Once the cocoa pods are harvested and roasted, the nibs are extracted and ground into a thick brown paste, the "liquor," noted as "cocoa" when referred to in packaging contents. It then takes the following forms, all of them wonderful:
• Dark chocolate, bittersweet and semisweet describe any sweetened chocolate with at least 35 percent cocoa; the higher the cocoa content, the stronger it tastes. Across the pond, they call it "bittersweet"; here the terms may be used interchangeably.
• Milk chocolate must contain 12 percent milk solids and 10 percent cocoa.
• Unsweetened, baking and bitter chocolate typically contain 50 to 58 percent (sometimes more) cocoa and no sugar.
• Couverture is the term used for professional-quality chocolate that contains a higher content of cocoa butter to produce a glossy coat.
• White chocolate isn't really chocolate at all (containing no chocolate liquor) but a blend of cocoa butter, milk solids, vanilla and sugar.
• Cocoa powder is chocolate without the cocoa butter. Dutch process cocoa powder has been treated with alkaline to counter the harsh, acidic flavor. This makes it a better choice for hot chocolate, although cocoa powder's natural bitterness adds a nice edge to baked goods.
Tips for buying
A little great chocolate goes a long way and is worth the cost (in calories and cents). When choosing chocolate, note the ingredients on the labels -- cocoa or cocoa liquor, sugar and cocoa butter (highest quantities are listed first). Some bars contain lecithin, for smooth texture, and vanilla, for flavor. More cocoa and fewer ingredients means better-tasting chocolate. Vivani premium organic dark chocolate (with 72 percent cocoa content) from Germany and Chocolove's organic (73 percent cocoa content) made in Colorado with Belgium chocolate both fit the bill. It's all a matter of personal preference, of course, so taste and then decide.
Tips for using
Store chocolate, well wrapped, at a cool temperature and away from foods with strong odors (such as onions or bananas). Don't refrigerate or freeze it. It should keep for eight months or longer. If stored too long in warm or humid conditions, the surface may develop a light white powder appearance ("bloom") that slightly affects flavor and texture. No worries, it can still be used (especially in baking).
To melt chocolate, cut into 1/2-inch chunks and put it in a saucepan over very low heat and stir constantly. Or set it in a double boiler over a low simmer, but be careful not to allow any water or steam to come into contact with the chocolate as it will stiffen or "seize." If the chocolate "seizes," remove it from the heat and work in a little water (one tablespoon at a time). This will restore it for use in icings and fillings, but not in recipes where it must set up (i.e. for dipping). Adding a little butter or oil to eight ounces of chocolate before melting helps keep it shiny and smooth after it cools.
To melt chocolate in a microwave oven, cut it into 1/2-inch chunks and put it in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on medium (50 percent) for about 1 minute, stir and continue cooking for 30 or 40 seconds, then stir again, to prevent scorching. When the chocolate looks shiny and soft, remove and continue to stir and it will become liquid.
Scientists and psychologists are finally documenting what any chocolate lover has known all along: Chocolate makes you feel better. It plays upon serotonin levels to elevate mood and spark action. Even when those tedious winds of February howl, with a little chocolate, I've got a cheap ticket to paradise.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis writer and co-author with Lucia Watson of "Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland."