Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Blind Tasting and the Tao of the Chocolate Society

Blind tasting makes us who we are as a chocolate society. Blind tasting removes inhibitions and prejudice and expectations. And, being the only one knowing what I am passing around, it is fun to watch people taste things blindly.

As the Chocolate Society's president and founder, I came up with the concept of the society as being a place for chocolate nerds to come together to geek out in a safe place and buzz together on theobromine. Matt Caputo and I talked at length (along with Vanessa and Nick - can't thank them enough for their input) about how to go about this geekery, and the idea of going blind made sense from the get-go.

Our first meeting in April 2010 was a blind tasting of something like 9 bars with descriptions compiled from Vanessa'a, Nick's, and my impressions of the chocolates were sampling available in random order. Then we went through and tasted each and let people look at the descriptions to see what everyone thought matched with which bar. It was a lot of fun.

Since then, we typically decide on a location or two, or a brand, and taste a wide selection of bars representing our subjects. I will (usually with some help - it is more work than it might seem) break up the chocolate bars in advance and put the sample pieces in a plastic container that is marked in some cryptic way. I like to include some chocolate bars that we will almost certainly despise. It keeps us honest. People throw out impressions, flavor notes, ideas about manufacture(r). It is fun (for me, at least) watching people find out what things are.

I usually do the tasting in groups, and I won't tell people what the bars are until we finish the group. Sometimes, I even remind everyone to bring paper and pen to record notes, and we get a lot from it.

Matt says that our meetings have helped his palate more than anything else he has done. Fine chocolate is my road into paying real attention to food, so chocolate in general has shaped the way I taste. The meetings are very enlightening, and I formulate many of my opinions with my choco-comrades. Planning the meetings gets my wheels turning thinking about what to taste. And how to taste. It gets me thinking about relationships between bars and distinctions as well.

If you haven't gone blind (we don't wear blindfold, by the way; we just don't look too hard at the samples coming around to try to retain the magic of not knowing), you should do it! If you are nearby, join us! If you are not, organize your own blind tasting. And let me know how it goes! I would love feedback about what works and what doesnt't, what pairings are meant to be, and anything new.

Make your chocolate eating fun!


Catch up

My brief little spurt of posting 10 months ago was adorable and, apparently, basically futile.

The chocolate society is going great. We are actually approaching 2 years! April is our 2nd anniversary, and I can hardly believe it. It is a lot of fun, and I look forward to every single meeting.

Lately we have been tasting a lot of new stuff from a rather wide variety of producers, and it occurred to me that every month's meeting provides a great opportunity for a post as a re-cap.

Something I am rather enjoying from the world of chocolate lately is the number of newcomers to the fine chocolate scene - whether that be new to the states or new period. Just within the last week and a half or so, I had some very exciting new chocolate from Ritual (based out of Colorado) and Sampaka from Spain. My tastes lean toward Sampaka, and I will have a LOT more to say about that later.

I was going to include some stuff about blind tasting here, but for organization's sake, I will separate that.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cooking with fine chocolate (a call to arms)

I am often frustrated at the lack of options in desserts available with fine chocolate. Initially, I could eat desserts made from cheap chocolate, but it didn't last. The first type to go were the ones that touted their uber-chocolateyness - the Quintuple Chocolate Bypass, or the Chocolate Judge/Jury/Executioner. They were so chock-full of terrible chocolate that I couldn't help but taste it.

It wasn't long, though, before I started being able to taste the chocolate in much less overt chocolate desserts. Even chocolate ice cream turned on me - there was nowhere safe. At restaurants I would never chocolate ANYTHING anymore. I still rarely do.

At any rate, I have often tried taking matters into my hands. I have attempted a range of desserts including some form of fine chocolate, and I invite all aspiring cooks and bakers (or long-established ones) to try to figure out tasty and creative uses of fine chocolate.

I have tried pudding several times. My only complaint there is that I can never get the texture right - I always get some little (eggy?) lumps that I often strain out through some wire mesh. But pudding is a surprisingly effective vehicle for the flavors of chocolate. I once made some Amano Guayas pudding that had even chocolate newbies were asking me if there was any banana in it. I have used Pralus Djakarta (amazing), Domori Sur Del Lago and Apurimac, Valrhona Alpaco, and probably Tainori at some point, but I am not sure. Try it sometime - the flavors explode. Generally, warmer applications bring out the best of chocolate, but something about getting a mouthful all at once can make some crisp and cool pudding really come to life.

As a use for pudding, I must also mention my cream puffs. The puffs themselves are a breeze to make - check your Better Homes and Garden cookbook for the recipe I use, just make sure you wait at least 15 minutes before adding the egg. Let the puffs cool completely in open air helps the texture. Don't add the filling until as late as possible to keep the puffs and filling having distinctly different textures.

For the filling - whip some heavy cream with powdered sugar (use some vanilla bean innards, too, if you like. I let the chocolate do the talking). Use between 2-3 tablespoons of sugar per cup of cream depending on desired sweetness. Fold the pudding and whipped cream together gently and slowly - generally using only half the whipped cream at first. Spoon the mixture into a gallon ziploc bag and refrigerate till you need it (at least 15 minutes). Push the filling to one corner as best you can, twist off the top of the bag, snip a small corner of bag, poke holes in the puffs with a freshly sanitized pinky, and fill to overflowing. You will make friends with this one.

I have made truffle pies with Valrhona and Pralus. I have discovered something about Pralus: it is apparently very difficult to keep homogenous. It seems to want to separate and stay separated. Valrhona is your friend. I made truffles from a Valrhona truffle pie recipe once with some chopped red jalapeno mixed in. It was a hit.

I have used Valrhona bulk baking chocolate broken up in place of chocolate chips several times for cookies. It won't upset anyone.

One of the easiest and tastiest applications I have come across is melting down various chocolate and combining equal-double that amount of cream to the chocolate. Pour the ensuing mixture over a good eggy vanilla ice cream. I like a good French Vanilla, but my favorite in Utah is Homestyle Vanilla from Breyer's. For those in Texas, you can probably guess which ice cream to use. Hint: think gold rim and singing cow.

The call to arms: Whether you have any sway at a restaurant or in your kitchen, if you have thought about cooking with fine chocolate, give it a try. Remember that the fat content of the good stuff is often fairly different from the cheap stuff (Valrhona is probably the most similar, and I have seen it work better than some others). I would love to hear about the results. Naturally, I would love to taste the results even more. Please tell me how it turns out!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Roast

I love Pralus's bars. I can spot his chocolate from a mile away by just the color and thickness of his 75% bars. Smelling his bars generally yields a rather faint aroma compared to many others (Chuao excepted). There is no vanilla; there is no fermenty funk as with Domori. But when you bite into his Madagascar (or Djakarta, or whichever), you are greeted with intense flavor.

Francois Pralus walks a fine line. I haven't come across another chocolatier that can roast beans so dark as Francois - or at least would ever dare to. Between the roast and the high cocoa content, Pralus can approach savory more than sweet.

When the high roast levels are paired with chocolate from places that have rather volcanic soil, the results are especially smoky. I made some hot cocoa with Djakarta that, upon first taste, tasted smoky. After having some other cocoas that were a bit sweeter (this was at a society meeting highlighting hot cocoa, of course), my Pralus cocoa tasted like licking a really delicious used fire pit.

Valrhona hides its characteristically French roast levels with a fair amount of vanilla (and lower percentages and extra cocoa butter). I enjoy Valrhona, but in a different way. The flavors are generally less complex, and the extra sugar and cocoa butter and vanilla yields a much sweeter experience. Try the Tainori, and the relevance will crystallize for you.

Italians, represented by Domori and Amedei, tend to lean more toward lighter roast. Their chocolates often have a "brightness" to them that the French rarely do. Certainly, they come across as a lot less "roasty."

Once upon a time, I was able to try test kitchen batches of Amano's then forthcoming Guayas - made with the Ecuadorian Nacional bean. I tried three roast levels, and I had a sort of Goldilocks experience. The too-light roast tasted underdeveloped and flat. The too-dark roast tasted like better-than-average charcoal (an exaggeration, I promise), but the just-right roast exploded with flavor. The green banana popped to the forefront, despite the fact that the beans were coarsely ground and roughly mixed with the sugar. It was altogether quite enlightening.

Roast is a key component in my personal tasting experience. Aside from vanilla and snap, roast is among the first factors that exposes the maker. Cook with French chocolate, and even if you never understood the roast level before, you will get it. In pastries or pudding, to my palate, higher roasts bring the chocolate out in the "mix." In audio, it is the equivalent to an instrument "cutting through the mix."

It is not a matter of which roast is the best, but one more disparity in which we can revel and explore.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Now for the biggest deal - we are making a movie! I have been thinking for a while that it is a travesty that the Food Network - on which I rely so much for so much food information - seems so uninformed about fine chocolate. It seems as though they feel they are providing us with some service by unleashing some percentage value of baking chocolate on a show. I thought they should know more.

How does one tell the Food Network that they have it all wrong in my favorite area? I thought that maybe if they just had some concerned citizen write a cleverly-worded email they would see the error of their ways, and then they would produce some beautiful sweeping documentary about fine chocolate - one that would dispel all the myths of chocolate and receive such heavy rotation that you would think it supplanted reruns of Seinfeld as the most played show in history.

Something about that feels unlikely.

So I thought about it more, and I talked about it with a film-making friend of mine. He got all excited about the idea of doing some epic film about the true story of why chocolate is "the food of the gods." He started throwing around ideas of travel to the sources, and feature-length. It had me thinking a lot.

The next day was a Society meeting, and I spoke to Scott about it. Scott works at a local news station as an editor primarily for a local investigative reporter, and he has a lot of equipment, training, and skill. He also has a camera and buckets of excitement. I mentioned to him that I wanted to make a documentary, and he started sharing plans he has been formulating for the last year or so.

Meetings began quickly, and we have already started shooting. Our goal is to educate about the history, makings, and experience of chocolate. We want to celebrate the best, and leave the "lesser" chocolate out - we will keep our hands clean. Investigating claims of foul play will have to wait for the next film...

We plan to interview all the major players we can get our hands on - and the more eloquent among the enthusiasts. We hope to go to the Academy of Chocolate awards banquet this summer to capture the best of the best producers all in one spot. We want to go to Venezuela and/or Ecuador to show the origins of some of the best beans that incidentally have some interesting stories.

We plan on hiring planes locally to get some high-end shots to spice up the film. We have some good networked connections to fantastic camera people. We have enthusiastic and skilled people willing to put their own time into the project - and me. I am enthusiastic, but my skills pretty well end at being a network hub. But that I am good at.

The hope is we can complete shooting this year, and wrap up editing early enough next year to start applying for festivals by March. We want to apply for all the major festivals starting with Cannes. If we can get in, we will educate people about chocolate all over the world!

This - combined with the newsletter - could be a huge force in introducing so many new people to the wonderful world of fine chocolate. Finding funding for this could end up being the most difficult adventure, but I imagine it will be well worth it in the end!


Jesse is my neighbor and among the first members of the Chocolate Society. I had forgotten this, but he and his wife were in my living room when I made one of my first pronouncements that I would be starting a Chocolate Society. The funny part is that they hadn't had the "A-ha!" moment about fine chocolate yet, and they thought they had front-row seats to the musings of a slightly mad man.

Anyway, fast-forward about a year, and Jesse, a PhD. candidate in the field of bio-engineering, is a stalwart. I had briefly entertained thoughts of starting a newsletter, but never seriously, when Jesse suddenly threw out the idea of putting together a newsletter from the Chocolate Society. This came right about the time when Art Pollard of Amano let us take a tour of his facility in Orem.

Upon talking with another of the founders of the Chocolate Society, we starting thinking big about the effect a small publication could have on the local scene. We figure that there are lots of Utahns that are only an experience away from being changed forever. And as they discover the products that have changed me, picking up an unassuming little publication next to their chocolate could be the catalyst that distills the experience to their core.

The newsletter will hopefully become a quarterly publication. It will have recipes, science-y information about chocolate, information about the processes that make the products we love, and interviews with people who are making a difference in the local chocolate scene. We are also going to include a section about local places that sell chocolate that meets the snob standard, local chocolate events, and local restaurants that use fine chocolate in ways we deem "worthy."

As neither Jesse nor I stand to make any money from the newsletter, or chocolate in general, and I have a rather broken editing filter (those who come to the meetings know I love to point out whatever wrongness I perceive in chocolate), we won't be selling an ad space. Call it journalistic integrity, but I can't be censored very easily.

Anyway, electronic copies of each issue will go out to the Chocolate Society when they are completed. We hope to try to get retailers of fine chocolate to carry it to sell for a buck or so to their chocolate customers to try and raise awareness of fine chocolate. Also, we want to build some camaraderie among purveyors and advocates of great chocolate. Competition is great, and an educated and eager consumer-base is better. Chocolate doesn't sell itself. I had to be taught why I was tasting a $12 bar, but once I got it, I got bit hard.

Anyway - expect the first copy soon!

Catch Up

I decided a while ago that I needed to write more on here, but I didn't know where to start. So, naturally, I procrastinated. Well, I am making up for it now.

The Chocolate Society is really going great. In the beginning, I wanted a group of fellow chocophiles with whom I could join in geeking out about arcane elements of my chocolate passion (and theirs). I harbored some pipe dreams about being part of something special that would one day garner national or international attention in the still rather small chocolate community, but having fellow nerds would be enough.

Well, nerds we are. And I am loving it! Each meeting is so much fun, and I look forward to seeing everybody. All the chocolate keeps me up rather later than I anticipate each time - though one might think I would catch on at some point. I come home completely wired and ebullient, feeling great, but not in the least bit tired.

We have so far hit on topics such as blind-tasting Madagascar bars, examining the difference between Rio Caribe (NE Venezuela) and Lake Maracaibo (NW Venezuela), blind tasting Ecuadorian and Dominican bars, zeroing in on the flavors of Amedei's blends and the constituent origins, the subtlety of Domori (in person that would come across as a joke for those in the know - take my word for it), and the effects of great chocolate in filled confections. To any and all members who may come across this - thank you so much for joining with me in all the craziness!

We have some fun news, but why stop at one post tonight?