COCOA OR CHOCOLATE?

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Submitted Date 03/26/2019
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Growing up, it seemed like Mom was always in the kitchen when she was home. It was a combination of finances, nutrition, and simple love of cooking that kept her there. This worked out well for me because, not only did I usually have something that was good for me, but I also learned how to cook from an early age. Mom also had a sweet tooth, which was yet another win for me. So, I was often hanging around helping to crack eggs and measure flour. One experience I will always remember - and one I think a lot of you probably had too - was the time I discovered, much to my surprise and chagrin, that cocoa powder DOES NOT taste like a candy bar. Mom must have been looking away, or maybe I snuck into the cupboard. All I remember is that I took a heaping teaspoon of the stuff and shoved it into my mouth. So much bitter! It's ironic now, maybe, that I prefer dark chocolate over milk or white.

After the initial surprise had faded, I remember feeling a little ripped off. Here, I'd put my considerable sneaking skills to work and gotten a terrible reward for my efforts. At the very least I'd hoped for something close to that hot cocoa mix with the little dry marshmallows. So, why didn't it taste like the chocolate I expected? The answer might seem obvious; there's no sugar or fat in cocoa powder. That's certainly part of it, but there's quite a lot that goes into processing what comes off of the cocoa tree to make it a palatable substance.

While I'm on the topic of the cocoa tree, let me say that the tree (Theobroma cacao) is a pretty cool plant, aside from its ability to provide us with the raw materials for chocolate. To start with, it produces flowers not among the leaves, like a lot of trees, but along the trunks and branches. They're very small, pale pink, and don't have a fragrance. That's because, while many trees produce sweet flowers to attract pollinators like bees, cocoa is pollinated by ants. The flowers don't need to attract the ants, but instead get pollinated when the ants walk over the flowers and pollen gets stuck to them. After being pollinated, the flowers transform into football-sized pods, full of seeds. There are about 30 to 40 seeds in each pod and many pods to a tree. The seeds are the important part when it comes to making chocolate.

But it's not like you could just crack open a pod, dig out the seeds, and have a tasty treat. Lots and lots of processing has to happen before they're edible. First, the pods have to be harvested by hand. Then, the seeds have to be removed from the pods and fermented. This is when that chocolately flavor begins to develop. Then, the seeds are dried and roasted. When those seeds are crushed and pulverized, you get a paste of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Take out the cocoa butter and what you've got left over is what we call cocoa powder - the bitter stuff I was so disappointed with as a kid.

Now, if you want to get chocolate, yummy, yummy chocolate, you need to take that paste (called chocolate liquor - a disappointingly non-alcoholic substance) and add sugar, vanilla, and maybe milk. After some extensive blending and molding, you've got yourself a chocolate bar. So, thank you to the folks who hand-harvest those pods, to the ants that pollinate the flowers, and to wonderful vanilla (which comes from an orchid, btw) for giving the world one of it's finest pleasures.

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