I Love Desserts

Everything You Need To Know
About Chocolate

by Fran Bigelow and Helene Siegel


All chocolate is made from the fruit of the cacao tree, which thrives in the tropical regions twenty degrees north and south of the equator. Scientists believe that the first cacao tree was found in the lower Amazon Basin in Venezuela. Twice a year the hard, squash like pods are hand harvested and carefully split open to remove the beans (which are then allowed to naturally ferment and air-dry for several days).

Dried beans are sold to brokers, who in turn supply the chocolate manufacturers of the world. Most cacao beans are shipped to Europe and North America to be made into chocolate in a complex process that begins with cleaning and roasting and ends with molding liquid chocolate into bars.

It is the selection of the beans and their blending that most determines the quality of the finished product. Only a small percentage of the beans being harvested today are criollos, a premium flavor bean. Most chocolate is made from a blend of forasteros, a hardy bulk bean. Only the premium manufacturers are seeking out and paying the price for the rare criollos and the hybrid trinitarios, a bean that combines the robustness of forastero with the flavor of criollo.

After the beans are roasted according to each maker's style, they go through a grinding process that creates cocoa mass. The mass is then combined with cocoa butter, sugar, and vanilla for flavor accents, conched for smoothness, tempered for longevity, and molded into large bulk chocolate bars that are then wrapped and shipped. A chocolatier such as Fran's purchases the chocolate at this stage.


Choosing Chocolate for Dessert Making

It can't be overstressed that the quality of the chocolate used is what can elevate a bite of cake or a sip of hot chocolate into a life-altering moment. No matter how good your technique, if you are using inferior chocolate your dessert simply won't be as ravishing. The manufacturers I rely on for my chocolate are Callebaut, Valrhona, El Rey, Michel Cluizel, and Scharffen Berger. They all sell bars at supermarkets, specialty shops, by mail order, and on websites (see page 227 of the book).

Before you choose, it's important to know how to read a label. Be sure you are purchasing pure chocolate that contains only chocolate (beans, mass, or liquor), sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla, and lecithin. No vegetable fats should be listed as an ingredient.

Cacao percentage indicates the amount of cacao in relation to sugar. Thus a bar containing 60 percent cacao has 40 percent sugar, with less than one-half percent vanilla or lecithin. Of that 60 percent cacao, about half is cocoa solids and the other half is cocoa butter—for that marvelous melt-in-your-mouth consistency. All you need to remember is that the higher the percentage of cacao, the deeper, darker, and more pronounced the chocolate flavor. Another way to think of it is that if the cacao percentage dips below 50 percent, that chocolate bar contains more sugar than cacao, meaning less chocolate flavor—a sacrilege as far as I'm concerned. For these recipes, I do not recommend any dark chocolate where sugar is listed as the first ingredient.

The recipes in this book mostly call for dark, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate, with some high-quality milk chocolate, white chocolate, and unsweetened chocolate. Where I felt it made a difference, I recommended an exact percentage of cacao or a specific maker. These recommendations are not meant to send you off in search of the holy grail. As long as your chocolate is from one of the better makers and within the general range of cacao content, your Pure Chocolate desserts should all be spectacular. Another philosophy to keep in mind when selecting a chocolate for a dessert is to choose one you would enjoy eating by itself. This is where your chocolate-tasting experience will serve you well.

Just as each coffee roaster has a style, each chocolate manufacturer develops a flavor and texture profile. To my mind, the Belgians make a chocolate with a subtle roast and round pleasing flavor—such as Callebaut. The French, on the other hand, like their chocolate the way they do their coffee, with a darker roast and stronger flavor—such as Valrhona. El Rey, from Venezuela with its flavorful beans, also has an assertive style. Scharffen Berger, the premium American manufacturer, is relatively new to the field. This company has developed a style all its own and is making intensely flavored chocolate.

Preferences in chocolate are extremely personal. Taste, reflect, and experiment—consider it the icing on the cake in your chocolate education.

Here are my current favorites by category to help you make your own selections for dessert making. It can be confusing because in the United States 35 percent cocoa mass is the only requirement for calling a chocolate either bittersweet or semisweet. Ten percent is the legal minimum cacao content for milk chocolate. Below are the guidelines that I follow in Pure Chocolate and all my recipes. The chocolate world is expanding rapidly as Americans' tastes change, so keep on checking the shelves—and tasting, of course.


