Category Archives: Food science

Chocolate 201: Chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver

Once again, I’m teaming up with the lovely folks at Xoxolat to teach some chocolate-tasting classes. We’ll go into more detail than you’d get in an introductory class, but don’t let that scare you; beginners are more than welcome, and I promise that the classes will be fun, not snooty. Nobody likes a critic—but everyone likes chocolate.

Each class features plenty of samples—and in true Xoxolat style, there will be a few surprises at the end of the night.

Participants receive an $8 store credit (must be used that evening) plus 10% of all purchases the night of the class.

WHERE: Xoxolat (2391 Burrard Street, at 8th Avenue)
WHEN: All classes run from 6:30–7:45 p.m.
COST: $20 per class, or register for all four classes for $75. (Note: due to the higher cost of samples, Chuao! costs $25.) Prices do not include HST.
REGISTER: You must register in advance. Indicate which class you’d like and someone from Xoxolat will confirm your registration. Register now.

About Chocolate 201

Chocolate 201 is a series of chocolate workshops that share the stories behind the chocolate wrapper. They’re intended for people who have some knowledge of chocolate and are familiar with how it’s transformed from bean to bar, but keen beginners are more than welcome. Expect engaging stories, interactive dialogue and the opportunity ask lots of questions.

Chocolate 201: The Science of Chocolate

Thursday, September 29, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

Chocolate makers work diligently to coax the very best from their fine flavour beans. Learn how two critical steps, roasting and conching, affect the final product. We’ll also explore how playing with cacao percentage and sugar content affects flavour. Hint: higher cacao content does not automatically mean more bitterness in the bar.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: The Science of Chocolate. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: Smackdown! Old World vs New World

Thursday, October 6, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

In Europe, making chocolate is a traditional that’s mostly passed through family generations. In North America, people abandon other, often lucrative, careers to make chocolate. In this old world/new world smackdown, you’ll hear stories of how people choose to make chocolate, and taste for yourself how each chocolate maker has created his own distinct style.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: Smackdown! Old World vs New World. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: In Defense of Milk Chocolate

Friday, October 21, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

Chocolate snobs may dismiss milk chocolate as cloying, sweet and childish, but it’s still the chocolate of choice for most people. While regular milk chocolate clocks in at about 45% cacao content, dark milk chocolate can contain nearly 65% cacao. In this class, you’ll learn about and taste dark milk chocolate. It’s an ideal class for someone who loves milk chocolate and wants baby steps toward the dark (chocolate) side, or for someone who simply wants to learn more.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: In Defense of Milk Chocolate. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: Chuao!

Friday, October 28, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $25 + HST

Mention the word Chuao in chocolate circles and people sit up straighter. This small region in Venezuela is known for the high quality of its beans. In 2005, Italian chocolate company Amedei won accolades from chocolate critics around the world for their single-origin Chuao bar. Learn how this small chocolate company took a snub from a well-known French chocolate maker and turned it into an award-winning chocolate bar. We’ll taste several bars made from Chuao beans, and you can see for yourself what all the fuss is about. (Due to the higher cost of Chuao samples, this class costs $25. Trust me, it’s worth it.)

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: Chuao!. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.


Lost and found: Nacional cacao in Peru

January was a busy month for the science of chocolate.

First, The New York Times reported that the rare, thought-to-be-extinct Nacional strain of cacao had been found in Peru. Amid much excitement, Maranon Chocolate was hailed as hero in the chocolate world. (I’ll note, apologetically, that Canada’s Globe & Mail took a whole two weeks to report the same story.)

Then, Clay Gordon posted this analysis of the situation on The Chocolate Life, which goes into a lot of detail about genetics, chocolate production and the taste of the chocolate itself.

The big commercial deal about this chocolate is that you can buy the roasted beans, enrobed in their own chocolate. You can get them from Moonstruck Chocolate in Portland (where they’ve given it the precious name Fortunato No. 4, which only begs the question of what happened to Fortunato 1, 2 and 3), or from Christophe Morel Chocolatier in Montreal.

A big deal has been made of the exclusivity of the chocolate. And on that topic, I’ll pull out the most interesting detail of Clay Gordon’s post on The Chocolate Life, and that’s that large Swiss chocolate maker Felchlin is actually processing the Nacional beans into chocolate. Nothing wrong with that, but it certainly dulls the romantic glow that some have tried to cast on the situation.

But how does it taste? The chocolate is quite good. The enrobed cacao bean has a nice nuttiness, floral notes and a long finish. Is it the world’s most fantastically amazing chocolate, or remotely close to “profound,” as the Globe & Mail describes? Um, no.

Sure is a nice story, though.

