Category Archives: Pastry

Cocoa Powder

When chocolate liquor, the paste you get when you grind roasted cacao nibs, is placed in a hydraulic press and squeezed, two products result: cocoa butter and cocoa powder. However it’s important to note that the process doesn’t entirely separate the two. Some cocoa butter remains in the cocoa powder, which is designated as either low, medium or high fat, the fattiest being 24% cocoa butter and the leanest being 10% cocoa butter. The rest is all cocoa solids.

It’s fair to think of cocoa powders as one might think of coffees. There are blended powders and single origin “varietal” powders, light roast and dark roast, high quality and low quality. As I mentioned in the chocolate primer, there are three major cultivars of cacao: criollo, forester and trinitario. Criollo is the rarest and most expensive, as it’s considered by many chocolate connoisseurs to be the best, which is to say both mellower and more fragrant. I have no opinion on that since I’ve never tried these cocoa powders back-to-back. You might. If so let me know your thoughts.

Cocoa powders come in two basic varieties: “Dutched” and “un-Dutched”. The difference is that Dutched is mellower than un-Dutched as it’s had an alkaline — usually potassium carbonate — added to it to neutralize it. Cacao beans are naturally acidic but become even more so when they’re fermented, just like fermented dairy products and sourdough bread. That acidity gives cocoa powder a sharpness that chocolate consumers have — at least historically — disliked, hence the Dutching. These days harsh chocolates, like harsh coffees, are fashionable and as a result Dutched cocoa is harder to find (though Droste is an example of a Dutched cocoa that many grocers still carry).

Why is un-Dutched chocolate so popular? In large part it’s the aesthetic, a lot of people just like the more pronounced taste. Some people regard potassium carbonate as an unhealthy “additive”, though the compound is common in water softener salts, in baking powders and is frequently used to balance the pH of wine. Others believe that the Dutching process renders chocolate less healthy since potassium carbonate degrades flavanols, the antioxidants chocolate has become famous for since the 90′s. And while there’s no question that Dutching destroys flavanols, those who extol the health benefits of chocolate are on shakier scientific ground every year, as recent studies have shown that antioxidants have no quantifiable benefits and may even be bad for you. Which is probably why Dutched chocolate has been making something of a comeback in recent years.

The swing of the pH pendulum has had some consequences for bakers as pH can be important in batters, especially those leavened with primarily with baking soda. Indeed many recipes written since the 90′s rely at least in part on the acidity of un-Dutched cocoa powder to initiate a leavening reaction. My advice: read your ingredient lists carefully to see if the writer specifies one or the other. A little extra acidity is rarely a problem in, say, a muffin batter. Too little, however, can have adverse consequences: compromised volume and soapy flavors which result when soda reacts with fat.

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Cocoa Butter

Cocoa butter is a very unusual fat. Granted, in its refined form it doesn’t look like much. It’s white, flavorless, odorless and soap-like in its firmness. However it doesn’t take too much fiddling with it to understand how unique it is. First there’s the low melt point. Cocoa butter is comprised of 21 different fats, all of which melt between 55 and 114 degrees Fahrenheit. The average melting temperature of those fats is 87 degrees Fahrenheit. Which means that cocoa butter melts easily in the mouth — even on the skin, which is why cocoa butter is in such high demand in the cosmetic industry.

But what really distinguishes cocoa butter is the speed at which it melts. Cocoa butter has what’s called a “sharp” melting point, meaning that when it gets much above that magic temperature of 87 degrees it goes liquid rapidly. The reason is because, while cocoa butter has 21 different fats in it, just three of those fats make up nearly half of its bulk, and they all melt at around the same temperature: between 87 and 91 depending on whether the cocoa butter has been tempered or not. That means that when cocoa butter hits the warm environment of your mouth it almost instantly transforms into a liquid. However, because there are fats in the mix that melt at higher temperature (up to 114) that liquid isn’t especially thin. That high viscosity is a good thing from the standpoint of someone who likes to eat, for if the cocoa butter happens to be mixed with any nice flavor-giving compounds (chocolate solids anyone?), those compounds hang around on the tongue and on the surfaces of the mouth for a while, bathing the taste buds in flavor.

Very interesting, no? The only problem with cocoa butter is its price, which is a result of competition between the confectionery and cosmetics industries. Let’s say, for example, that a pound of chocolate liquor goes for $3.00. If you were to refine that chocolate liquor and separate the cocoa solids and cocoa butter, the solids would sell for about $1.20. The refined cocoa butter, however, would sell for $6.00. So there’s that. Another down side is the fact that cocoa butter is very rigid when it’s cool, and that’s not always a good thing. Indeed cocoa butter gets tooth-shatteringly hard when it gets below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which means it’s not so good in ice cream. That’s why ice cream makers generally use a cocoa butter equivalent (CBE) for chocolate that goes into frozen treats.

