Guys remember that amazing beer waffle post I did with Sara from Cake Over Steak? I mean, how could you forget? Well we’re back with another collaboration. And we’re talking about something just as delicious—chocolate!
While browsing the shelves on a blogging trip to Boston this fall, Sara discovered a Nathan Miller Chocolate bar. She fell in love with the packaging (she is quite the design junkie) and then the unique flavors. She suggested that we visit their small factory and coffee house in PA. I love high quality craft chocolate, and I’m a sucker for factory tours, so I willingly obliged!
This post is a bit different than normal–there is no recipe. But I am going to talk about Nathan Miller, chocolate, and some flavor basics! I have peppered this post with photos so that you can live vicariously through my visit ;).
Nathan Miller Chocolate very nicely gave us a complimentary tour of their beautiful factory and kitchen (sorry folks, no photos here!) as well as a chocolate tasting and answered all of our many questions. Sara and I were able to speak with the chocolate-maker and pastry chef, Nathan Miller, and he’s a passionate craftsman on a mission to produce the best chocolate possible. After the tour, we tasted a curated selection of chocolates that blew my mind, and you can get the details over on Sara’s post! They also didn’t bat their eyes when Sara and I proceeded to sit and nibble on all of their goodies (because they have wonderful lunch, pastries, and confections in addition to chocolate) while we caught up on a rather busy Saturday.
And boy does Sara have great taste! Nathan Miller Chocolate is really smooth, complex chocolate that uses fabulous ingredients like ginger and dried cherries. Each bean origin—Madagascar, Peru, Ghana, Hispaniola, Papua New Guinea, and Belize—has a different, unique flavor that you can taste in different chocolate bars. They use local ingredients and partner with wonderful small businesses for genius bars like Greenstreet espresso and Wigle whiskey rum raisin. And guess what? They’ve won several prestigious awards for their chocolate including the new addition—the Gingerbread bar! Needless to say, I had to stop myself from buying all of the bars.
I already chatted about bean-to-bar as one of my first blog posts about apprenticing at Mast Brothers (please excuse the poor photography. Yikes!), so I figured I’d briefly go through each step most important to bean-to-bar chocolate and when the most important flavors are developed!
Pod to bean: cocoa pods are picked from trees, and the white pulp is removed. This is where the cocoa beans are! At this point the beans taste nothing like chocolate.
Fermentation of cocoa beans: beans are poured into piles and left to ferment. The beans die and sugars are broken down into alcohols and acids which interact with the beans and cause further breakdown. This is where a lot of aromas and “pre-cursors” to flavors begin to form.
Roasting of beans/nibs: the beans are sorted and roasted. When you roast the beans, Maillard browning forms almost all of the flavors you experience in chocolate. The complex pre-cursors formed during fermentation ensures that these flavors are truly unique. The outside husks of the cocoa beans are removed by gently crushing the beans to get at the “meat” or nibs. This is called winnowing, and it can occur before or after roasting.
Fun fact! Flavor chemists routinely describe chocolate as one of the most difficult flavors to mimic due to the hundreds of different compounds that contribute to its overall experience!
Crushing the nibs: the cocoa nibs are crushed and ground in a stone grinder first into a gritty paste and then, eventually, liquid cocoa liquor! Often sugar is added during this step so that the particles are of similar size. At this point, the process differs by producers, but at the very simplest, the cocoa + sugar liquid is transferred to a different container and left to sit until ready to create a chocolate bar. While sitting, some claim an extra “aging” process occurs. This could be some leftover Maillard browning reactions creating more flavor.
Conching: this is some real magic! In addition to roasting, a ton of important things for flavor transpire here. A conch basically works the cocoa for some time with a bit of heat and friction. This can happen near the end of the grinding process with smaller producers depending on the set-up before transferring the chocolate mixture to another container. Here, extra cocoa butter or milk ingredients can be added. But essentially this is what conching accomplishes: fat spreads throughout the mixture evenly, excess moisture evaporates, harsh acids disappear, and even caramelization occurs here depending on how hot and how long the conch is. This is when the mixture actually tastes like chocolate!
Tempering: I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with tempering…probably when it’s done poorly. This is important for appearance and texture. Tempering is a process that ensures fat crystals form correctly for the best snap and shiny exterior. When this doesn’t happen correctly, the chocolate looks like it has a white-ish mold. This is really just larger fat crystals that your eyes can now see, but it’s not as pretty, and the texture is not as pleasant. So we temper!
That’s pretty much it guys! From cocoa pod to the bar in your hand! If you want to learn more about chocolate production, this is my favorite resource for a start.
Now that you know everything (and more) about chocolate, be sure to visit Cake Over Steak for some details on everything we ate! Also head on over to Nathan Miller Chocolate to get your hands on their amazing chocolate bars. I would highly recommend a visit! It really is a five-star locale…and chocolate bar…and coffee…and lunch…and…well you get it!
Looking for some fabulous recipes that use chocolate? I thought so. You might like these: