For all celebrations, throughout all seasons, chocolate is the ultimate luxury. No other ingredient adds so much depth and complexity to a dessert. And no other ingredient has such power to lure people into indulgence.
Children who love chocolate chip cookies grow up to love chocolate tortes and truffles as well. And little ones who thawed out from sledding with a cup of hot cocoa will sip contentedly, as adults, on an elegant whipped cream-topped cup of hot chocolate.
"It's a very complex flavor," says Nancy Baggett, the Columbia food author whose newest book, "The International Chocolate Cookbook" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; hardcover, $40), has just been published. "There are more than 100 different flavor components in vanilla, while chocolate has something more than 300.
Mrs. Baggett didn't consider herself a chocaholic when she started research and recipe testing for the book over two years ago, she says. "And as a result I expected I would be tired of chocolate by the time I finished working with it. But I found even after two years, that I was more impressed than ever with how good it is. And I was to a certain extent addicted, I think. I've got some chocolate cookies in the oven even as we speak."
The botanical name for chocolate is theobroma, Greek for "food of the gods," Mrs. Baggett says. "Linnaeus dubbed it that. By Aztec legend is was the god Quetzalcotl who bestowed the gift of chocolate on humans, but I don't know if Linnaeus knew that legend or if he just liked it."
Originally discovered by the Aztec and Toltec Indians, chocolate was first made into a dark, strong drink, sometimes sweetened with honey or spiced with cinnamon if those were available.
"It was a far less refined product than we're used to," she says.
But when you look just at the long process it took even to get it to that relatively unrefined state, she continues, it seems miraculous that we even have chocolate at all.
"It's amazing to me that they figured it out how to make chocolate in the first place, that if you took these football-sized pods and took out the seeds, fermented them -- and it doesn't really taste like anything unless you ferment them -- and then you dry them and roast them and then you hull them.
"And after that you have to grind it all up and you have to sweeten it. Each step is essential to its flavor. And if you missed any of them, you wouldn't have anything you would ever want to eat."
When the Aztec emperor Montezuma handed a cup of his harsh and bitter drink to Cortez in 1519, chocolate started on the next part of its journey. In less than 150 years the chocolate drink was popular throughout much of Western Europe. There were chocolate houses like coffee houses in Britain by the end of the 1600s.
Chocolate came back to this part of North America with Dutch and British traders, Mrs. Baggett says, and was first sold in the colonies in apothecary shops as a tonic and restorative.
"It wasn't until the middle of the 1800s that they figured out how to do the process which gives it that luxurious quality we take for granted," she says.
"The Dutch figured out that if you pressed chocolate with hydraulic presses -- they were actually trying to make a better drinking chocolate -- and press out some of the cocoa butter, it was easier to manage as a drinking chocolate. This netted cocoa powder."
Then Rodolphe Lindt, the famous Swiss chocolatier, took the leftover cocoa butter that was available and added it back to melted chocolate. "He figured out that by manipulating it, eventually the chocolate particles became finer to the point where you had something that tasted really smooth. That was the real advance. It was really the beginning of eating chocolate," Mrs. Baggett says.
When working with chocolate it's important to understand just how heat-sensitive it is.
"Chocolate is not like eggs, where you have to cook them," she says. "It is essentially ready to use. In some cases you might need to melt it. But you should keep in mind that it melts at human body temperature, even a little lower, 88 to 90 degrees depending on the amount of sugar and milk in it. You have to apply very little heat."
It's often more a matter of having the patience to wait until the heat reaches the middle of the chocolate rather than applying more heat to get it to melt faster.
The standard way to melt chocolate is to use a double boiler, she says. "But if you have a high proportion of oil or fat that you're trying to melt at the same time, you can carefully melt it over direct heat. The fat will bathe and insulate the chocolate from burning. That's usually the only case where I would melt it over direct heat."
That's why using the microwave is good for big pieces. You have heat generated all the way through.
One mistake that people make, even people who write cookbooks, she says, is that they try to melt chocolate in milk.