Saturday, 19 November 2011

Elephant No. 48: Moulded Chocolates

For today's elephant, I thought I'd try something I've never done before: making chocolates. I would love to be making truffles, but I don't know how to make those into elephant shapes, so I'll be making plain dark chocolates using plastic moulds.

Chocolate comes from the seed of the cacao tree, which is indigenous to Central and South America. Cultivated for at least three millennia, cacao was used to make beverages such as the Aztec xocolātl—a Nahua word that means "bitter water". The name probably comes from the fact that cacao beans are very bitter until they have been fermented. Today, an estimated 70% of the world's cacao is produced in West Africa, with Côte d'Ivoire growing 46% of the global supply.

Cacao pods at various stages of ripening in Hawaii.
Photo: Medicaster

Once they have been fermented, cocoa beans are dried, cleaned and roasted. The shell is then removed from the bean to produce cocoa nibs, which are ground up to produce cocoa mass. This is pure chocolate in its crude form. Cocoa mass is then usually liquified to produce chocolate liquor, and/or broken down into cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

As far back as 1100 B.C., Mesoamerican peoples were using chocolate. Chocolate was used by the Maya and Aztec in religious rituals, and cacao-growing areas conquered by the Aztecs were required to pay a cocoa-bean tribute.

A Mayan priest or chieftain forbidding an individual to touch a container
of chocolate.

Arriving in Europe via the Spanish conquistadors, chocolate was originally regarded as a luxury beverage. Chocolate houses became popular meeting places, particularly in England and France. These establishments were the precursors of coffee houses, and in the early days served chocolate as an unsweetened hot beverage. In short order, however, sugar and milk were added to cocoa, and chocolate became largely associated with candies and desserts. 

The first form of solid chocolate was produced in Italy at the end of the eighteenth century, and by 1819 the first Swiss chocolate factory had been opened—albeit not yet producing chocolate bars or candies. In 1828, Dutch scientist Conrad van Houten figured out how to extract the fat from cocoa beans to make powdered cocoa and cocoa butter. He also developed the "Dutch process", in which cocoa was treated with alkali to remove its bitter taste.

In 1847, the British company Joseph Fry and Son discovered a way of blending cocoa butter back into dutched chocolate. With the addition of sugar, they succeeded in creating a mouldable paste. Two years later, British chemist John Cadbury developed an emulsification process to produce smooth, solid chocolate, essentially inventing the modern chocolate bar.

Since then, chocolate-making has been enhanced to include various types of chocolate—white, milk, dark—and everything from cayenne to salt has been added to enhance the flavour. Chocolates can be moulded, rolled, painted, filled, and blended with other subtances. When I was in Lexington, Kentucky for the World Equestrian Games in October 2010, a famous chocolate shop had a life-sized horse and colt on display, made entirely of chocolate. 

Life-sized chocolate horses at Old Kentucky Chocolates in Lexington.

The largest chocolate bar to date was produced by the Thornton's chocolate factory in Derbyshire, England in October 2011. Weighing 5,827 kilograms (12,846 lbs), it measured four metres (13.1 feet) in length. Made from a giant mould set up in the factory's parking lot, it took more than 50 people ten hours to fill the mould, ferrying buckets of chocolate from inside the factory. The chocolate bar was later broken up and sold in pieces to raise money for charity.

For today's elephant, I will be making very small dark chocolates. I was briefly tempted by the pretty wafers of white chocolate dyed in various colours, but I don't like white chocolate. I don't love milk chocolate, either, so I settled on dark chocolate.

The semi-literate English-language instructions on the mould package suggest that this will be "As easy as 1-2-3: Melt, Mold, Cold."

1. To Melt: Melt chocolate in a double boiler (i.e., in a pan set in hot water).

2. To Mold: Pour into moulds. Tap moulds on counter to release air bubbles.

3. To Cold: Place moulds in refrigerator until the chocolate looks frosted (in English) or solidified (in French). Tap chocolates out of moulds.

