount of cocoa they consume “was easily 10 times more than most of us would get in a typical day.” Of course, this doesn’t mean you should stock up on Hershey’s bars for daily consumption. The Kuna’s chocolate is much closer to the original way that humans consumed it, a drink made from crushed and dried cacao pods that we would probably find much too bitter. Some researchers have tried to find links between chocolate and preventing disease such as diabetes or cancer, but it’s difficult to determine correlation with something as complex as diet, and almost impossible to declare causation. Even if chocolate helps stave off diabetes, most of the chocolate we eat as Americans is delivered in a way that is high in sugar and fat, which almost certainly does more harm than good. Going with darker, less processed chocolates—ideally paired with healthy foods such as fruits and nuts—seems to be the way to go. This is because a compound called flavonols are thought to be responsible for the health benefits of chocolate. Often flavonols, along with the more bitter taste that accompanies them, are removed the more cocoa is processed. By the time that cocoa makes its way into your slice of triple chocolate cheesecake, you probably shouldn’t consider it a health food. We haven’t yet reached a consensus on exactly what the health benefits of chocolate are, but as long as you’re watching the sugar and fat that accompany it, you may very well be doing your body a favor.

Are you going to enjoy any chocolate this month? There’s no wrong way to do so, and with so many interesting flavor combinations, you’ll never run out of interesting and flavorful ways to try this delicious ingredient. If you need more ideas about how to get more chocolate in your life, make sure to stop by the Ivy Tech Northeast Library and get inspired. (By Library Clerk, David Winn)

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