By: Pam Smith, RDN
Chocolate is grown in the tropics near the equator. Cacao refers to the tree as well as its fruit and seeds. Yellow-green grooved, oval fruit, about 12 inches long, grows directly from the trunk and lower branches of the tree. At harvest, the pods are cut from the trees, split open, and emptied of their 24 to 40 navy bean-sized seeds.
The natural beans are bitter, and without other ingredients or processing would not be considered delicious. First, the beans are fermented for a few days, and then dried for preservation. Dried beans are roasted to open up the flavor, similar to roasting coffee. In areas of the world where people still grow and harvest their own cocoa beans, roasting may be done at home, over an open fire. Otherwise the dried beans are bagged and shipped to a factory for roasting.
After roasting, the beans are broken open and the insides (known as nibs) are removed and ground. The ground nibs harden into chocolate liquor, which is sold as baking chocolate.
Cocoa powder occurs when the fat, called cocoa butter, gets removed from the cacao liquor under pressure during processing. The leftover dried solids get ground into the product that is sold as cocoa powder. Unsweetened cocoa powder adds deep chocolate flavor to desserts, beverages and spice blends!
To make eating chocolate, the chocolate liquor is combined with the cocoa butter. Other ingredients may be added with additional processing. To create the chocolates many know and love, candy makers pour chocolate into molds or “enrobe” (coat on all sides) nuts and other fillings.
Some of the more common pieces and fillings are truffles, combining melted chocolate, butter or cream, sugar, and various flavorings, which, when cooled, are rolled into balls and typically coated with cocoa powder or dipped into melted chocolate; pralines, a confection made of nuts and caramelized sugar; ganache, a rich mixture of chocolate and heavy cream; nougat, a chewy or firm confection made from sugar or honey, roasted nuts, and egg whites; and marzipan, a sweet, pliable mixture of almond paste, sugar, and sometimes egg whites that’s often tinted with food coloring and molded into fruit shapes.
Chocolatier Erika Dupree (owner of Simply Erika in Jacksonville, FL) shows off the whole process at Cocoatown’s Bean to Bar seminar in September 2020.