The Romance of Chocolate Making

We know processed food is bad for you. But we still eat it.

We know we need to always be learning. But we still put off learning anything new.

Thanks to resistance and fear. As humans, we take the path of least resistance — picking up the most convenient food at the grocery store and postponing any new learning that makes us uncomfortable.

In the recent years, I’ve made a commitment to myself to eat foods with most, if not all ingredients in it’s raw form. When it came to learning something new, the story I told myself is that my parents never encouraged me to read books so I didn’t develop the habit of lifelong learning. Of course I was wrong. I finally learned that the stories I was telling myself were excuses I made to myself feel good about my decisions.

So what does all this have to do with the chocolate making? On a recent podcast, I heard Seth Godin say that everyone must take a chocolate making class. It would have been foolish for me to not jump on his advice because (1) I would learn how to chocolate from raw cocoa beans and could then stop eating the processed chocolate from Whole Foods (yes, Whole Foods sells processed chocolates, more on this later) (2) Learn a new skill, and the best part (3) Celebrate my wife’s birthday. As for the romantic part, chocolate is known to be a aphrodisiac food that entices passion and attraction. So you cannot really go wrong.

The first step on this adventure is identifying the right chocolate making class. I reached out to American Express Concierge for help and they suggested Dandelion Chocolate, a boutique chocolate maker in San Francisco. Dandelion Chocolate offers a 1-hour Chocolate 101 class and a 4-hour Chocolate 201 class. We opted for the 201 class. The class size is limited to 6 people, so you can get personalized attention and actually learn the art of chocolate making.

I knew nothing about chocolate making before the class. By the end of class, I felt my know-how about chocolates — their origin, taste differences, quality, and making had increased exponentially.

We were welcomed by two instructors, Emma and Cynthia, and an array of transparent boxes filled with single origin cacoa nibs (as known as chocolate nibs). Single origin meant that the cacoa plant producing the main ingredient in chocolate, was from one specific region in the world. Each box of cacoa nibs represented a different region. The nibs were 100% pure, roasted cacoa and completely sugar-free. We started tasting nibs from Camino Verde (Ecuador), Botuo (Liberia), Mantuano (Venezuela), Reserve Feal (Dominican Republic), Piura Blanco (Peru) and Ambanja (Madagascar). With our tiny spoons, we scooped the nibs onto a paper napkin and then tasted them one after the other. In between our tastings, we sipped water to clear our palate. The chocolate from Eucador was most earthy and the chocolate from Madagascar was most citrusy.

The Big Picture

The actual process of making the chocolate is surprisingly straightforward. The key steps are noted below. We started at Step 1 and ended our class at Step 6.

  1. Beans — The cacoa beans are the soul of a good chocolate bar. Fine chocolatiers such as Dandelion, get raw cacao beans from the farmers. Farmers essentially crack open the large cacoa pod that holds the cacoa beans. The dry beans are shipped to the chocolatier.
  2. Roasting — The chocolatier roasts the beans for longer periods of time at low temperature in order to preserve the flavor. This step can be performed by setting the conventional at 325 F for approximately 17 minutes.
  3. Cracking — Once the beans are roasted, they are crushed and cracked to exposed the cacoa nibs inside. It is fairly easy to crack open a roasted cacoa bean and fancy equipment is not necessarily needed if you were doing this at home.
  4. Winnowing — This step separates the nibs from the shells. At home, you can use a blow dryer to remove most of the shells.
  5. Melanging — This one of the key steps in chocolate making. In this step, you can choose to mix nibs from different origins to get a chocolate blend. Sugar is also added based to sweeten the chocolate. The cacoa nibs are first added to a vitamix-like grinder. The buttery cacoa is then transferred to a “melanger” and left there for about 1–2 hours. We decided to make 85% blended chocolate with nibs from two different regions. The remaining 15% was Brazilian sugar. The type of sugar does matter in chocolate-making. Confectionery sugar has high starch content and should be avoided. You also do not want the sugar to have a strong, distinct flavor. Aside from pure, roasted cacoa nibs and sugar, no other ingredients are added.
  6. Blocking — Chocolate from the melanger is then poured into a container to create a “block.” Once the chocolate cools down, it is ready to be consumed. This is the step where our class ended — which is perfectly fine because you don’t necessarily need to temper the chocolate (step 7) in order to consume it.
  7. Tempering — This is the process of stabilizing the chocolate so it can be made into bars. There is an art and science with tempering. We were told that this can be a class by itself. In fact, Dandelion is planning to offer such a class in the future.
  8. Wrapping — The tempered chocolate is cut and wrapped in foil and other packaging material.
  9. Bars — This is the final product that is sold to the consumers — in the form of bars at grocery stores and other retail locations.

We ended the class by grading our chocolates from a scale of +2 to -2. An average score of 1 and above meets the quality requirements of Dandelion Chocolate. We selfishly gave our chocolate a score of +1 and are still enjoying it weeks after our class is over. At the end of class, we got to take our roasted cacoa nibs with us and also the chocolate from the melanger. The cacoa nibs can be added to pancakes, waffles, ice cream or even yogurt. The chocolate was ready to be consumed “as is.”

My Key Takeaways

  • Cacoa already has high fat content and you don’t need to add cocoa butter or any other fat when making chocolate. You can order raw cacao beans from Chocolate Alchemy or Meridian Cacoa, go through Steps 2–6 noted above and you will have delicious homemade chocolate
  • Chocolate sold at many retailers including Whole Foods has other unnecessary ingredients such as soy lecithin or cacoa butter that are not necessary. So KISS, Keep It Simple Silly
  • A melanger is basically an Idli maker (South Indian snack) that has built in stones to churn the Idli dough. In the case of chocolate making, you are churning cacoa nibs
  • 99% of the chocolate sold at big box grocery outlets is crap. Read the ingredients list on the label
  • Cacoa has hundreds of flavors compared to coffee and wine

We truly enjoyed the entire learning experience from start to finish. I felt that in a span of 4 short hours, we learned many things about the art of chocolate making and felt we can actually make our own chocolate at home.