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Can chocolate be used once it’s “seized”?

Ooh reader Elena, that’s one of my favorite topics. I just happen to have a post on that very thing right here.

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Confectionery Coating Chocolate

This is not “couverture” chocolate (which means “coating” or “covering” in French), I’ll create a separate post on that subject. This is sort of couverture’s opposite, at least from a quality standpoint. Many people wouldn’t actually call this particular product “chocolate” since it has no cocoa butter in it. Rather it contains one or more so-called “cocoa butter equivalents” (CBE’s), fats like palm oil which perform similarly to cocoa butter but really aren’t the same. They don’t have cocoa butter’s silky and subtle mouthfeel, but on the other hand don’t have its rigidity (nor high price tag). CBE’s aside, these chocolates are almost identical to milk chocolate: high in sugar, low in chocolate liquor, and contain about 15% milk solids.

For the record I do not abhor this sort of chocolate, though I wouldn’t eat it just for fun. It’s pretty disappointing on that level. However I definitely would top a doughnut with it as it provides a decent flavor for the money and delivers great covering ability/elasticity. Which is to say that unlike a high quality couverture it won’t chip and fall off if it’s bumped or knocked. Quite useful for what it is, actually.

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Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is the lightest and smoothest of all the major chocolate varieties, containing only about 10-20% chocolate liquor. It is the only type of chocolate that contains milk (or cream) solids, those take up roughly 15% of its volume. Milk chocolate is usually 50% sugar and the very smoothest varieties — you know, those very expensive Swiss bars — can be up to 30% cocoa butter. It all makes for a silky and delightful eating experience, if a decidedly less “chocolate-y” one. It’s for that reason that you don’t find terribly much milk chocolate in the pastry kitchen, as that small amount of chocolate liquor is easily lost when it’s used as a glaze or garnish. Its relative softness also makes it a poor choice for a ganache or flourless chocolate cake, even when it’s used in combination with stouter chocolates. I’ll sometimes add some melted milk chocolate to a buttercream or frosting, but that’s about it.

Lower quality milk chocolates don’t have as much real cocoa butter compared to the higher quality ones. Rather they contain so-called cocoa butter equivalents (CBE’s) which as the name implies, deliver a similar, but by no means identical, experience. All milk chocolates contain lecithin to keep the emulsion stable.

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Semi-Sweet Chocolate

Semi-sweet chocolate also goes by the name of “dark” chocolate, at least when it’s in candy bar form, though interestingly it often contains more sugar than even most milk chocolate. Semi-sweet chocolate is often 60% sugar by weight. The rest of its volume is made up of cocoa solids (about 15%) and cocoa butter (27-32%). Like bittersweet and unsweetened chocolate it has no milk solids in it, which I suppose is what makes it “dark” by some standards. Semi-sweet has fewer uses than bittersweet in my opinion, which I think is why you don’t see terribly much of it except as an inclusion in chocolate chip cookies, muffins, ice cream, that sort of thing. A lot of people just like to eat it, and really, who can blame them?

I should insert here once again that the definitions of bittersweet and semisweet tend to blur together in the US where, unlike Europe, there are no formal guidelines as to what constitutes either, and every chocolatier has its own set of standards. Your best bet for determining the relative darkness of a chocolate is to check the percentages on the packages which have become a de-facto standard in the industry the last twenty years or so.

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Dark Crystal

Reader Evelyn wants to know: why does tempered chocolate have a higher melting point than untempered chocolate? When I wake up to a food science question like this I can only say: life is good.

The answer is that it all has to do with crystals. As regular Joe Pastry readers know, crystals abound in the kitchen. Certainly in the salt shaker and the sugar bowl, but in lots of other places besides. There are starch crystals (in bread) and fat crystals (in solid fats like butter). There are even such things as protein crystals, though I honestly don’t know where (or if) they occur in the kitchen. Will a real scientist please stand up?

Chocolate contains fat crystals, at least when it’s in solid form. As I mentioned yesterday, cocoa butter is unusually uniform in its composition, made up of just three different types of fats. That uniformity makes cocoa butter extremely crystal-prone, because similar molecules are wont to stack up on one another like LEGOs under the right conditions (the individual molecules form masses, stop flowing, and voilà you go from a liquid to a solid crystal).

