Raise your hand if you know that next Monday, Oct. 28, is National Chocolate Day. You’re in good company if you didn’t know; neither did some of the area’s finest chocolate makers. But of all the so-designated food holidays, there’s good reason to celebrate chocolate. It’s one of America’s favorite ingredients and flavors – for cakes, cookies, ice cream, fudge (and hot fudge), pudding, and candy.
To properly observe the day, we asked a few local experts about their favorite treats and how best to taste and enjoy chocolate. In the chocolate world, there are those who actually make chocolate from cacao beans (called bean-to-bar) and others who buy high quality chocolate (called couverture) and melt it to make all kinds of bonbons. Tom and Monica Rogan, owners of Goodnow Farms Chocolate of Sudbury, start with dried cacao beans, purchased from various Latin American farms the couple has visited, and after many time-consuming steps, turn them into award-winning bars. Extra cocoa butter, pressed from the same variety of beans used for the chocolate, makes the bars extra smooth.
"Single-origin chocolates are always my favorite," says Tom Rogan. "I love the idea of chocolate as a food and not a candy." His current favorite is the Esmeraldas, made from cacao from a family farm in Ecuador. "Taste single-origin chocolate like you're tasting cheese or wine," he says. "Take small pieces and let them slowly melt on your tongue. Get a few different origins to get a sense of the flavor differences coming from the cacao. That's the eye-opening experience."
At Cambridge's EHChocolatier, Elaine Hsieh and Catharine Sweeney love any kind of holiday which gives them the excuse to come up with new items. "We have more freedom to create something more complicated because it's for a short period of time," says Hsieh. Currently on the Halloween (and autumn) menu are apple cider caramels; Wise Guys, which are little milk chocolate owls filled with maple pecan butter praline; and Witch Hats, a pointy marshmallow on a shortbread cookie enrobed in dark chocolate.
Hsieh says her weakness is ganache, the flavor-infused chocolate and heavy cream mixture used for truffles. "It's velvety, satiny, beautiful, pudding-like but more luxurious," she says. (She admits to occasionally licking the spatula.)
To taste chocolate, she says, its ideal temperature is “room temperature” or the mid-70-degrees range. “Put it in your mouth, let it warm up a little bit, chew, move it around your mouth to all your taste buds, and breathe through your nose.” Most important: “Take your time,” says Hsieh. “There’s the front end, the middle, the end, and what persists.”
The lingering finish of some confections at Kakawa Chocolate House is the not-so-subtle heat of chili peppers. Owners Bonnie and Tony Bennett (no relation to the singer) of the Salem shop and the original store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, are passionate about historical drinking chocolates. They make concoctions like Aztec Warrior, an unsweetened cocoa and chili drink believed to be what the warriors drank before battle; Jeffersonian (with a hint of nutmeg); Zapoteca (with coconut); and Modern Mexican (with almond, cinnamon, and vanilla). What Tony calls a “Tony special,” his afternoon pick-me-up, is a 50/50 mix of the American and Chili elixirs, the latter infused with their proprietary New Mexican red chili blend.
Kakawa's best-selling truffles include caramelized goat cheese and sage, horchata (from sweet rice milk, vanilla, and cinnamon), and Key lime pie. The green chili caramel has a playful zing, the mescal truffle a smoky finish, and the tart cherry-chili truffle is Bonnie's favorite.
At Nur Kilic's 32-year old Serenade Chocolatier in Brookline Village, the most popular bonbons are more traditional, including chocolate covered caramels, Viennese truffle with hazelnut butter, and pistachio truffles. The shop makes over 60 different types of chocolates, including truffles, creams, caramels, turtles, bars, nut bark, and dipped fruit. "There's always something that I'm trying," she says.
Kilic's tasting tips include, first, breathing in the aroma. When her husband observes her tasting ritual, she says he's been known to ask: Are you making love to that piece of chocolate or are you going to eat it?
Pastry chef Brian Mercury, formerly of Oak + Rowan and Harvest, now at Cambridge's Puritan & Company, is well known for his signature chocolate cremeux. "It's full flavored, rich, decadent, and smooth," he says of the densely creamy custard. The chef uses Somerville's Taza's 70 percent stone-ground baking chocolate for the dessert. "The deep chocolate flavor comes first, the sweetness second."
Yet Mercury reaches for a simpler, sweeter 50 percent cacao Callebaut brand to make chocolate ice cream. "This one really has a nostalgic flavor to bring people back to their childhoods," he says. The chef opts for a less intense, less expensive chocolate for cookies and brownies too. "Higher end products aren't necessarily the right ones to use in desserts."
However you choose to feed your chocolate passion – whether it's a single-origin bar, Viennese truffle, Witch Hat, an elixir, or chocolate custard – enjoy it with glee on its own special holiday.
EHChocolatier, 145 Huron Ave, Cambridge, 617-284-6096, www.ehchocolatier.com
Goodnow Farms Chocolate, Sudbury, 978-579-4939, www.goodnowfarms.com
Kakawa Chocolate House, 173 Essex Street (near the Peabody Essex Museum), Salem, MA, 617-548-4567 www.kakawachocolates.com
Puritan & Company, 1166 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-615-6195; www.puritancambridge.com
Serenade Chocolatier, 5 Harvard Square, Brookline, 617-739-0795 www.serenadechocolatier.com
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com