I'm definitely paraphrasing, as the English instructions are pretty funny. Actually, the French instructions aren't completely literate, either. As the moulds were apparently made in Canada, I'm not sure which official language is the original one. Perhaps neither.

"For an added attraction" I could have painted coloured chocolate into the moulds, left it to semi-"frost", then filled the mould with the main colour of chocolate. If I'd read the instructions on the back of the mould when I was in the store, I might have actually picked up a few coloured wafers to use in the blanket and headdress of the elephant. Maybe next time.

I bought the "wild animals" mould, which includes elephants, hippos and camels. It's an odd combination, but at least there are multiples of each. Because there were only five elephants on each sheet of moulds, I bought two.

For chocolate, I bought "composite" chocolate in wafer form. I don't know what "composite" chocolate is, exactly, but the ingredients were the same—and in the same order—as the two other types of chocolate wafers. The composite wafers were half the price, so I went with those.

I've never moulded chocolate before, so I wasn't sure I was going to like this. One of the things—actually, the only thing—I know about melting chocolate is that you can't let it "seize". In my experience, this means you can't cook it directly on top of a burner, or cook it too long for that matter, because it will get dry and pasty and weird. Something disagreeable also happens if water splashes onto melting chocolate. It's virtually impossible to do anything with seized chocolate except eat it or toss it—at least, I've never been able to reconstitute it or make it smooth again once it's seized.

I don't have a double-boiler that works on my stupid new ceramic-top stove, so I improvised with a pot of simmering water and a glass Pyrex measuring cup placed inside. This actually worked really well, keeping the chocolate at a uniform consistency, and not making it dry up or do other annoying things.

When the chocolate was about the thickness of un-set custard, I began spooning it carefully into the moulds. I didn't enjoy this part of the process at all. Too much chocolate, and it overfills the mould and makes a mess. Too little chocolate, and you're likely to miss a few of the delicate elements in the edges of the mould. Since I am something of a kamikaze cook, I don't like anything that requires me to be fussily careful—although I really did try in this case. 

After I'd filled the individual moulds, I tapped them gently against the countertop as instructed. I don't know if it actually removed any of the bubbles that might have been in the chocolate, but this did have the benefit of levelling out the chocolate a bit. Perhaps it even found its way into the crevices I might have missed.

I put the chocolates in the fridge "to cold" for about 20 minutes, then removed them from the mould by flexing the mould a bit. The instructions say to tip them out into your hand, but that seemed kind of peculiar, so I tipped them out onto a plate.

I suppose this is where careful moulding comes in handy. If you can't quite get the hang of filling them to the right level, there will be bits hanging off the sides. If I was just going to stuff these in my mouth, I wouldn't care. Since I want these to look pretty for the camera, however, I had to clean them up. If I were giving these as a gift, I would clean up the edges too, because they I find they look a bit junky like this. Reminded me of a bag of cheap plastic soldiers—the kind that come with inadvertently webbed arms and helmet haloes.

In the end, this wasn't a difficult process, nor particularly tedious or time-consuming. But the chocolates are very small, and I don't really see the point of doing this unless you want a very specific decoration for a special occasion. And if I were going to that much trouble, I'd probably spring for coloured chocolate and paint the moulds.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although the theobromine in chocolate is toxic to domestic pets, it is not harmful to elephants. This is largely because elephants would have to eat far more chocolate than they could ever consume. Whereas a small amount of chocolate can be deadly to dogs and cats, it would take nearly 10 kilograms (20 pounds) of chocolate for it to be toxic to humans, and far, far more to kill an elephant.

That being said, elephants have a well-developed sweet tooth, and are very fond of chocolate. Luckily, because cacao doesn't grow in most elephant habitats, they rarely run across it in the wild—and even if they did, cacao in its natural state is far too bitter to be attractive to elephants.

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