Sugar-free chocolate: why it doesn’t work (yet)

Stevia plant
Stevia plant

I’m interrupting your regularly scheduled gianduja blog series to bring you this important public service announcement.

Apparently a UK firm has developed a way to eliminate the bitter aftertaste of chocolate sweetened with stevia. This is very cool news for chocolate lovers who can’t (or won’t) consume sugar.

To date, sugar-avoiders have had very few options when it came to chocolate. Most of the sugar-free chocolate on the market relies on sugar alcohols (erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, etc.) for its sweetness. Sugar alcohols are notorious for causing GI distress in some people, making chocolates sweetened with them not worth the discomfort for those affected. But stevia, an all-natural calorie free sweetener, doesn’t cause GI issues and doesn’t affect blood glucose levels the way some artificial sweeteners are purported to do.

That said, stevia tastes terrible in chocolate. I’ve tried adding it to unsweetened chocolate several times, and on a good day the results taste like aluminum.

Which is unfortunate, because I really WANTED to like stevia-sweetened chocolate. Not because I worry about my sugar intake, but because I grew up eating a lot of stevia (health-obsessed family + diabetic parent = lots of weird food in the house) and have grown to appreciate its gentler, lingering sweetness in foods like oatmeal or plain yogurt. It’s the perfect sweetener for coffee. So why not chocolate?

It turns out, the answer to that question is complicated. One of the interesting things I’ve learned while working for a local small-batch chocolate maker is that sugar does more for chocolate than just sweeten it. It also affects chocolate’s viscosity, texture and flavor intensity.

Sugar’s effect on chocolate’s viscosity:

Adding sugar to chocolate reduces the chocolate’s relative cocoa butter content, which means adding sugar will thicken your chocolate. Cocoa nibs are about 50% cocoa butter, and most chocolate makers add additional cocoa butter to facilitate molding and enhance texture. But add 30% sugar to that chocolate and your total cocoa butter percentage will fall significantly. This leads to thicker chocolate that many chocolatiers may find unsuitable for enrobing confections.

Sugar’s effect on chocolate’s texture:

Conching machine or melangeur
Photo credit: Mark Chamberlain via Rochester City Newspaper

Also, part of the art of making chocolate is figuring out the right time to add the sugar. The cocoa beans are ground by granite rollers in a melangeur for several days, and sugar is added at some point along the way. Added too late, and — depending on the chocolate maker’s refining equipment — large sugar particles may result in a gritty texture (interestingly, Taza Chocolate leaves large sugar particles in its chocolate on purpose, and the texture of their chocolate is quite unique).

Side note: one thing I’m still trying to figure out is what happens if sugar is added too EARLY in the grinding/refining process? Why don’t chocolate makers just add sugar at the very beginning, as soon as the nibs have liquefied in the melangeur? Is it possible for sugar particles to become TOO small?

Sugar’s effect on the intensity of chocolate’s flavor:

Generally, in dark chocolate anyway, the lower the percentage of sugar, the higher the percentage of cocoa mass. At least theoretically. The thing is that most chocolate makers also add additional cocoa butter to their chocolate, and the “cocoa solids” percentage stated on chocolate bar wrappers includes the combined weight of the cocoa mass AND the added cocoa butter. So a 70% dark chocolate could be 30% sugar and 70% cocoa mass (known in the industry as “two-ingredient chocolate”). Or it could be 30% sugar, 20% cocoa butter, and only 50% cocoa mass. Suddenly that chocolate isn’t sounding so dark, is it?

Earlier in this post you learned that sugar makes chocolate thicker by reducing its relative cocoa butter percentage, and chocolate makers often add extra cocoa butter in order to thin it out again (and sometimes to improve its texture). Given that cocoa butter has very little actual chocolate flavor, the more additional cocoa butter in a chocolate, the less intense its flavor.

