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Hi and welcome back! Earlier, I saw a story in Science News about an advance in chocolate tempering that might really help candy makers in the future. It’s a cool story, don’t get me wrong. Just for my money, nothing beats the sheer glorious chemistry of one particular use of chocolate. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the perfect marriage of science and deliciousness: chocolate ganache

(Sonia Belviso, CC-SA.) Credit: Sonia Belviso / Flickr

Everyone, Meet Chocolate.

The sweet treat we call chocolate has a long history — and a surprisingly gross origin story.

Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which grow in hot wet climates on cacao trees (Theobroma cacao). In their original form, they sure don’t look like much. Here are the pods growing on the trees:

(Silke Baron, CC.)

When the pods are ripe, people pick them and split them open. Inside, we find a ton of gooey white sorta-lemon-custardy-tasting pulp — and cocoa beans.

(Malcolm Manners, CC.)

People clean those beans up, then ferment them over a period of 4-10 days. Fermenting involves letting the beans sit on mats or in bins or buckets. Every so often, people mix them around. During fermentation, acids seep out and different kinds of bacteria work their magic. Without this phase, chocolate makers assure us, chocolate wouldn’t taste so rich and complex!

After fermentation, workers dry the beans in the sun for a week or two.

But the beans still don’t look very impressive after all that:

(Scot Nelson.)

At this point, the beans enter the manufacturing phase. Specialists sort them, then clean them. Then, the beans must be roasted — which I’m told smells “heady” and “euphoric.” Machines crack open the beans’ shells so the nibs inside can be ground up into a paste called cocoa liquor. The fat in the beans, called cocoa butter, gets squeezed out.

Finally, the cocoa is conched, which involves more grinding and adding other ingredients like sugar and milk powder as necessary, then blended back with the cocoa butter to get the consistency the manufacturer wants. Finally, the chocolate is tempered.

The Difficulty of Chocolate Tempering.

Tempering is the final stage in the chocolate-making process. The term means melting the chocolate into its final form.

(Natalia Wilson, CC-SA.)

And wow, is this process complicated.

Cocoa butter, which is what gives luxurious chocolate its smooth and pleasing mouth feel, has a very low melting point — about our body temperature (which is why chocolate melts in our hands as easily as it does in our mouths, unless other ingredients are added to stop it). Making matters more complicated, the cocoa butter in chocolate can crystallize into six different sizes and forms.

So it’s very easy for chocolate to seize into different sizes and shapes of crystals along its journey to final form. That makes the chocolate crumbly instead of smooth, as well as matte and obviously mottled instead of sleek and shiny like lipstick.

Tempering involves a very careful process of heating, cooling, and reheating to catch all six crystal forms, melt them, and get them to flow smoothly.

There are machines out there that can help someone temper chocolate for less than USD$200, but the commercial machines can cost thousands.

The science story I saw earlier was about a new hack for chocolate makers: a pinch of saturated fat, called phospholipids, added to chocolate during the tempering process made it vastly easier to get the chocolate smooth and sleek. That’s exciting news all by itself!

Glorious Chocolate Ganache.

But that story got me thinking about one of my favorite applications for chocolate: ganache. And ganache is something that home cooks are far more likely to encounter — and it’s a lot easier to produce reliably well without hacks.

Ganache is a creamy goo made by mixing bittersweet chocolate (chips, chopped bars, whatever solid one wishes) with warm cream. It’s incredibly easy to make. Here’s the recipe I usually use:

1/2 c. heavy cream

2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (don’t skip the chopping)

Pour the cream into a medium glass bowl; microwave for 60-90 seconds until it’s nearly boiling. Whisk in the chocolate. Let it stand five minutes, then stir again until it’s completely smooth. Cover; put in fridge to cool. If you’re planning to put it into a piping cone, cool for 3 hours.

Other uses: a dollop of cooled ganache goes great in chocolate cupcakes (just put the dollop on top of the batter before baking; it’ll sink in), between cake layers or poured atop as an icing, atop meringue or dacquoise cookies, etc. (ChocolatierAugust 2004, p. 16 — an excellent magazine to acquire overall, btw)

Though easy to make, ganache is not completely foolproof. The recipe works because it’s an emulsion of the fat and chocolate solids in the chocolate and the liquid and fat in the cream. Obviously, cream also contains a lot of fat itself. So if there’s too much fat, the ganache won’t come together correctly — in fact, the fats will separate out. If there’s too little liquid, the ganache can curdle (or break, or “seize”) and its texture will be gross and grainy, not smooth and sleek.

There are ways to fix a broken ganache, of course, but it can be touch and go. It’s best not to deviate from reliable recipes unless you know what you’re doing. Remember: cooking recipes are guidelines and suggestions. Baking and candy making recipes are commands.

And this effort is 100% worth it! Ganache is one of my all time favorite treats to make, and I hope you’ll make it yourself sometime.

Chocolate: The Food of the Gods.

There’s a reason why people love chocolate so much, according to this BBC article:

Roasting releases a range of chemical compounds including 3-methylbutanoic acid, which on its own has a sweaty rancid odour, and dimethyl trisulfide, the smell of over-cooked cabbage.

The combination of these and other aroma molecules creates a unique chemical signature that our brains love. [. . .]

Chocolate contains a number of interesting psychoactive chemicals. These include anandamide, a neurotransmitter whose name comes from the Sanskrit – “ananda”, meaning “joy, bliss, delight”. Anandamides stimulate the brain in much the same way that cannabis does.

It also contains tyramine and phenylethylamine, both of which have similar effects to amphetamines.

Finally, if you look hard enough, you will find small traces of theobromine and caffeine, both of which are well-known stimulants.

But it’s not just all that stuff. As the article points out, a few squares of chocolate won’t significantly impact our brain chemistry. No, it’s likely that its exact combination of 1 part fat to 2 part sugars reminds us of our mothers’ milk (or formula, which uses a similar ratio). In that same article, we learn that roughly the same ratio can be found in doughnuts, ice cream, cookies, and a lot of other foods we like.

It sounds to me like a lot of factors come together to make chocolate such a desirable food for so many people.

So today, Lord Snow Presides over one of the best parts of being alive, good chocolate — and the long process of discovery that led to humans being able to take humble little beans to that glorious finale.

NEXT UP: The most controlling Christians don’t like competition — even if it’s imaginary. See you tomorrow!

1st-Century Friday Topic:

For 1st-CENTURY FRIDAY: Last week, we covered the so-called Testimony of Josephus. For this Friday, we’ll check out his enemy, Justus of Tiberias — and a certain rabble-rouser Josephus describes in his two main books. This revolutionary led a Messianic cult that grew into a whole fourth branch of Judaism. You might even know of him, perhaps: Judas of Galilee.

About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)

Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow was my very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit. Though he’s passed on, he now presides over a suggested topic for the day. Of course, please feel free to chime in with anything on your mind: there’s no official topic on these days. I’m just starting us off with something, but consider the sky the limit here. We especially welcome pet pictures!

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Parting thoughts: It’s completely okay if someone doesn’t like chocolate. More for the rest of us!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...