Sweet obsession: What is the go-to favorite that is sure to please and is readily available? Chocolates!

What is the go-to favorite that is sure to please and is readily available? A heart-shaped box of chocolates.

Historically, chocolate can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica where communities mixed ground cacao beans and water. The word chocolate can be traced back to the Aztec word for the drink, xocolatl, meaning “bitter water.”

The Pioneer recently sat down with chocolatiers in the community to ask them about the sweet delectable and what it means to the holiday. Here’s what they had to say:


Hungry for more? Here are some interesting facts for chocoholics.

What is chocolate?

Chocolate is a food preparation made from roasted cacao beans. The hulled meat of the bean, or the “nib,” is ground into a liquefied form, then usually sweetened and flavored.

How did the use of cacao beans spread from the Americas?

Christopher Columbus and other early explorers are credited with bringing the first cacao beans to Spain. It wasn’t until 1521 when Hernando Cortes and his soldiers began to blend cinnamon, vanilla and sugar with the Aztec bitter ground bean and water mixture that sweet, hot chocolate became popular.

Over the next 200 years the drink and the demand for chocolate spread throughout Europe, motivating many countries to establish cacao plantations in colonies in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Venezuela, Java, Sumatra and the West Indies.

Where do cacao beans come from?

The beans come from the seed pods of an evergreen tree that originally grew in Central and South America. Cultivation of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, is confined to an area not more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator. Now grown around the equator, cacao tree plantations can be found in the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia and even in the South Pacific islands of Samoa, New Guinea and Hawaii. Cocoa pods can contain 20 to 40 cocoa beans each.

What are cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and cocoa powder?

Cocoa butter is the natural fat of the cocoa bean.

Chocolate liquor, (the result of grinding the “nibs” and liquefying the cocoa butter within) is processed into cocoa powder by pressing most of the cocoa butter out of the liquor and pulverizing the remaining solid.

Dutch cocoa powder is natural cocoa powder with the acidity neutralized. It has a darker color and different flavor.

What is the difference between white, dark and milk chocolate?

Dark chocolate is made from chocolate liquor plus extra cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla flavoring. Different chocolate liquor ratios produce sweet, semi-sweet and bittersweet chocolate.

To make milk chocolate, fresh whole milk, cream or powdered milk is added to the dark chocolate mixture.

White chocolate contains no chocolate liquor, and according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration must now include cocoa butter, milk solids, milk fat and sweeteners such as sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.

Does chocolate give you acne?

The World Cocoa Foundation cites various studies and published reports from the American Academy of Dermatology, the University of Missouri and the Journal of the American Medical Association to assure chocoholics that acne and chocolate have no direct link.

Any health benefits from chocolate?

Researchers are constantly finding positive attributes to balance the bad reputation chocolate has earned for its sugar, fat and caffeine:

Pennsylvania State University researchers concluded that stearic acid, the main saturated fatty acid in chocolate, does not raise blood cholesterol levels.

In studies at the University of Scranton and the University of California at Davis, chocolate was found to have potent antioxidants called phenols, the same types found in red wine, tea, fruits and vegetables that may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The phenols in cocoa were found to prevent cholesterol from causing plaque buildup in the arteries.

Researchers at the University of Rhode Island found that adding one-and-a-half teaspoons of cocoa to one cup of milk blocked cramping, bloating and other signs of lactose intolerance in half of 35 subjects. They found that cocoa stimulates lactase enzyme activity.

Chocolate may not be a common trigger of headaches. In tests at the University of Pittsburgh, chocolate and carob were given to women plagued by tension headaches, migraines or both. Half did not develop headaches within 12 hours of eating either. In the others, carob was just as apt to cause a headache as the chocolate.

A representative of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, says chocolate contains small quantities of anandamide, which stimulates the same neural receptors that the principal active chemical in marijuana does. A representative of the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that a 130-pound person would have to eat 25 pounds of chocolate at one time to get any marijuana-like effect.

Dark chocolate appears to carry the strongest medicinal dose in the latest studies. Researchers at Italy’s National Institute for Food and Nutrition Research emphasize that dark chocolate contains more potent antioxidants than milk or white chocolate and studies at the University of Cologne, Germany, have found that dark chocolate is the most effective in lowering high blood pressure.

How can I melt chocolate?

Melting chocolate requires gentle heat. Overheating may scorch and turn the chocolate coarse and grainy.

Veteran food writer, editor and stylist Amy Culbertson recommends that containers and stirring utensils be completely dry, as any water can cause the chocolate to seize up, or become thick and lumpy.

In a microwave oven: Place coarsely chopped chocolate in an uncovered microwave-safe container and microwave at medium (50 percent) power for one-and-a-half to four minutes, in 30-second intervals, until the chocolate is shiny. Remove and stir until completely melted. Because of their milk proteins, milk and white chocolates may need to be stirred after about one-and-a-half minutes.

In a double boiler: Place coarsely chopped chocolate in the top of a double boiler — a metal bowl over hot, not simmering, water. Melt the chocolate, stirring until smooth. Milk and white chocolates should be stirred almost constantly, while dark chocolate should be stirred frequently.

DRIZZLED IN CHOCOLATE: The Old Pioneer Store and Emporium dips pretzels in caramel before covering them in nuts and drizzled chocolate. It is one of many chocolaty treats made at the store. Dating back to ancient cultures, chocolate is now synonymous with Valentine’s Day. (Pioneer photo/Kyle Leppek)

How much chocolate do we eat?

Americans eat a little over 11-and-a-half pounds of chocolate every year. We trail pretty far behind the Swiss and Germans, who pack away more than 20 pounds annually.

How much chocolate is sold every year?

The retail chocolate industry in the United States sold $16.9 billion worth of confections in 2009. Valentine’s Day chocolate sales make up just more than 5 percent of that total.

Why does some chocolate turn white?

White or gray “clouds” or “blooms” can appear on the chocolate’s surface. If the bloom is white or grayish-white, shiny and feels greasy when touched, it means the chocolate has gotten too warm and the cocoa butter has separated, risen to the surface and streaked.

If the bloom is tannish-white, dull and feels gritty when touched, this “sugar bloom” is created by condensation of water vapor from air on the surface. The sugar in the chocolate dissolves in the water, the water evaporates and only sugar crystals remain. The taste should be unaffected.

Has chocolate ever been used for movie special effects?

Yes — perhaps most memorably, chocolate syrup stood in for blood in the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, “Psycho.” The 45-second scene took seven days to shoot.

LIGHT AND FLUFFY: A chocolate mousse is a great dessert and finish to a Valentine’s Day date. It is rich and chocolaty, but also light. It satisfies the sweet tooth without being overfilling. It also is a great dessert to share with your date. (Pioneer photo/Kyle Leppek)

Is the most expensive chocolate the best?

Italy’s Amedei Porcelana may be the world’s most expensive chocolate, selling for around $100 a pound, and it does rank consistently in the top 10 of many a chocolate connoisseur’s list. But each individual has his or her own idea of what makes the best chocolate.

Pure enthusiasts seek bars that contain higher percentages of cocoa, leaning toward the 60 percent and higher range that yields the bittersweet taste of dark chocolate. Others are happy with the simplicity of Hershey’s Kisses.

For sample lists of the world’s “best” chocolates, go to www.thechocolatelife.com or www.seventypercent.com.

Do military rations still include chocolate?

The United States military’s food ration pack, Meal, Ready-To-Eat (MRE), is made in 24 different varieties. Many of them contain either a fudge brownie, chocolate sports bar, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate mint, M&Ms or a chocolate beverage mix.

How much caffeine is there in chocolate?

One ounce of bittersweet chocolate contains five to 10 milligrams of caffeine. An ounce of milk chocolate contains five milligrams, and a six-ounce cup of cocoa has about 10 milligrams.

To give you an idea of how that compares to other caffeinated  foods, an eight-ounce cup of coffee has 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine, an eight-ounce cup of tea has about 50 milligrams and a 12-ounce can of Coke has 35 milligrams. (The same size can of Mountain Dew has about 55 milligrams.)

Is there a substitute for chocolate?

Carob is often used as a chocolate substitute. Carob comes from the pods of a Mediterranean evergreen. Seeds from the pods are roasted and pulverized and yield carob powder.

Carob is high in calcium and potassium and naturally sweet with 48 percent sugar. It is also stimulant-free and contains only 1 percent fat, while chocolate contains stimulants and up to 60 percent fat. Carob can be an acquired taste for those expecting the traditional chocolate experience.

For those looking to carob snacks as a healthy alternative to chocolate, it is a good idea to read the label first. Fat, including palm kernel oil and coconut oil, is often added to turn carob powder into candy, so total fat and calorie counts are often identical to chocolate treats.

Are there any chocolate world records?

Nestlé claims the record for the largest cup of hot chocolate at 634 gallons. It was poured in Mexico City, Mexico, in 2010.

The largest chocolate rabbit weighed more than 6,635 pounds and was made by Duracell South Africa in 2010.

The largest bar of chocolate, weighing 9,722.39 pounds, was made by Armenian-Canadian JV “Grand Candy” Co Ltd, in Yerevan, Armenia, in 2010.

A white chocolate replica of the Dome of Milanin Italy holds the record for the largest chocolate sculpture at 10,736.5 pounds. The Cathedral was created by Mirco Della Vecchia in 2010 and measured 4 feet 11 inches tall, 8 feet 2 inches wide and 3 feet 11 inches deep.

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