FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Pure Sweet Decadence

Chocolate. Can anything be more luxurious and delicious? Doubtful, but then again I'm a self-proclaimed chocoholic. Mile-high pies, big fluffy and creamy desserts ... you can keep 'em; fruit tarts, push 'em aside -- just give me plain old chocolate. My favorite way of consuming this "food of the gods" is straight, in the form of a candy bar or, better yet, cut off a block of pure dark semi-sweet. Indeed, when making desserts that contain chocolate I often buy more than is required knowing some will be consumed during preparation. This penchant for chocolate is nothing new to me; I grew up with it. And through genes or action, like my father before me I am unconsciously passing the love of chocolate onto my young son, Isaac. Just the other day, in fact, when asked what "treat" he would like in his lunchbox he replied simply "just a little candy bar."

Chocolate wasn't always sweet and of course didn't originate in the form of a block. These were European innovations -- without the added sugar, chocolate is actually very bitter. If you've ever mistakenly eaten unsweetened bakers chocolate then you understand this completely. The word chocolate, in fact, is derived from the Aztec xocolatl, meaning "bitter water." The Aztecs consumed chocolate in the form of a beverage, which was made by pounding together raw cocoa pods and spices and infusing it into water. Indeed, as its name suggested the beverage was undoubtedly very bitter water. None the less, as is today, many thought that cocoa had aphrodisiac properties; the Aztec king Montezuma is believed to have drank up to fifty servings of the bitter concoction each day from golden goblets.

What makes chocolate so seemingly addictive is not only the tangible things like its decadent flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture, but also the things that are not so easy to detect -- chocolate's actual makeup. For starters it contains caffeine, which is common enough. But it also contains other unseen substances such as phenylethylamine, which is a sort of natural amphetamine and anti-depressant that is also produced in the brain during times of pleasure (hence the dubious phrase "chocolate is better than sex"). Among other things chocolate also contains anandamide, which produces feelings of calm and well being, like an extremely mild drug. The paradox of this is that despite the energy and euphoric-inducing effects of chocolate, the popularity of desserts bearing names such as "Death by Chocolate" continue to soar. The phrase was first coined by the extremely talented chef/restaurateur Marcel Desaulnier at his restaurant The Trellis in Williamsburg, Virginia, his latest book is entitled Desserts to Die For.

Hmmm ... so on one side chocolate is shrouded in aphrodisiac mythology, and even said to offer somewhat of an anti-depressant and euphoric "high" making life worth living. While on the flip side it is insinuated that chocolate is so rich and decadent that it can cause death, or at least is worth dying for. Though it may be delicious, I personally don't feel comfortable eating a food whose title blatantly implies that doing so may be fatal. But then again I tend to take things a little too literally.

What is also unique about chocolate is its fat -- cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is vegetable fat yet it is solid at room temperature, which is usually a characteristic of animal fats; vegetable fats are generally liquid at room temperature. Cocoa butter is also expensive, and because of this many inferior brand chocolates have substituted a less expensive vegetable fat for a portion of the cocoa butter. Many of the added fats also act as stabilizers; they melt at a higher temperature than cocoa butter, thus it is easier to be stored and transported. But as with many things that are altered, substituting another fat for real cocoa butter often brings a loss of quality, most notably flavor and the feel it leaves in one's mouth -- fats other than cocoa butter will often leave a waxy feeling in your mouth. The best and most accurate (not to mention pleasurable) way of testing the quality of chocolate is to do it the old fashioned way ... taste it. There are a few basic elements that should be apparent in fine chocolate: how quickly it melts in your mouth (it should melt relatively quickly), the smoothness of the chocolate as it melts, the intensity of its flavor, and any waxy feel or undesirable after taste.

Store your chocolate in a cool, dry place (60-70 degrees, ideally) and in its original packaging. If opened, seal with plastic wrap. If stored at too warm of a temperature the chocolate may develop "bloom," or whitish-gray surface streaks, which is caused by the cocoa butter surfacing. In damp conditions such as a refrigerator chocolate can form tiny whitish-gray sugar crystals. Both of these conditions are harmless, with texture affected very slightly. In proper temperatures and packaging chocolate can be stored for up to 10 months.

Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yield: About 3 dozen
1 cup unsalted butter
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light in color. Add the eggs, vanilla and salt and cream until fluffy. Add the cocoa powder, baking soda and flour all at once and mix until thoroughly incorporated, but do not over mix. Stir in the chocolate chips and mix until just incorporated.

Drop spoonfuls of dough onto lightly oiled baking sheets and bake approximately 10 minutes, or until just set. Remove the pans from the oven and allow to cool for 2 minutes. Carefully remove the cookies to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

Chocolate Pistachio Baklava
Yield: 12 by 10 inch pan
2 cups granulated sugar
1-1/4 cups water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon rose water or orange blossom water
2 egg whites
2/3 cup powdered sugar
4 cups chopped pistachio nuts
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1 pound phyllo dough (approximately 20 sheets)

Combine the granulated sugar, water and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower the heat and simmer it for 10-15 minutes or until slightly thickened. Stir in the rose water or orange water and refrigerate the syrup.

Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks, slowly beat in the powdered sugar, then fold in the pistachios, cinnamon, chocolate and cocoa.

Heat the butter in a small saucepan over low heat until just melted. Lay the phyllo dough on a cool table and loosely cover it with a clean cloth that has been sprinkled with cool water.

Brush the sides and bottom of a 12 by 10 inch baking pan with melted butter. Layer half the sheets of phyllo dough into the pan, one by one, brushing each sheet with melted butter. Spread the chocolate nut filling across the buttered dough in the pan. Layer the remaining dough across the filling, repeating the process of buttering each sheet of phyllo as it is fitted into the pan. Using a sharp knife, cut the baklava into diamond shapes taking care not to rip the dough.

Bake the pastry in a preheated 400 degree Fahrenheit oven for 20-30 minutes, or until it is golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and drizzle the chilled syrup directly onto the hot pastry, allowing the syrup to run into all of the slices and crevices in the pastry. Allow the baklawa to cool to room temperature before serving.

Chocolate Espresso Mousse
Yield: 8-10 servings
1-1/2 pounds semi-sweet chocolate, broken into pieces
3/4 cup strong espresso
4 eggs yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
8 egg whites

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler. When the chocolate is completely melted stir in the espresso and remove it from the heat. Allow the chocolate mixture to cool slightly, then beat in the egg yolks and vanilla extract. Let this mixture cool to just above room temperature. Begin to whip the cream, in a stainless steel or copper bowl, while gradually adding the sugar. Continue to whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks; set aside. In a stainless or copper bowl, whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold the whipped egg whites into the whipped cream. Fold 1/3 of the cream and egg white mixture into the chocolate mixture, stirring gently until smooth. Then, very gently, fold in the remaining cream and egg white mixture, taking great care not to over mix or it will deflate the mousse. Ladle the finished mouse into 8 or 10 cups or wineglasses and refrigerate for at least an hour. Garnish with whipped cream and/or fresh berries just before serving.

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