But here’s the rub: depending on the way in which cocoa butter is allowed to cool and harden, there are six different types of crystals that the fat molecules can form. Just two of those are stable and uniform, the rest are comparatively unstable and random. Tricking the fat molecules into forming only (or at least mostly) the stable, uniform kind is what tempering is all about.

But I digress. A bit. The interesting thing about those different crystal formations is that they all have different melting points. The more random, less stable crystals have a lower melting point (around 86 degrees Fahrenheit), while more the uniform crystal formations have a higher melting point (around 91).

It’s the higher melting point that’s partly responsible for tempered chocolate’s firmer texture and more brittle “snap” vis-à-vis untempered chocolate which is softer, duller and more pliable at room temperature.

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Bittersweet Chocolate

Bittersweet (often simply called “dark”) chocolate is probably the most useful type of chocolate in the pastry kitchen, which is why I always have a little on-hand in one form or another. It’s also the most variable in its composition. Chocolates in the bittersweet family can contain as little as 35% cocoa solids or as much as 70%. Similarly, cocoa butter content can be anywhere from 25-38%, sugar content 30-50%. Bittersweet chocolates contain a small amount of lecithin and no milk solids.

I should insert that the definitions of bittersweet and semisweet tend to blur together in the US where, unlike Europe, there are no formal guidelines as to what constitutes either, and every chocolatier has its own set of standards. Your best bet for determining the relative darkness of a chocolate is to check the percentages on the packages which have become a de-facto standard in the industry the last twenty years or so.

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Unsweetened Chocolate

Unsweetened chocolate is nothing more than tempered chocolate liquor. Not too pleasant to taste for all but the most die-hard chocaholics, it is little more than ground cocoa bean, though the degree of grinding and processing varies from maker to maker. Most unsweetened chocolate weighs in at about 47% chocolate solids and 52% cocoa butter (which means it melts very nicely), the final 1% is usually a stabilizer like lecithin which keeps the chocolate emulsion from breaking.

Though it might not seem so, unsweetened chocolate has all sorts of uses, especially in cake and cookie batters. Baker’s is the classic American brand of unsweetened chocolate, though these days it’s easy to find unsweetened bars by manufacturers like Scharffen Berger and Callebaut in specialty shops.

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A Chocolate Primer

Before we start talking about chocolate I should make clear that I draw a distinction between the sort of chocolate you find in candy shops and the kind you find in bakeries or pastry shops. The former is a confection meant to be consumed on its own. The latter is a component meant to be consumed in concert with other components: flour, butter, eggs, sugar, caramel, vanilla…you get the idea. So don’t blame me (as many do) for taking a utilitarian approach to the stuff. For I look at chocolate no differently than I do any other ingredient in baking, which means that just like everything else in my kitchen chocolate is subject to Joe’s Inverse Law of Ingredient Dynamics which goes like this: as the number of ingredients in a given recipe goes down, the quality of those ingredients must go up. That means if, say, you’re making a flourless chocolate cake — where chocolate is clearly the star — you should use very good chocolate. Conversely it means that if you’re using it as a drizzle for your caramel macadamia nut tart, a chocolate of middling quality is fine. In fact it’s probably more than enough, as the delicate flavors and aromas of a rare and expensive chocolate will get lost in an ensemble.

But what exactly is chocolate? Essentially it’s the ground seed of the Theobroma cacao tree which grows in tropical and subtropical areas in Africa, Central and South America and Southeat Asia. The seeds — which can come from any one of three species of cacao: criollo, forastero or trinitario — are found in football-shaped pods that jut straight out from the trunk of the cacao tree. Processing begins by removing the seeds and pulp from the pod and fermenting the whole mess in large bins for up to a week or so. At that point they’re dried, packaged and shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world. When the seeds reach their destination they’re roasted and their outer shells are removed to reveal the inner kernels. These kernels are also called “nibs”. After roasting the nibs are ground to a paste called chocolate “liquor”.

It’s at this point that chocolate’s other key ingredients are added, frequently sugar, milk or cream solids, flavors like vanilla and usually emulsifiers such as lecithin that keep the chocolate emulsion stable. Once that’s done the whole mixture is further blended or “conched” for a period of a few hours or up to many days depending on the flavor and texture the chocolatier is after. Lastly the chocolate is tempered and formed into its final shape.

What do I find most interesting about chocolate? The fact that we don’t know very much about what’s in it, the cocoa solids at any rate (cocoa minus cocoa butter). Oh certainly we know that cocoa solids are starchy and acidic, that they contain theobromine, cellulose fiber and a little caffeine, protein and water, but beyond that not a whole lot is known about what exactly chocolate is. Like coffee, it’s a brew of flavor-giving compounds, many of which don’t have names. Which I guess is where the magic comes from, no?

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