Chocolate is like a red rose on Valentine's Day: a sweetly romantic yet undeniably conventional choice. The heart-shaped candy box, beloved by sweethearts since Victorian times, is such a best seller that the day ranks as the single biggest of the year for the chocolate business.
Just because its popularity is proven, though, doesn't mean chocolate has to be predictable. Chocolate can be far more sophisticated, even surprising, than the traditional box of treats.
Nowadays, as chefs look for creative ways to use a classic flavor, chocolate is making some unexpected culinary appearances. Sometimes, it moves off the dessert tray to a drink at the bar, or to the main menu in a soup or savory sauce. Other times, chocolate stays sweet but looks a lot more hip, turning up in the guise of everything from ravioli to sushi.
Consider just a few of the chocolate interpretations that can be had in Baltimore. At the cosmopolitan Ruby Lounge, there is the chocolate martini. At the fusion restaurant Ixia, an appetizer becomes a decadent dessert when chocolate melts with caramelized bananas in a pot sticker. And at the modern Mexican restaurant Blue Agave, chocolate mingles with chilies to enliven roasted game hen and bread pudding into something more than comfort food.
"I like the versatility of chocolate," says Michael Marx, Blue Agave's chef and owner. "There's always a bit of a surprise factor. Take pork. People would never think of having chocolate and pork together, but it's a great taste sensation."
Marx's signature dessert, a dense bread pudding, is certainly rich with chocolate. But the intense chocolate flavor is set off by ancho chilies, an intriguing, spicy-sweet combination that stars elsewhere on his menu. His poultry and pork dishes are frequently paired with moles, the regional Mexican sauces that mix chilies, cinnamon, spices, nuts and sweetened chocolate.
Mole sauces may be particularly appropriate for Valentine's Day because they're deeply rooted in chocolate's 4,000-year history. Chocolate didn't start off sweet at its inception in South America. But long before it was discovered to contain mood-altering chemicals, including the same stimulant that's produced naturally by falling in love, chocolate has been seen as seductive.
The Aztec and Mayan aristocrats brewed cocoa beans into a spiced, cold drink they believed to be an aphrodisiac. Legend has it that Emperor Montezuma drank 50 cups a day. When the Spanish conquistadors first met him, however, they were more interested in his golden goblet.
By 1528, the Spaniards had carried cocoa home, where it became a fashionable drink for the nobility. Eventually, as its use spread among European courts, the cocoa drink was heated and sweetened, and in the 17th century, popularized as an alternative to alcohol.
Candy, cakes and other forms soon followed, and by the time Richard Cadbury created the first heart-shaped candy box in 1868, chocolate was a well-established Valentine's Day tradition. Today, chocolate in the United States is a $13 billion industry, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, and while Halloween claims the largest share, Valentine's Day rates first in single-day sales.
"Chocolate isn't something you have to figure out. Once consumed, it's instantly appreciated," says chocolatier Marcel Desaulniers, creator of a seven-layer dessert called Death by Chocolate and author of a cookbook series by the same name.
"I think that's why there are so many boxes of chocolate, and even at a younger age, a chocolate bar is an icon of love or at least affection," he says. "It's a rare person who doesn't like it."
If chocolate never really falls out of favor, though, it can seem too known a flavor. Pastry chef Amy Felder, who teaches at Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school in Providence, R.I., says to overcome the obviousness of chocolate, "an increasingly large number of pastry chefs are looking to the culinary world for inspiration." Some try to achieve new nuances by pairing chocolate with spices once relegated to main dishes, she says, while others are recasting those dishes as desserts.
That's been evident at Baltimore's Chocolate Affair, a fund-raiser for the Center for Poverty Solutions for the past 11 years that is known to satisfy even the worst chocolate cravings.
In the early years, recalls Debbie Attman, event organizer, chefs mostly tried to outdo each other with elaborate displays carved out of chocolate. But since the mid-1990s, she says, "We've had the most amazing things. Chocolate oysters. Chocolate pasta. Chocolate pizza. We've had chocolate chili, with beans but not meat. It's very creative."
Spike Gjerde, chef and owner of a string of Baltimore restaurants, including Spike & Charlie's and the Atlantic, walked off with an award last year for his "sushi" - tempered chocolate served as the seaweed wrapper, which was then rolled up with rice pudding and papaya, mango and pineapple, and assembled during an all-nighter in his kitchen.