Made with exotic spices, single origin beans or even searing hot chilies, this classic treat receives fresh new twists from today’s chocolatiers.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
Most of us don’t need an extra reminder to indulge in chocolate during this time of year. Not only is Valentine’s Day around the corner, but winter’s chill is best fought with a little decadence—which means that, in February, we get to treat ourselves.
But how to choose? After all, the world of chocolate has transformed in recent years. You can still opt for a traditional box of nuts and chews or fruits and cordials if you like, but there are also far more daring and exotic options at hand.
Small-scale artisanal producers have changed the game, bringing a new eye to the types of ingredients combined with chocolate. There are twists on tradition: pistachios instead of peanuts, candied ginger instead of cordial cherry or downright inventive creations like Madras-curry chocolate morsels and dark chocolate infused with serrano peppers.
While such fascinating confections are mainly stocked at specialty-chocolate shops, the bar was also raised on the quality of chocolate sold in grocery and box stores (like Target).
It’s not unusual to find dozens of high-end commercial brands, some of which inevitably sell products labeled as “single origin.” This term describes chocolate made from cacao beans sourced from one region or from a single estate or plantation. It first appeared in the late 1980s—around the same time that prestige chocolate makers like Valrhona and Lindt began to list cocoa percentages on their chocolate bars.
These days, the topic of single-origin chocolate has become nearly as lofty as wine. In one New York Times tasting, for example, the acidity of an African-origin chocolate was contrasted with the raisin-y sweetness of one from Papua New Guinea.
However, for many of us, the most important qualifier when it comes to choosing chocolate is the preferred strength: milk or dark. The darker the chocolate, the more antioxidants it contains, since adding milk or sugar dilutes the beneficial compounds, which fight free radicals.
Generally, we eat chocolate, which contains fat and many calories, for enjoyment: It has one of the richest and most complex flavors of any food. Chemists have detected hundreds of different volatile molecules in chocolate that contribute to its depth of taste.
So the question remains: Are the exotic ingredients in today’s new chocolate really necessary?
Here’s the good news: It would be best to taste a little in order to find out.
Some experimental evidence shows that chocolate can’t induce a true addiction. That said, we all know what chocolate cravings feel like and how important it is to satisfy them. Here are a few tips for where to find the good stuff, whether you’re in the mood to taste something entirely new—chocolate with cayenne, perhaps?—or want to pick up a traditional treat for your sweetheart.
All Boxed Up
Our region’s long-established chocolate makers offer plenty of choices if you’re looking to bring home a box of classic sweets.
Local giant Sarris Candies (sarriscandies.com) produces an astonishing 12,000 pounds of chocolate products per day in its factories. Sarris goods are sold all over—from Hallmark stores to grocery stores.
Betsy Ann Chocolates (betsyann.com) is another local favorite with more than 10 shops in the region; its Chocolate Mousse Paras truffle with whipped chocolate ganache was featured on the Food Network.
Sherm Edwards Candies (shermedwardscandies.com), with two locations (Trafford and Monroeville), is another place to visit when sugar cravings strike.
Chocolate bars are the best thing to keep around the house for daily indulgence. Try the smooth, silky chocolate bars from Lindt or San Francisco-based Ghirardelli (both of which are sold everywhere). If you prefer organic, try Newman’s Own.
For low prices, check out Trader Joe’s Belgian-chocolate bars, sold in packs of three. If you want to experiment and spend a bit more, discover Brooklyn-based craft chocolate makers Mast Bros. (I can’t forget the spicy but delicious chocolate bar with serrano peppers). Read about the Masts’ unique philosophy and style, or purchase specialty bars at mastbrotherschocolate.com.
Bark and More
Local chocolatiers who fly solo are behind some of the area’s yummiest treats. Toffee Taboo (toffeetaboo.com), made by local chef and event producer Bob Sendall, is a rich Belgian chocolate treat that’s studded with toffee-encrusted almonds and cashews.
Specialty store Mon Aimee Chocolat (monaimeechocolat.com) in the Strip District has enough choices in bars, barks and buttons—from single origin to exotically flavored—to make your head spin (ask for guidance from the knowledgeable staff).
For an interesting blog about chocolate, read chocolateincontext.com, written by Emily Stone, a freelance writer, teacher and (sometimes) Pittsburgh resident. See the category “Pittsburgh Chocolate” in the blog archives.