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When I was a child, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favorite films. I would picture myself running through the chocolate room, filled with candy trees and flowers, and swimming through the chocolate river. It might have been wrong, but I was always jealous of Augustus Gloop when he got stuck in the pipe of delicious, endlessly flowing chocolate. It was also fun to think of how crazy some of Mr. Wonka’s creations were, like his three-course dinner gum. But now Wonka’s wild confectionaries don’t have to be imagined. Chocolate bars seeming to come straight from Wonka’s factory now fill almost every candy aisle.

Lining the shelves of the average grocery store, probably next to your own favorite bar, are bars that have chocolatiers pushing the limits on cacao combinations. Dark chocolate and chilies? Well, that doesn’t seem too exotic. But what about dark chocolate and wasabi? Milk chocolate and beef jerky? How about white chocolate and kalamata olives?
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Chocolate Week

Chocolate Without Compromise

Vegans deserve decadent desserts, too – and a new book is here to help

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TM_BK_VEGCHOC_AP_001When I was in high school, my best friend was a vegan. She subsisted primarily on rice, beans, fruit, and the vegan cookies her mom baked in giant batches every weekend. Any time there was a party, she’d bring a plate of these cookies to share. They were overly sweet, weirdly gummy, and not at all appealing to anyone who wasn’t devoted to a strict plant-based diet.

Happily, things have changed a lot in the world of vegan desserts over the last 20 years, in large part thanks to Fran Costigan. She has been working as a vegan pastry chef and baking instructor for more than two decades and is known for desserts that satisfy in a way that’s better for you and for the planet.

In her recent book, Vegan Chocolate (Running Press, 2013), Costigan serves up a luscious array of vegan truffles, cakes, cookies, pies, puddings, tarts, and drinks. Of the recipes I tried, not one felt like a sacrifice or compromise. They were universally delicious and were a pleasure to make, because I could taste freely throughout the prep process without worrying about raw eggs in the batter. MORE

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Take Your Child To Work Day gets a little dicey when one’s work involves writing about spirits. I can’t exactly take my two boys — 11 and 9 — out to a professional tasting or to interview the hipster mixologist at the latest, greatest cocktail bar. (“Daddy, why does that man with the weird mustache keep talking so much about mezcal and his homemade bitters?”) Besides, it’s a little boring for them to watch the writing part: Boys, go sit over there and play a game on your phone while your old man bangs out his column. I’ve not even let my children read my book, Boozehound, not that they’d have the slightest interest in it anyway.

Still, over the years I’ve found a few age-appropriate ways for them to join in. I’ve written, for instance, about their love of mocktails, using fresh fruits and juices. That mocktail column actually received a ridiculous amount of negative comments, which probably made me even more gun-shy to involve them in anything remotely drinks-related.

But a couple winters ago, I traveled with Wes and Sander to Brussels, where we spent three days gorging on frites, mussels, and of course chocolate. During that cold trip, all of us had a sort of hot chocolate epiphany. We’ve been trying ever since to create our own perfect version at home. What could be more innocent than that?
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Any women’s health magazine worth its low-sodium salt substitute can tell you about three things: How to flatten your abs, how to please your man (yoga helps, ladies!!!!!!), and how to scientifically justify eating chocolate.

Fitness Magazine lists “Four Reasons to Eat Chocolate on a Diet,” citing chocolate’s cough-fighting and tooth-strengthening theobromine, anti-diarrheal antioxidants, and skin-protecting flavanols. Women’s Health mentions a study from Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism noting that chocolate milk worked just as well as “recovery drinks” in helping negate post-work soreness. Even sugar-phobic clean-eating magazine Oxygen says that dark chocolate’s catechins may aid in weight loss.

Of course, many of these studies are funded by, well, chocolate companies. And it’s not as if these studies are lies – the cocoa plant does contain all of these good things. But most adults also have the good sense to know that just because there are flavanols hiding somewhere in our chocolate bars doesn’t mean we should nosh on those sugar-filled treats multiple times a day. (Although a study funded by the US National Confectioners Association showed that “there is no link between the number of candy-eating occasions” and obesity. Not that candy doesn’t cause obesity, just that there isn’t a link between obesity and how many times you break off a piece of your Kit-Kat bar.)
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It must get a little desperate in the marketing departments of booze companies after Christmas and New Year’s Eve. How else to explain the mix of half-baked party ideas and strange events that fills up my inbox every winter?

I know it must be January, for instance, when I receive invitations to three Robert Burns Night suppers as part of the Scotch distillers’ annual marketing campaign. Here’s what I can say about Burns Night (it was January 25, by the way): It settles once and for all the burning question “Does haggis really pair with Scotch?” Yes, but only if you’re a whisky or two in the bag, wearing a kilt and reciting a poem, in Scottish, entitled “Address to a Haggis.”
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Who says you can’t have chocolate for dinner? I don’t mean devouring half a dozen Twix bars and counting it as a meal. Polishing off an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream by yourself doesn’t count either. I’m talking about using chocolate as an element in a savory dish. Yes, chocolate playing the role of something besides sweet.

When we think about chocolate, we almost always think of desserts. But chocolate, in its raw form, is anything but sweet. And utilizing it as a savory ingredient is anything but new. Over 2,000 years ago, before it was ever combined with sugar to make the confection we’re most familiar with today, the Aztecs and Mayans consumed chocolate in the form of a thick, bitter drink. Cacao beans were fermented, roasted, and then mixed with water and spices to make xocoatl, from which chocolate originally got its name. Chocolate has been, and can be, more than just a candy or dessert.

Incorporating chocolate into your dinner meal isn’t as challenging as you’d imagine. Plenty of savory foods have a natural affinity for cocoa-based flavors. Consider the classic pairing of chocolate with spices and chilies in a Mexican mole sauce. Or take gamey meats like lamb and venison, which marry well with cocoa-driven richness. Often times, the bitter notes in dark chocolate work to highlight hidden flavors and assert depth in a dish that was otherwise missing it.
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A labor of love.

Ask any cook who knows their Mexican cuisine, and that’s what they will tell you about mole, one of Mexico’s most iconic and decadent contributions to the culinary world.

A far cry from the lackluster “chocolate sauce” one might find in Americanized Mexican food joints, authentic mole plays host to upwards of 30 ingredients, including chile peppers, nuts, spices, fruits, tortillas and sometimes chocolate, and can take 4 to 6 hours to make correctly.

“You really have to be passionate to create [mole], because it’s not easy,” Carlos Gaytan, chef of Michelin-starred restaurant Mexique, explained to me on a recent frosty morning in Chicago. “You have to find the balance over time of sweetness, spiciness, bitterness; all those elements you need for the mole to be a success.”
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Welcome to Chocolate Week at Table Matters! We’re celebrating all-things cocoa just in time for every chocolate lover’s favorite holiday. Stay tuned as we explore its many sides.

If I could, I would strike Palmer’s “chocolate” from this earth. You know what I’m talking about — that low-quality holiday candy that tastes like chocolate that’s been chewed up and spit out by the mouth of a dirty mama bird before being re-melted and shaped into little medallions. I cringe recalling all the Halloweens and Valentine’s Days I spent shoving those cheap candies in my mouth, trying to get rid of them before eating the much more worthwhile Kit Kats, or the ultimate trick-or-treat wins, the Almond Joys.

Likewise, I would happily rub out any of the new-fangled Hershey’s products that wear the wrappers and take the shapes of chocolate, but are in actuality the terrible bastard children of chocolate and corporate frugality. Yup, that’s right: If you weren’t already aware, there’s a good chance that the “chocolate” you’re buying from Hershey’s isn’t chocolate at all. See, back in 2008, Hershey’s started replacing some of the cocoa butter in its products with a combination of cocoa butter and other vegetable oils. Using other vegetable oils is cheaper for companies, which explains why a bag of the aforementioned Palmer’s always costs a dollar or two less than actual chocolate. But those “chocolate” products taste cheaper, too, as do most foods when unnecessary ingredients complicate their simple recipes. See, the process of making a good chocolate only requires a few steps: Cacao pods are roasted, ground, and made into chocolate liquor (which, if desired, can then be separated into dry cocoa solids and cocoa butter). Then you add in vanilla, sugar, and often lecithin (an emulsifier), and you’ve got some good eatin‘.
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If we’ve learned anything from the locavore movement, it’s that relationships are important. Those heirloom tomatoes, the ones with furrows like a bulldog’s forehead? They’ve been imbued with the passion of the tomato farmer, whose face may or may not be equally wrinkly. That tomato is the vehicle for a relationship — one between you and the tomato farmer. Logically, that relationship extends to other foods, like eggplants, kale, and strawberries. But when it comes to food other than produce, such as cheese, wine, or chocolate, things get a bit more complicated.

Consider the chocolate truffle. If you take pains to shop at local businesses, then you probably know the person who made it. This person is a chocolatier — someone who buys chocolate and uses it as an ingredient.  For example, they can add mint-infused cream and a knob of butter to make mint truffles, or dapple a thin layer of chocolate with fruits and nuts to make bark. Or they can pour liquid chocolate into a mold to have it emerge as a hoppy bunny or bearded man. MORE