White chocolate gets a bad rap

El Rey ICOA white chocolateIn the chocolate world, it seems like darker is better. Whether it’s dodgy studies that claim dark chocolate will cure everything that ails you (from heart disease to athlete’s foot) or wannabe chocolate snobs one-upping each other by eating high percentage chocolates, it’s all about the dark. Generally speaking, a 70% bar does best with consumers, somehow striking that balance between perceived bitterness and actual sweetness.

But what about white chocolate? It’s like the abandoned, poor cousin of dark chocolate. It doesn’t even contain any cocoa solids: just sugar, cocoa butter and milk powder. And maybe it does deserve some of your derision. After all, most white chocolate on the market is sparkling, shockingly white and tastes cloyingly of too much sugar and milk powder. But then, that’s like saying all dark chocolate is bitter—which, of course, it isn’t.

How it’s made: white chocolate

After cacao beans are roasted and the skins are removed, they’re transferred to a melangeur (fancy French word for ‘mixer’). In the melanger, the cacao is ground into a fine paste of anywhere from 35-50 micrometres. There are one million micrometres in a metre. While 35-50 micrometres is pretty darn small, it’s still big enough that you’d perceive some graininess in the mixture. From there, the mixture is expelled under high temperature and pressure. Under these conditions, the cocoa mass is solid (think of cocoa powder) while the cocoa butter is a liquid.

When it first comes out of the expeller, cocoa butter isn’t white; it’s actually off-white, yellow or light brown. It often has distinct taste, though that taste will depend on where the cacao beans came from and their quality. In most cases, the cocoa butter is deodorized before it’s transformed into other things. Some chocolatiers add it back into their chocolate to increase its smoothness; some sell it to the cosmetics industry.

That’s right, the cosmetics industry. Cocoa butter commands much more money in the cosmetics industry, where it makes its way into lipsticks, face creams and soaps. This is why most mass-market chocolate makers want to replace cocoa butter with other fats: so that they can remove the cocoa butter and sell it at a higher price to the cosmetics industry.

And still, some take that cocoa butter, mix it with milk powder and sugar, and make white chocolate.

There are a few tricks to making white chocolate. One, if you roast the beans at a higher temperature, you weaken the cell walls in the cacao bean. This makes it easier to expel the cocoa butter. If you’re trying to make money by selling the cocoa butter to the cosmetics industry, this will maximize your profits—but it will also leave you with over-roasted, nearly burnt beans. Chances are, if you’re making your buck off the cosmetics industry, you’re not interested in high quality chocolate.

The second trick is that in deodorizing your cocoa butter, you’re removing some of the inherent flavours of the product. Again, if you’re looking at maximizing profits, rather than producing good chocolate, then this is a moot point. However, if you’re interested in making interesting white chocolate, then this is a problem. Deodorizing makes the resultant white chocolate sparkly white, and also terribly bland. That’s why most white chocolate all tastes the same.

El Rey ICOA white chocolate

This is the darling of the pastry world, as far as white chocolate goes. For a long time, this has been the white chocolate that professionals swear by. El Rey is a Venezuelan chocolate company, and while I can’t say I’m a huge fan of all their stuff, the ICOA white chocolate is quite nice.

This white chocolate is not deodorized, so it’s slightly yellow. It’s delicately milky, with a sharp sweetness at about mid-palate. Most important, both fade away to a clean finish so you’re not left with a chalky, cloying, milky aftertaste. As with all El Rey products, this one is silky smooth and luxuriously melty.

Askinosie Nibble Bar

Askinosie Nibble BarThis was a recent silver award finalist at the New York Fancy Food Show. That in itself is pretty impressive, because—as I alluded to earlier—it’s unusual for white chocolate to win awards. I’m particularly happy about this one because Askinosie is an American chocolate company who’s doing great things: putting pictures of their farmers on the packaging, including a “chocolot” number that lets you trace the provenance of your chocolate bar and innovative, sustainable packaging.

The nibble bar is a cute concept, too. It’s white chocolate with cocoa nibs on top. I like to think of it as a deconstructed cacao bean: taking the components (cocoa and cocoa butter), separating them, and putting them back together in a different way.

Just like El Rey, Askinosie doesn’t deodorize its cocoa butter. But unlike El Rey, Askinosie uses goat’s milk powder. The Askinosie white chocolate is beige-brown, which somehow fits with the rustic look of the packaging. There’s a bit of goatiness and sourness from the goat’s milk, and that offsets some of the sweetness. As you bite into it, it does taste too sweet and a bit grainy, but then the cocoa butter starts to melt and you start to crunch into the cocoa nibs. And as you keep chewing the cocoa nibs, the sweetness intensifies and the graininess becomes comforting, and then you’re just left with a clean palate and a bit of nibby flavour.

There’s something addictive about the crunch of the sugar and nibs, and the weirdness of the goat’s milk. They don’t call this the nibble bar for nothing. Notice that the top third of the bar is missing in the photo? Yup. Nibble nibble nibble.