Enrobed chocolate bonbon“Couverture” chocolate — the chocolate used by chocolatiers to make bonbon shells and enrobe truffles —  by definition must contain over 31% added cocoa butter. So that means that a 65% dark couverture chocolate is likely made from 35% sugar, at least 31% added cocoa butter and, at the very most, only 34% cocoa mass (most likely less because most cocoa makers also add soy lecithin). 34% cocoa mass does not an intense chocolate make.

So as you can see, sugar interacts with other ingredients in chocolate in complex ways by displacing cocoa butter and affecting texture. Chocolate makers have been trying to tweak processes and recipes for hundreds of years. Replacing sugar with a sweetener that has a completely different chemical composition is complicated, requiring multiple adjustments along the way, and a lot of trial and error.

It will take a lot of thought, time and experimentation before chocolate makers figure out how to make great chocolate sweetened only with stevia, but I’m guessing it can be done. I’m curious which chocolate maker will be the first to make that leap.

Gianduja part II: chocolate hazelnut spreads

http://ivoryhut.com/2010/12/nutella-chip-cookies-with-homemade-nutella-chips/
Homemade Nutella
Photo credit: Maggie Muggins

Last week I wrote about the history of the awesome Italian chocolate-hazelnut confection called gianduja. In the following series of posts I’ll cover how gianduja is made (and how to make it at home), where to buy it, and what to do with it. I’m also really excited to share a couple of great gianduja recipes I’ve been working on.

We’ve already covered how traditional gianduja was made by combining chocolate and hazelnut paste to form solid, single-serving confections. However, in the 1940’s, 30 years after gianduja’s introduction to the world, soft gianduja spreads (called paste gianduja) started becoming popular in northern Italy as well. While you may not have heard of its firmer, foil-wrapped cousin, I’m betting most of you are probably quite familiar with Nutella.

Wait, so solid bars of gianduja and soft chocolate hazelnut spreads are actually the same thing?

Yes. The consistency of giandjua is the direct result of its ratio of chocolate to ground hazelnuts. Since cocoa butter is solid at room temperature but nut butters are quite soft, a firmer gianduja will have relatively more chocolate, where as a soft gianduja will be heavier on the hazelnut paste. So, for example, a solid bar of gianduja might have a 70:30 chocolate-to-hazelnut ratio, where as a creamy, spreadable paste will be closer to 50:50, or even 40:60.

http://ivoryhut.com/2010/12/nutella-chip-cookies-with-homemade-nutella-chips/
Photo Credit: Erika Pineda-Ghanny © 2016

Yum. Can I make spreadable gianduja at home?

Making fantastic gianduja spreads at home is simple and will spoil you forever — you’ll never buy that nasty imitation stuff again (I’m talking to you, Nutella). I have a fantastic recipe for homemade gianduja spread that I’m excited to share with you next week. All you need are roasted hazelnuts, melted chocolate and a food processor.

If homemade gianduja is just nuts and dark chocolate, does that mean it’s… HEALTHY?

My opinion? Yes, homemade gianduja spread is healthy (yeah I know… as if you needed another reason to eat more of it). It’s full of antioxidants, healthy fats, protein, fiber, vitamin B6, iron, magnesium, theobromine…. you get the picture.

http://yukitchen.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/nutella_jar_ingredients-660x495.jpg
Do you really want to eat this?                      Photo credit: Yukitchen © 2015

What’s especially cool about making gianduja at home is that you can make a wildly potent, intensely flavored chocolate hazelnut spread with about 70% less sugar than most store-bought spreads. Nutella contains a shocking 57% processed sugar by weight (yikes), where as my recipe for homemade gianduja spread contains less than 16% sugar. Even better, my recipe doesn’t contain processed palm oil or any of the other cheap bulking agents found in most industrially produced chocolate hazelnut spreads.

How long will my homemade chocolate hazelnut spread last before it goes bad?

More good news. Due to the antimicrobial properties of chocolate and the long shelf life of nut butters generally, you can make a big batch of gianduja spread and store it in the fridge for six months or longer.

