"All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."
- Lucy, from the"Peanuts" comic strip by Charles Schultz
If you asked me to describe my favorite smells, I could reply, "Pine trees in northern Michigan," or, perhaps, "The smell of a new baby's skin." But, in all honesty, I must confess that my favorite smell occurs in downtown Chicago, on the Ohio Street bridge, during the afternoon rush hour. Though some might consider it pollution, to me it is a heavenly chocolate fog coming from the factory of Bloomer's Chocolates. As the fog oozes over the freeway, it's difficult to resist rolling down the car windows, even in zero-degree weather. Whenever I've fallen off the health-food wagon, you be sure it's for love of chocolate. And you can find me requiting my love either by driving past Blommer's or eating its products. They come in particularly handy when I'm faced with a writing deadline. So as I wrote this, I began to wonder: Aside from the fat content, is chocolate really an evil food?
That depends. First, the bad news: your favorite chocolate bar is 55% fat, depending on the amount of cocoa butter it contains. Besides a small amount of caffeine, chocolate contains theobromine, which is also a stimulant. (This is why hot chocolate before bed isn't a good idea.) Also, chocolate must contain a considerable amount of sugar in order to be edible. Columbus found this out when he returned to Spain and presented Queen Isabella with a cup of pure hot chocolate, Aztec-Indian style. Her reaction was, "Yuk" It wasn't until 20 years later that the king of Spain thought to add sugar and vanilla.
Now the good news. Although a daily dose of chocolate could turn you into a "chocoholic," it can be helpful on occasion. According to the book Mood Foods by William Vayda, one of chocolate's amino acids, phenylethylamine, acts as a painkiller and antidepressant, which makes chocolate the "feel good food." This amino acid helps trigger the release of endorphins, which provide a sense of well-being. As if the Valentine's Day chocolate tradition needed an even greater boost, it is speculated that phenylethylamine is the chemical that the brain releases when people fall in love. It is also said that the carbohydrates in chocolate help the brain release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in simply feeling peaceful and well. Concerning the fat issue, even though cocoa butter is a saturated fat, recent research shows that stearic acid, unlike other saturated fats, doesn't raise cholesterol levels. (The exception would be milk chocolate, which contains milk solids). No wonder folks fall in love with chocolate.
Chocolate can scorch easily, so it's best not to melt it over direct heat unless it is mixed with other ingredients. Chocolate also melts from the inside out, so it may appear to be intact but will transform to a liquid when stirred. To melt over a burner, place the chocolate in a stainless-steel mixing bowl. Put about one inch of water in a saucepan and place the bowl so it rests on the top of the pan, making a double boiler. (The water shouldn't be touching the bottom of the bowl.) To microwave, put the chocolate in a glass measuring cup and melt on 50% power for 30-second intervals until it is almost melted. Remove and stir until smooth.
Chocolate bars and chips (not cocoa powder) need to be stored in a cool, dark place. Temperature fluctuation can cause discoloration ("bloom") to appear when the cocoa butter rises to the surface. This will disappear when the chocolate is melted, but I prefer to refrigerate or freeze chocolate in Ziplock bags since I don't use it often. I've stored chocolate that way for up to a year without any discoloration; this, in my opinion, protects the flavor.