Strawberry rhubarb pie. Leaf lard crust. Divine.

Strawberry rhubarb pie with leaf lard crustThis post is totally not chocolate-related, but it’s officially summer (even the sun knows it, finally!) and the farmers market is full of goodies. Like strawberries and rhubarb. And pig fat.

I’ve spoken with the lovely Kate McDermott before about her wondrous pies. Kate makes The World’s Best Pie, as I discovered last summer. She swears by leaf lard, and I’ve been altogether too lazy to track down a source of it in Vancouver.

Leaf lard is the fat from around a pig’s kidneys, and is highly prized for its clean flavour and magically flaky pie properties. I finally found a source for it in Vancouver, and bought mine from Gelderman Farms at the Main Street farmers market. Give them a call or drop them an email, let them know how much you want, and they’ll have it for you at their next market date.

I bought three pounds of frozen leaf lard from them and rendered half of it in my crockpot. I used Cheeseslave’s handy how-to, and it worked like a charm. However, whereas most instructions call for the rendered lard to be strained into mason jars, I poured mine into a loaf pan lined with parchment paper. Once it solidified (overnight, in the fridge) it lifted out of the loaf pan easily. I now have a brick of white fat hanging out in the back of my fridge, wrapped in parchment and stored in a ziptop bag.

Word to the wise: while most instructions say that rendering fat produces a rather, erm, distinctive smell, I don’t think it’s unpleasant. However, it definitely smelled porky in my apartment for about six hours. I happened to be making peanut butter ice cream at the same time, and it got me thinking about peanut butter and bacon sandwiches…but that’s another post for another time.

Of course, all the fun of leaf lard is in making pie with it. I’ve worked with store-bought lard before and just find it off-putting. It’s strange-tasting, greasy and slick—and while it does produce a pretty flaky crust, there’s something missing.Strawberry rhubarb pie with leaf lard crust

So I made pie. And it is the best pie that I’ve made so far. I went a bit overboard with the sugar for the filling, but I’m so distracted at the exquisite flakiness of the crust, the crisp sound that it makes when you plunge your fork into it, and the delicate, buttery sweetness of it that I don’t even care about the filling.

Now that, my friends, is good pie. And I’m wholly convinced about the leaf lard thing.

Miracle fruit: turn lemons into lemonade


Photo credit: Wikipedia entry for "miracle fruit"

“Hey, do you want to take a flavour trip?”

What started as a pretty normal Sunday afternoon quickly became a mind-bending taste excursion featuring the much-touted miracle fruit. The science of it isn’t fully understood, but researchers think that active compounds in the fruit bind to your taste buds and alter the way that you perceive sour food. Rather than sour, you taste sweet. The miracle fruit is often cited as a way to make healthy foods taste good to a population whose taste buds have been conditioned to crave sugar.

I’m less interested in reaching out to people with maladjusted tastebuds, and more interested in science experiments. Which, in this case, meant raiding the fridge and finding as many sour things as possible.

For some semblance of controlled data, I checked my taste buds before eating the miracle fruit. Lemon? Sour. Lime? Tangy, reminiscent of gin and tonics past. Mandarin orange? Slightly sweet, vaguely tangy, slight honey notes.

The fruit itself is pretty non-descript. It’s pink, with a thin skin and a slightly gelatinous pulp surrounding a hard pit. It tastes sweet and tangy, though I wonder if even the taste of the fruit is altered by its taste-changing properties.

A minute after eating the fruit, I took a nervous taste test. Lemon? Egads! It tasted like a vehicle for pure, unadulterated sugar. Kind of like ordering a lemon drop martini, ignoring the vodka and lemon juice, and licking all of the sugar off the rim. Times ten. In fact, it was too sweet for me – it made my stomach do fluttery little flips like something weird was going on. Which, well, was a pretty accurate reading.

The lime was less sweet than the lemon, though still a mess of syrupy sugary sensation that slid down the back of my throat. The mandarin orange still tasted like a mandarin, but with an enhanced honey finish.

From there, it degenerated into raiding the fridge for anything and everything. Lemon juice? Like sugar water. Dijon mustard? Like honey dijon. Balsamic vinegar? Like a balsamic reduction, super sweet and syrupy. White vinegar? Like a mellower version of itself, almost like rice wine vinegar. Worcestershire sauce? Still spicy, though slightly sweeter than normal.

Mango chutney tasted surprisingly like spicy ketchup. Which, really, is not surprising when you consider that ketchup is a vehicle for sugar.

And teeny tiny grape tomatoes plucked off the remaining vines from the summer gone by? Like teeny tiny pockets of honeyed syrup, exploding in my mouth and finishing with the savoury umami-ness of tomatoes.

Things that it didn’t have an effect on: tahini and peanut sauce. They both tasted normal, because there isn’t much acid in them. Therefore, there was no change in their perceived taste.

The only downside? My sweetness receptors are completely exhausted. No chocolate for me, at least for a few days.

And finally, an observation: the more acid that’s present in a food (for example, lemons and the flavour-bomb grape tomatoes), the more marked the sweetness effect is. It was definitely weird, but not so weird that I wouldn’t try it again. And you’d better believe that the next time, I’ll be armed with an arsenal of sour foods and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

Peanut butter and chocolate

I apologize to everyone who is allergic to peanuts. Partly because this post is all about peanut butter, but mostly because it’s just so damn delicious.

Every year for the past three years, I have made a peanut butter banana chocolate pie on March 14. For you folks who aren’t math geeks, that’s pi(e) day. As in, 3/14 and 3.14. And really, an excuse to make and eat lots of pie.

Really, it’s an exercise in taking something that’s pretty cool, and making it extravagantly over-the-top. I looked at a recipe for peanut butter mousse pie in a chocolate crumb crust and thought, “you know, what that needs is some sliced bananas in the bottom of it, and maybe a layer of chocolate ganache on top for good measure.” And thus, the peanut butter banana chocolate pie was born. Next time around, I think I’ll take it further and caramelize the bananas in rum.

~~Science interlude~~

Peanuts are not a nut, they’re a legume. Ergo, people who are allergic to peanuts can still eat nuts – unless, of course, they’re allergic to nuts.

Peanuts are rich in an amino acid called arginine (arr-jin-een). Foods that are rich in arginine have been associated with higher likelihood of outbreaks of cold sores and, erm, outbreaks that are like cold sores. To be precise, it’s thought that an imbalance in the levels of two amino acids, arginine and lysine, is responsible for cold sores. (Outbreaks, that is. There’s a cute little virus that causes cold sores and the like in the first place.)

Incidentally, chocolate is also quite rich in arginine. Hrm. Arginine sure is tasty.

~~End interlude~~

There’s just something about peanut butter. It’s rich and luxurious, and that stick-your-tongue-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth feeling is comforting. It reminds me of being an awkward kid with pigtails. I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid, my parents gave me a spoonful of peanut butter just so I’d stop talking.

And peanut butter and chocolate? Divine. Baskin-robbins ice cream, all melty chocolatey with a ribbon of peanut butter stickiness? Yes, please.

I picked up some peanut buttery chocolatey things while in Seattle last week. It’s all research, you see. In my head, I’m creating the world’s best peanut butter and jelly bonbon. It’ll be one part peanut butter praline, one part grape jelly, and all kinds of grown-up, nostalgic tastiness.

Like Picasso at IKEA

I wandered into a chocolate shop the other day, just to have a look around. I really didn’t plan on buying or eating anything.

What’s that phrase about the best-laid plans?

One VISA swipe later, I sat down with a cup of coffee and two square-ish nubs of chocolate: one that was raspberry flavoured, and one that purported to contain bacon.

Yum, bacon.

The problem is, I’ve become kind of cantankerous and picky when it comes to chocolate. I can’t just eat it. I have to dissect it. So, I couldn’t ignore the fact that square chocolates should be, well, square. They should also be even and flat, and not sort of sideways and woozy-looking. And you know, as pretty as that cocoa butter design was on top, it was too bad that the corners of the chocolate were all cracked. And when I turned the chocolates over, it was really too bad that the bottom was cracked along every edge.

This told me a few things.

1. Quality control wasn’t there. I know there are some places that think that mistakes make things look handmade and rustic, but it actually just makes things look messy. If you’re going to do the handmade thing, then really give ‘er and make them look cozy and handmade. But trying to sell me a sad-looking piece of chocolate just makes me sad.

2. Someone mistreated these chocolates. Trade secret: most chocolate shops work weeks in advance, and then refrigerate or freeze the confections until they’re needed. The trick is to acclimatize the chocolates very slowly as they cool, and even more slowly as they warm up. This is because the inside of a confection is made of ganache. A mixture of chocolate and cream, ganache expands and contracts at a different rate than plain chocolate.

If you’re patient and let the confections cool down and warm up slowly, then they’ll look fine. However, if you’re impatient, then the ganache inside will expand faster than the chocolate outside, resulting in sad, cracked edges.

And really, if you’re impatient, you shouldn’t be working with chocolate. What’s the point?

In this case, not only did the chocolatier fail to make sure that every chocolate was perfect, but whoever handled them afterwards couldn’t be bothered to treat them properly. It’s like putting a tacky copy of a Picasso in one of those do-it-yourself cheapie IKEA picture frames.


(Oh, and the bacon chocolate? Not nearly as delicious as I thought it would be. Neither the chocolate nor the bacon tasted very good, and the two flavours together just seemed like an afterthought. Double boo.)