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About that box of chocolates

Food For Thought

A heart-shaped box of chocolate-covered candies is one of the most popular Valentine’s Day gifts, along with red roses, jewelry and anything heart-shaped.
I was lucky enough to be at a Valentine’s Day party where we were served some incredibly delicious desserts, one of which was a white chocolate mousse. It was so delicious that I consulted my favorite cookbook, hoping to find a recipe for something similar. In the process, I discovered that white chocolate isn’t chocolate at all—but a product of vegetable fats, coloring and flavors.
Still curious, I consulted my encyclopedia and found the whole process to be so complex that I now have a whole new respect for chocolate. The journey from the pods of the cacao tree to those elegant morsels nesting in ruffled candy papers in that heart-shaped box is a sort of miracle. There are so many steps in the processing of chocolate that one wonders that anybody ever figured it all out.
Yet, Mexican Indians used cocoa before America was discovered. In fact, they used bags of cocoa for money.
Spanish explorers took cocoa back to Europe in the 16th century, where it was a popular drink a hundred years before coffee and tea were introduced there.
For starters, in America, we use more chocolate than any other country, and most of it is comes from South America and West Africa.
The cocoa beans mature inside large, football-shaped pods that grow directly from the trunks and larger limbs of the trees, and two crops can be harvested from each tree every year.
The pods are as much as fourteen inches long and contain five rows of almond shaped beans, as many as ten in each row. The pods are split open and the beans removed, to be fermented for a few days, which makes them easier to clean, then washed and dried to be shipped to a factory where they are further processed.
There, the shells are removed and the beans are broken up into small bits before being ground up and pressed to remove some of the fats. This fat, called cacao butter, can be stored for years without becoming rancid and is used in the manufacture of soap, cosmetics, ointments, foods and drugs. Some of the residue from this pressing is ground even finer and sifted to become cocoa powder.
Some of the oil removed is added to other batches and pressed into cakes becoming the bitter chocolate we know as baking chocolate.
Since chocolate by itself has a bitter flavor, it requires sweetener to become palatable, and it is evident that sweetened chocolate is more popular with consumers than the unsweetened variety. This is known as German chocolate and has nothing to do with the country, but rather with the man who came up with the idea.
Dutch chocolate has a higher fat content and a slightly different flavor because of an alkali used during processing to neutralize the acids.
Milk chocolate is the most popular candy in the world. Basically sugar, chocolate and milk with added flavorings, usually vanilla, is formed into bars, used to coat bars of other candy combinations, or to coat those creamy, fondant centers in that heart-shaped box.
Milk chocolate is ideal for dipping because of its sheen when melted.
The ideal temperature for storing chocolate candy is 78 degrees.
That whitish film that forms on candy stored in too warm conditions is harmless. It is merely the fat rising to the surface and doesn’t affect the flavor or otherwise render it inedible.
Making candy is an ancient practice, the Egyptians made cakes of fruit, nuts and honey as early as 2000 B.C., and ancient Greeks and Romans made many kinds of candy for desserts at banquets.
The word candy comes from a sweet reed called “kand” brought back from India by Alexander the Great’s soldiers.
The first regular candy factories in Europe appeared in the late 16th century, and the United States had several hundred candy makers by 1850.
I found it interesting that the first true candy makers were druggists, who used sweeteners to hide the unpleasant tastes of medicines.
For most of my childhood, I remember that the only place in town to buy a box of chocolates was at the drugstore, though there were usually candy bars and penny candy available in grocery stores, restaurants, the movie theater and a few other places where snacks were sold.
Fifty years ago, the average American consumed 16 pounds of candy per year and the trend keeps growing—is it no wonder so many of us are overweight, diabetic and toothless?