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Willy Wonka, Move Over

Ghirardelli, Baker’s Prevail in the Great Chocolate Tasting Contest

By Marissa A. Cheng

“Sugar and Spice” is a new column (debuted last week as “Yummy Yummy”) that we hope will transform you, the average MIT student, into an afficionado of all things food and food-like.

The first thing I notice about my bag of $30 worth of chocolate is the aroma that literally fills the room when the bag is opened. Luckily, my backpack, which carried it back from the supermarket, smells like it too.

Unlike Hershey’s, or even Ghirardelli, which is generally the most expensive chocolate I’m willing to pay to bake with, this chocolate smells like no other chocolate I’ve ever had -- it has a warm, rich aroma that stays with you, rather than dissipating. It’s beautiful.

I am about to embark upon my quest to find out whether or not the chocolate you bake with really matters. I bought six brands of chocolate -- Baker’s semisweet and unsweetened from the United States, Callebaut unsweetened (97 percent cacao) from Belgium, Valrhona Pur Caraibe (66 percent cacao) from France, El Rey Bucare-Mijao (58-61 percent cacao) from Venezuela, Ghirardelli Bittersweet from San Francisco, and Scharffen Berger Bittersweet (70 percent cacao) from California.

The plan: make one baked and one unbaked dessert with chocolate -- chocolate mousse and molten chocolate cakes. I’ll taste it myself, as well as have other people taste, and see what I come up with.

Chocolate began as an unsweetened drink termed “food of the gods” by the Maya and the Aztecs. Though Christopher Columbus brought cocoa beans to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, chocolate didn’t catch on until it was introduced to Spain as both a drink (now with sugar and vanilla added to it) and an opportunity for a lot of money.

Chocolate was so popular in Spain that Pope Pius V, in 1569, declared that drinking chocolate on Fridays wouldn’t break the fast. In Germany, chocolate became so popular that a permit was required in order to buy it or eat it.

Chocolate is a mix of cocoa beans, cocoa butter, sugar, and vanilla. Milk chocolate includes condensed milk as well, and white chocolate contains cocoa butter, but no cocoa beans. Cocoa trees grow in tropical regions in South America and Africa, and yield football-shaped seed pods about the size of a lemon. After being harvested, they are fermented and dried, then bought by chocolate manufacturers. At the factory, the beans are cleaned, roasted to develop their flavor further, and have their outer shells removed. The remaining part of the bean, called the nib, is blended with other nibs according to the manufacturer’s secret recipe, and then crushed into a paste called chocolate liquor (though it contains no alcohol). Chocolate liquor can be poured off into molds and cooled as unsweetened chocolate, have cocoa butter and sugar added to it to make chocolate, or have most of the cocoa butter pressed out to produce cocoa.

Back to the tasting. After finding that it is somewhat trying to make mousse six times in a row on a Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m., I am finally through at 11 a.m. I’m kind of miffed that it took that long. And I still have the molten chocolate cakes to go.

The long and short of it is that I put most but not all possible care into the molten chocolate cakes. Some are a bit soupy in the middle (not baked long enough) and some are too cakey (baked too long). I hope it won’t be too noticeable. It takes a long time to chop chocolate, so by now it’s 2 p.m., time for people to start tasting what I’ve made as I think guiltily about the problem set and the 12-page paper due Monday.

Each of my eight-person tasting team (including me) samples the mousses and cakes and ranks them by their numbers. Nobody really liked El Rey at all -- it placed in the top three of a taster’s preferences just once, with a rather off flavor that was reminiscent of bad coffee. Scharffen Berger was also a no go, with a weak, underdeveloped taste. The Valrhona incited a love-it-or-hate-it phenomenon, which was especially apparent with the mousse.

Not surprisingly, given the size of the testing pool, results were fairly scattered, but it was clear that the most-liked chocolate for the mousse was a tie between the Callebaut and the Ghirardelli. More than one person termed the Callebaut mousse as tasting “very different,” and in my opinion, it had the richest and most complex flavor. The Callebaut didn’t fare so well in the cakes; instead, it resulted in a tie between not the expensive chocolates, but between the Ghirardelli and Baker’s chocolate. So much for the much-vaunted prestige of premier chocolates.

My expert advice to you: stick with the Baker’s and the Ghirardelli. If you really want something different, go for the Callebaut, but as always, the secret ingredient to any recipe is love.