Hint: are you the type that likes to get holiday gift shopping out of the way early? Fill 6 oz. mason jars with homemade gianduja months before the holidays… but good luck trying to resist eating it all before December!

What else can I do with homemade gianduja besides, you know, eat it with a spoon?

So here’s a little teaser… homemade gianduja also makes for a fantastic truffle filling, and gianduja truffles have a much longer shelf life than ganache-filled truffles (always a bonus for chocolatiers). Keep an eye out for my recipe for these insanely addictive homemade Baci, coming soon.

Yes, these chocolates are every bit as dangerous as they look.

Gianduja Hazelnut Crunch Truffles
Photo credit: Amber Latner

You’re welcome.


Intro to Gianduja

Hazelnuts
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/Gianduiotti.jpg/1280px-Gianduiotti.jpg
Photo credit: Clop

Before Nutella was a household name, and way before Perugina’s Baci were widely available in the U.S., Italians had gianduja.

I had my first bite of gianduja (“jon-doo-yah”) seventeen years ago, and to this day almost nothing makes me happier than this creamy chocolate-hazelnut confection.

Gianduja ranks right up there with pesto as one of the many mind-blowingly delicious culinary inventions gifted to the world by Italy. And like pesto, gianduja is pretty easy to make. It’s really just chocolate and hazelnuts. But something transformative happens when these two ingredients are ground together, something almost alchemical.

I was thinking about this recently… Who was the original gianduja alchemist? Who woke up one morning and thought, “Today would be a good day to toss a bucket of hazelnuts into the grinder with my cocoa nibs — YOLO.”

So, chocolate nerd that I am, I decided to find out. My research led me all the way back to the Napoleonic era, to the Great Cocoa Bean Shortage of 1840 (I’m making that up. But there really was a cocoa bean shortage, and it did happen in the early 1800’s, and it could have had a scary name).

A predecessor to gianduja was invented in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. During Napoleon’s occupation of that area, a British naval blockade obstructed cocoa bean imports from reaching coastal towns in northern Italy, so the price of cocoa beans skyrocketed. To maximize their limited supply, Piedmontese chocolate makers began diluting their cocoa beans with ground hazelnuts, which grew locally and were much cheaper. The new combo product turned out to be a big hit.

But it still didn’t have name.

Turin Municipality
Turin Municipality

Then in 1865, Turinese chocolate manufacturer Caffarel came out with Gianduiotto, a creamy chocolate-hazelnut confection that the company still makes today. Gianduiotto got its name from its shape — it’s supposed to resemble the hat of a Turin Carnival marionette named Gianduja. Gianduiotto was very popular with the locals, and the name stuck.

To this day, traditional Piedmontese chocolate makers like Venchi and Novi consider gianduja to be one of the four classic styles of chocolate (the other three being dark, milk and white).

Novi Italian chocolate bars in gianduja (hazelnut), fondente (dark) and latte (milk)

 

 

 

 

Was Seaforth inspired by Mast Brothers?

http://www.chocolatereviews.co.uk/seaforth-cows-milk-60/
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode
Photo credit: Garrett Ziegler via Flickr
http://www.chocolatereviews.co.uk/seaforth-cows-milk-60/
Photo credit: Lee McCoy via Chocolate Reviews

First, a disclaimer: I’ve never tasted Seaforth Chocolate. I have to assume it tastes better than what Mast Brothers was putting out the last time I tried their bars. I also have no reason to doubt Seaforth is (and always has been) a true bean-to-bar chocolate company.

The disclaimer is warranted because I’m about to compare certain marketing choices made by Seaforth to those of Mast Brothers. And, as many of you may know, Mast Brothers recently fell from grace after being outed last December for misleading consumers by selling remelted Valrhona as their own bean-to-bar chocolate. While the chocolate community was well aware that Mast Brothers had once made their bars out of industrial couverture chocolate (the texture of Valrhona is not something a bean-to-bar start-up company can reproduce without hundreds of thousands of dollars of specialized equipment), consumers were taken aback when they learned the truth.

