Happy belated stuffing-yourselves-with-chocolate-to-oblivion day!
October 28th was National Chocolate Day. The United States seems to have a holiday for everything.
Do you think these chocolate festivities were “randomly” placed right before Halloween? Doubtful. Those grocery and convenience stores need to sell lots of chocolate, especially during this time of year. Making chocolate, however, is an intense process that all starts with a little bean.
Did you know that chocolate comes from a tree? It is called Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods” in Greek. The tree isn’t very tall, and it needs to be shaded from sunlight and wind for optimal growth. It is native to Central and South America, but the tree can be found in tropical rainforests around the globe. It looks similar to an apple tree, but it has large bean pods instead of apples.
The pods develop from pink and white flowers, and start appearing on the trees after three to four years of planting. Although the flowers grow throughout the year, only a small amount of these flowers become fruits. It takes about five months for the pods to ripen, and they will look orange when they are ready to be picked. Hence, cacao trees are only harvested about two times per year.
Each pod has about 25 to 40 seeds, or cacao beans, which are used to produce chocolate. The pods are harvested from the trees, opened, and separated from the pod’s pulp- all by hand.
You can imagine how much labor this harvesting entails!
Cacao beans are ridiculously bitter, so they need to be put through a rigorous process to become sweet, delicious confections. This procedure involves a few key steps:
- Fermentation: The goal of fermentation is to separate the pulp from the beans. Generally, the beans are put in a pile so tiny microorganisms can turn the pulp from solid to liquid. Yeast changes the sugars surrounding the pulp to alcohol, and then bacteria raise the temperature of the pulp and turn the alcohol into water. This liquid is drained off, and the flavor of the beans starts to mature into the taste of chocolate.
- Drying: The moistened beans are dried by sunlight or equipment.
- Roasting: Roasting varies based on time, temperature, and moisture of the beans. Depending on the manufacturer making the chocolate, roasting may happen after the winnowing process (see the next step). Roasting turns the beans into a dark, brown color, and really enhances the chocolate flavor we know and love.
- Winnowing: The beans are cracked open and steamed to remove the tiny cacao nibs locked inside. It’s these tiny nibs inside the beans that are turned into chocolate.
- Milling: The heat from this grinding step turns the nibs into a thick mass of chocolate liquor. This liquor contains cocoa butter.
- Pressing: The cocoa butter is separated from the mass and solidified. The remaining mass is crushed into a fine powder (cocoa powder). The cocoa butter, powder, and additional ingredients are then used in their prospective ratios by the manufacturer and turned into chocolate!
I could go into further details about the chocolate-making process, but I think you get the general idea.
It’s important to appreciate the amount of time and effort that goes into making chocolate. Each cacao tree only grows about 20 to 30 pods annually. Therefore, one cacao tree only yields enough beans to make one pound of chocolate for the entire year.
This flourless chocolate cake recipe will definitely highlight the wonders of chocolate. Not only is the cake gluten-free, but it also has a deep, rich flavor that enhances the decadence of chocolate.
Because it’s almost Halloween, please feel free to decorate the cake any way you’d like!
For the cake:
- 4 ounces unsweetened bittersweet chocolate
- 1/4 cup coconut oil
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 3 egg whites
- *1/2 cup cacao powder
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 Tbsp orange zest
*You can use unsweetened cocoa powder instead of cacao powder. I had the cacao in the house, so I used it as a replacement.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease an 8 x 8 inch baking pan, and line the bottom of it with parchment paper.
If you don’t own a double boiler, you can always make one using a bowl and a pot or saucepan, which is how I melted the chocolate.
Add water to a medium-sized pot or saucepan. Put it on the stove to start simmering. Add the chocolate, coconut oil, and butter to a medium bowl (not made of plastic). Place the medium bowl inside the saucepan.
The purpose of the double boiler is to ensure that the chocolate doesn’t “break,” or separate into its components. It can also prevent the chocolate from burning, especially with the addition of extra fat (like the butter and coconut oil).
Stir the contents of the double boiler constantly until everything is smooth. This should take at least 5 minutes. Remove the top of the double boiler or bowl from the heat.
Add the sugar to the chocolate. Whisk until there are no clumps left in the batter. The chocolate cake will still have a grainy appearance. This will disappear when the cake is baked.
Add the whole eggs and whisk well. Stir in the cacao powder. Mix until the cacao powder is just combined. Add the egg whites and whisk well. Finally, mix the vanilla and orange zest into the batter.
Pour the batter into the 8 x 8 inch pan.
Here’s the tricky part. We are going to make a water bath!
Place a large cookie sheet with 1 inch sides in the oven. Immediately add water to the sheet so it is filled about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up the sides. You will then place the baking pan with the cake on the cookie sheet. This will allow the cake to cook more evenly.
I don’t have a picture of the water bath. I had no one to assist me with picture-taking as I was making the cake myself. If you search “water bath with cookie sheet” you should find what I am discussing.
Bake the cake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. My oven cooked the cake perfectly at about 18 minutes.
You won’t need to check the cake to see if it is finished cooking. In fact, you won’t even have to open the oven until the timer goes off. The cake is done once a thin crust forms on the top. The cake will still look glossy, but it won’t have that melted chocolate appearance.
Cool the cake in the pan for five minutes, then invert it onto a plate for serving.
You can decorate the cake any way you’d like. I was baking all day when I made this cake. I initially wanted to pipe little icing “ghosts” onto the cake for Halloween. Unfortunately it was late in the day when I finished, and I had to be somewhere. I found these amazing sprinkles of leaves, and then I thought powdered sugar would add a crisp, snow-like feel.
I couldn’t resist the Halloween theme, though, so I took some breakfast biscuits and made them into makeshift tombstones. I still wasn’t happy with the appearance, and attempted to write “RIP” with chocolate on the biscuits.
I had to share these images with you, because the point of this blog is to demonstrate that you can bake, decorate, and create anything you want on your first try (and learn some fun facts while you’re at it). I didn’t exactly nail the decorations, but the cake is incredible. Food should be fun, not intimidating. Even if you mess up a decoration or two, the cake will still taste amazing. Practice makes perfect!
I thought my breakfast biscuit tombstones were ingenious. What do you think?
In the end, I cut the cake into cute little diamond shapes and left the leaf sprinkles on for aesthetic appeal. Readers, I encourage you to bake your hearts out, decorate with and without style, savor the flavor of chocolate, and HAVE FUN!
- Harvesting and Processing Cocoa Beans. Cadbury. Accessed October 28, 2015. https://www.cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Harvesting-and-Processing-Cocoa-Beans.aspx
- Processing Cocoa. International Cocoa Organization. Updated June 7, 2013. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://www.icco.org/about-cocoa/processing-cocoa.html