52 to 62 percent cacao: Semisweet chocolate is entry level for those who are new to darker, more pronounced chocolate flavor. Callebaut's 56 percent is my kitchen workhorse. With its accessible flavor and creamy consistency, it is a dream to work with. It melts easily, combines well with other flavors, and is fantastic for dipping. Other chocolates to use are: Cluizel, Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, El Rey, and Lindt, all available at supermarkets.


63 to 72 percent cacao: Darker and more pronounced in flavor than a semisweet, bittersweets are the favorites of many chefs. However, their higher cacao content can make them trickier to work with. For top-notch chocolate flavor in a bittersweet I enjoy: Valrhona, Callebaut, Scharffen Berger, Lindt, E. Guittard, Cluizel, and El Rey.

Milk Chocolate

36 to 46 percent cacao: As a rule, look for the darkest milk chocolate you can find for these recipes. The pronounced caramel flavor from the milk is delicious. The premium milk chocolates from Cluizel, El Rey, Valrhona, Callebaut, E. Guittard, and Lindt are all excellent.

White Chocolate

Since it does not contain cacao solids, white chocolate is technically not a chocolate. Whether or not you're a fan of this bar of cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and milk, there are times when it is just right. I love it in whipped cream, and it is the perfect sweet counterpoint in a sophisticated cake like the bittersweet Blanc et Noir (page 101). White chocolate is very easy to work with. Just make sure you choose one with no added vegetable fat. El Rey, Valrhona, Lindt, and Callebaut make excellent white-chocolate bars.

Unsweetened Chocolate

100 percent cacao: Unsweetened chocolate, as the name implies, is 100 percent cacao with no sugar added. One taste will tell you that it is not meant to be eaten alone. I like to use it in combination with semi- or bittersweet to add depth of flavor. You can also improvise a bittersweet by substituting about 20 percent unsweetened chocolate and 80 percent semisweet for the quantity of bittersweet specified in the recipe. Valrhona and Scharffen Berger make excellent unsweetened bars.

Cocoa Powder

The recipes in the book all call for Dutch-processed cocoa—totally unsweetened cocoa whose natural acidity has been neutralized by an alkali. Dutch-processed cocoa gives darker chocolate results than ordinary unsweetened cocoa. Cocoa lends chocolate wafers, ice cream, and sorbets wonderful depth of flavor. I prefer Valrhona or Droste cocoa powder.


Working with Pure Chocolate

Melting Chocolate

A sensitive moment in any chocolate recipe occurs at the beginning, when the chocolate is melted. Few things in the kitchen are more depressing and beyond repair than coarse, grainy, scorched chocolate. Just keep in mind that chocolate's two archenemies are heat and moisture. If you always melt over gentlest heat and are vigilant about stray drops of water, there shouldn't be a problem. After a little practice you'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

It doesn't take any fancy equipment to melt chocolate. I improvise a double boiler by choosing a stainless-steel bowl that can nestle on top of a small saucepan. Fill the pan with about 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer over lowest heat. Chop the chocolate into small-size pieces and place in the bowl over, but not touching, the water in the pan. Let sit, without stirring, until about half melted. Then remove from the heat, placing the bowl's bottom on a kitchen towel to absorb any moisture. Gently stir with a rubber spatula until smooth, returning to the heat briefly if lumps still remain.

Melted chocolate should look smooth and glossy and the temperature should never go above 115 degrees F. Keep an eye on the sides of the bowl for telltale signs of scorching. As chocolate gets too hot, it will start darkening and losing its sheen around the edges. If the temperature goes above 120 degrees F, the chocolate will separate and burn. If you suspect your chocolate may be burnt, the only thing to do is taste. Unfortunately, all you can do is toss out burnt chocolate, since there is no bringing it back.

Combining Melted Chocolate

Butter, eggs, and other ingredients being added to melted chocolate should be at room temperature, since extreme heat or cold can shock the chocolate. Heat causes the cocoa butter and solids to separate; cold causes chocolate to harden into lumps.

What To Serve with Chocolate Desserts

Once you have moved beyond ice-cold milk, the perfect beverage to complement a fine chocolate dessert is strong, dark coffee, preferably espresso. In my experience, teas are not an easy match for chocolate. A clean, dry, effervescent Champagne, though, can be perfect. Small sips of liqueurs can also be delightful with a rich chocolate dessert, but avoid going too sweet in your selection. I like a good tawny Port, brandy, or Cognac, Muscat, or a Banyuls. Taste and experiment to discover what works for you.

Chopping Chocolate

To chop chocolate, the best tool is a long serrated knife. Starting on a corner of a block or square, shave 1/4-inch-thick slices along the diagonal. The chocolate will naturally break into shards as you cut. Keep turning the square to work evenly off all the corners.

Pistoles are small disks of chocolate. Until recently, they have been primarily available to pastry chefs and chocolatiers, but these wafers of pure chocolate are now becoming easier to find. Their small, uniform size eliminates the need for chopping.

How To Store Chocolate

Chocolate should be kept in its wrapper and/or box and stored in a cool, dry, dark place. If storing an opened bar, wrap in its paper and then in a sealed plastic bag. The best storage temperature is 62 to 70 degrees F. I do not recommend refrigeration because the condensation that occurs can result in sugar bloom (or grains on the surface). If you live in a hot place without air conditioning, however, there may be no option. Chocolate melts in the low nineties—a pleasure when it's in your mouth and a potential disaster in a very hot kitchen.

The whitish color that can rise to the top on chocolate is called fat bloom. It means the cocoa butter has separated and risen to the top due to heat. As unappealing as it looks, the final taste is not affected, because when the chocolate is melted, the cocoa butter will be redistributed throughout the chocolate.

How To Make Chocolate Curls

To make large chocolate curls for decorating the tops of cakes, you need a large block of chocolate and a chef's knife. The chocolate should be at room temperature. Position it at the edge of a work counter so the length is perpendicular to the table's edge. Standing over the chocolate, you want to be able to stabilize it with your body.

Holding the top of the blade with one hand at either end, not on the handle, position the sharp edge at between a 90 and 45 degree angle, slanting toward you. Firmly push down, dragging the blade forward to shave thin curls. Pick up the curls with a pastry scraper, since they easily melt, and transfer to the cake or reserve on a sheet of parchment.

For smaller curls use a small block of chocolate and a paring knife or a sharp vegetable peeler, holding the bar upright and scraping down. Or you can use a thin teaspoon. With the chocolate bar on a counter, holding the spoon horizontally, with the edge of the teaspoon bowl in one hand and the handle in the other, position the spoon at no more than a 45-degree angle slanting toward you. Firmly push down, pulling the spoon forward, to shave small, thin curls. This spoon technique is easiest with white chocolate.

How To Grate Chocolate

I like to use a handheld microplaner for grating chocolate for decorating. The fine side of a box grater is also good. It's best to grate chocolate just before using, as the fine pieces can easily lose their shape.

Chocolate Kitchen Clean-Up

At times the fun of working in the chocolate kitchen can be diminished by the sheer messiness of it all. With all that pouring, glazing, and finger dipping you're bound to start noticing that chocolate leaves big brown stains. My solution at home is to stock the kitchen with dark brown or black kitchen towels and black aprons, much better than white for hiding the brown. To remove chocolate stains, try soaking with liquid dishwasher detergent before tossing in the washing machine.

Time, Temperature, and Movement Explored

When time, temperature, and movement are perfectly orchestrated, the resulting chocolate desserts should have the power to bring even the most hardened adult to his or her knees. Why else would a grown woman spend so much time in the kitchen? A few secrets revealed:

Time: One of the qualities I look for in aspiring chocolatiers is patience. Chocolate does not like to be rushed, so when we talk about time it's all about melting chocolate slowly, stirring slowly and gently, and the ability to wait hours, or even a day, for flavors to mellow and textures to change.

Temperature: At the risk of scaring off newcomers I can't emphasize enough the importance of temperature to coaxing the very best out of chocolate. The general laws of chemistry dictate that heat will always turn chocolate into liquid and cold will turn it solid. Where important, the exact temperatures appear in the recipes, but here is a chart of the most important temperatures:

Movement: Movement around melted chocolate should always be slow and gentle, stirring with a rubber spatula. Movement is what cools melted chocolate and thickens it while evenly distributing those all-important cocoa crystals for utter smoothness. A chocolate and cream ganache that is left untouched for many hours, like the truffle centers, will eventually thicken, developing a very deep, rich chocolate flavor. With a ganache for glazing, there is no need to wait so long. Thirty minutes, with a stir here and there, will bring the chocolate to perfect consistency. Each recipe contains the specifics.


Buy the Book!


Pure Chocolate
Divine Desserts and Sweets from the Creator of Fran's Chocolates

by Fran Bigelow and Helene Siegel
Hardcover: $35.00
ISBN: 0-7679-1658-1
Reprinted by permission.


Pure Chocolate




The Global Gourmet's Special All About Chocolate page.


This page created February 2005