So I don’t make the comparison between Seaforth and Mast Brothers lightly. And in all fairness, the similarities are almost entirely superficial. But that said, the similarities are significant. It appears that the new UK-based company is attempting to fill Mast Brothers’ big, hand-crafted shoes.

Let’s start with the less obvious similarities — the ones I would normally chalk up to mere coincidence. First, like the famous brothers, Seaforth’s chocolate has a maritime theme. And like Mast Brothers, the company claims to have sailed its beans from the Caribbean on a wind-powered schooner in an attempt to reduce its carbon footprint.

But I probably wouldn’t have noticed these similarities had it not been for the striking resemblance of Seaforth’s  packaging to classic Mast Brothers bars. The wallpaper style wrappers and square stickers are incredibly similar. And even Seaforth’s font choice perfectly mimics Mast Brothers. Take a look for yourself and tell me if you don’t agree.

Seaforth’s mold design:

https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjchdzPs9XLAhVBJB4KHf5ACA8QjRwIBw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.chocolatereviews.co.uk%2Fseaforth-cows-milk-60%2F&bvm=bv.117218890,d.amc&psig=AFQjCNGCR3rwOpJ_rJmrXoiNblYEcIS5EA&ust=1458774193299303
Photo credit: Lee McCoy via Chocolate Reviews

vs.

Mast Brothers’ packaging:

https://bluebergitt.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/choosy-about-chocolate/
Photo credit: Blue Bergitt

If you still aren’t convinced, compare these blurbs from the two companies’ marketing materials.

Seaforth’s sail boat:

The cocoa beans for this bar were transported from the Dominican Republic on board the Tres Hombres. This traditional wooden sailing boat has no engine but relies on the wind and the waves (to be specific the currents) to deliver its delicious cargo across the world. As a result, this bar is not only Fairtrade but almost carbon neutral as well.

vs.

Mast Brothers’ sail boat:

In May 2011, the Black Seal, a 70-ft schooner built by its Captain, Eric Loftfield, sailed down to the Dominican Republic to retrieve a shipment of cocoa bean for Mast Brothers Chocolate. In 14 days, the schooner sailed back to Mast Brothers’ headquarters in Brooklyn using only wind power. The Mast Brothers later boasted that they were the first since 1939 to sail cargo into New York City.

The Mast Brothers directed by Brennan Stasiewicz, from The Scout on Vimeo

So, what do you think? Inspiration or coincidence?

And, perhaps more to the point, does it matter that a smaller, newer company is borrowing to such an extent from a more established company? Chocolate makers and chocolatiers are often inspired by the marketing choices, packaging, chocolate styles, and flavor combinations of other industry participants. Maybe that’s okay. What do you think — when does inspiration cross the line?

Dark chocolate as a cough suppressant?

Dark Chocolate and Chili Peppers
Dark Chocolate and Chili Peppers

According to a 2004 study in the UK, the amount of theobromine in a typical 2.5 oz dark chocolate bar works better than codeine to suppress the vagus nerve activity that triggers coughing.

In the study, participants were able to ingest significantly more capsaicin (the chemical that gives spicy chilies their kick) before coughing after they had taken 1,000 mg theobromine, when compared to those given a placebo.

Theobromine is one of the nervous system stimulants in chocolate. It dilates blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, increases heart rate and has a mild diuretic effect on humans*.

And apparently it’s also a cough suppressant! Sweet.

* Theobromine does not have such a pleasant effect on dogs. Be careful never to leave your chocolate out around dogs.

 

Using transfer sheets to decorate truffles

Chocolate truffles decorated with transfer sheets

Dark Chocolate Truffles Decorated with Transfer Sheets

Last weekend I spent Sunday afternoon holed up at Union Kitchen with a professional chocolate maker and a former chocolatier*.

The mission: make chocolate truffles out of Undone Chocolate.

The plan: make a ganache out of Undone’s salted 72% chocolate bars, pour into a frame and let it cool in the industrial refrigerator, then cut it into squares and dip it in tempered Undone Chocolate.

The twist: decorate the truffles with chocolate transfer sheets.

Chocolate transfer sheets are like temporary tattoos for truffles: you press them on when the chocolate is in liquid form, and when the chocolate hardens and you peel them off and the pattern of the colored cocoa butter remains on the surface of the truffle as if you’ve used a stencil and spray paint. (Non-toxic spray paint, naturally).

Transfer sheets can also be used with specialty molds. We actually did consider using molds for these truffles but quickly realized it was unworkable — the chocolate was simply too thick for small molds and wouldn’t spread evenly into the corners.

Why is Undone Chocolate so thick? Well, that’s just what happens when you make two-ingredient chocolate. Most chocolate makers add additional cocoa butter to the other ingredients (primarily cocoa mass and sugar) before grinding and refining them. Undone skips this step. The resulting chocolate is potent, thick and intense, and it won’t easily spread into the crevices of molds (this is also a characteristic of “high viscosity” chocolate).

Anyway… we opted for hand dipping the ganache squares in chocolate, and we added some additional cocoa butter to it to make the enrobing process easier. This turned out to be a good call. The extra cocoa butter produced a couverture-like chocolate that tempered well and left our bonbons with nice thin shells.

Using transfer sheets to decorate chocolate truffles

I cut the transfer sheets into squares and pressed one onto each enrobed truffle while the chocolate shell was still wet. Chocolatiers with fancy equipment skip this part — they can cut the entire slab of ganache at once using a guitar cutter**, after which they send the pre-cut ganache squares through an enrobing machine (it’s like a chocolate shower) hooked up to their tempering machine.

In any event, the transfer sheets worked beautifully. I recommend them to home chocolatiers attempting to create professional-looking truffles without colored cocoa butter or fancy molds. I bought these particular transfer sheets from Chef Rubber, but you can buy small quantities of them cheaply on Amazon.

 *Chocolate makers are the people that roast raw cocoa beans and grind them into chocolate. Chocolatiers take a chocolate maker’s product and turn it into confections, like truffles.

Confectionary guitar
Confectionery guitar

 

**Btw… that guitar cutter is a $2000 piece of equipment. And tempering machines with enrobing attachments can cost ten times that. Of all the barriers to entry faced by aspiring chocolatiers, the initial capital investment in equipment is probably the most difficult to surmount. But I digress.

 

Raaka’s 60% coconut milk bar

Raaka Coconut Milk Chocolate Bar

Raaka Coconut Milk Chocolate Bar

This, my friends, is what milk chocolate tastes like when it’s all grown up.

The other day I posted about my latest obsession: dark milk chocolate. But it wouldn’t be fair to write a whole post about dark milk chocolate without giving credit to the chocolate bar that opened my eyes to all this deliciousness in the first place.

Ironically, the bar in question is dairy-free.

Raaka’s vegan 60% dark coconut milk chocolate bar blows my mind. The texture is just… indulgent. I won’t go into a long flavor soliloquy full of words like “floral” and “fruity,”

Raaka Coconut Milk Chocolate Bar

because, well, I’m not training to be a sommelier. The company thinks it tastes like strawberries (it’s certainly fruity, but, seriously… strawberry?). To avoid being obnoxious, let’s just say it tastes awesome.

Note that this rave review is coming from someone who, until recently, hadn’t bought a milk chocolate bar in, I don’t know… a decade?

Funny thing is I’ve actually been avoiding Raaka for years too. I bought one of their super dark bars back in 2012 and wasn’t impressed with the texture or strong vegetal taste (if you’ve ever tried unroasted bean — or “raw” — chocolate, you know it’s a bit of an acquired taste). It seems like Raaka has upgraded their production equipment since then and are now manufacturing some really refined, top-rate chocolate. I’m glad I gave the company another taste.

Also, I appreciate that Raaka has the integrity to market its bars as “virgin,” not “raw.” But I’ll save my diatribe about “raw” chocolate for another post.