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Come Valentine’s Day, skip hearts and flowers. Go for the chocolate!

That’s what 80% of consumers said they planned to do last year, according to the National Confectioners Association. But don’t automatically snatch up another old-school heart-shaped box. Look to breakout craft-chocolate options that seduce the palate and satisfy a sweet tooth. Think sustainably sourced, single-origin bean-to-bar chocolate in an array of intensities. Vegan and keto selections. Or chocolates infused with sometimes startling flavors and ingredients.

 Raising the bar

Forget the face of a kid eating a Hershey’s Bar. Get a load of the rapturous look on the face of someone savoring the very specific experience offered by single-origin, sustainably sourced bean-to-bar chocolate from Ecuador. Or Hawaii, Iceland, Peru, Vietnam, etc.

These are not the candy bars of your childhood. “The phrase ‘bean-to-bar’ refers to how much control chocolate makers have over their cacao beans: where they’re grown; how the beans are roasted; how the chocolate is conched; how the land, plants and people are treated; whether it’s fair-market priced, etc.,” says Zingerman’s chocolate specialist Jennie Brooks.

From darkest dark, to milkiest milk to whimsical whites, bean-to-bar chocolate features high-quality cacao and often beautiful packaging without romantic overtones. While pricier than commercial candy, they’re ideal for Valentine’s Day gift-giving which, according to the National Retail Federation, is going as much or more to family, friends and co-workers as to sweethearts.

 Chocolate by the numbers

Chocolate is graded — dark, milk or white — based the percentage of cacao it contains. The higher the percentage, the more pure and intense the flavor. But numbers alone don’t tell the story. Will Werner, co-owner and Chief Chocolate Officer at Detroit- and Ferndale-based Mongers’ Provisions, explains that terroir also influences flavor: a bar with 85 or 90% cacao may be bitter, while another with 100% cacao may be fruity and somewhat sweet even without added sugar.

 Dark chocolate — 50% cacao and higher

Some love the intense flavor. For others, it’s chocolate with benefits.

“People interested in eating healthier and consuming less sugar tend to go for chocolate with higher cacao percentages,” says Barbara Wilson, owner of Mindo Chocolate Makers, which produces chocolate made from Ecuadoran cacao beans. “Their doctors tell them to eat only 70% and above to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and inflammation.”

Darkest of the dark — 85- to 100% cacao. “These can be too dark and bitter for a lot of people,” Werner says. “But some very dark doesn’t taste as dark as it is.”

Modern classic dark — 68 to 80% cacao. This level, Werner observes “represents some of the best work of artisan chocolate makers.”

Entry-level dark — 55 to 67%. These can be very smooth when cacao butter is added, but “sometimes this category has a lot of cacao butter and not enough cacao,” Werner notes.

Milk chocolate

Literally, chocolate with milk — cow, goat, sheep or coconut. “Unlike commercial candy, milk chocolate can still contain plenty of cacao without being wimpy,” Werner says.

Dark milk – 50% cacao and above. “If it’s above 50%, it’s in the bittersweet category, but the milk rounds it out and removes a little bit of that bite, just like a dash of cream in your coffee,” Werner says. “Many in the 55- to 64% range are super good.”

Standard Milk — less than 50% cacao. “Many craft milk-chocolate bars are quite a bit darker than the average milk,” Werner notes.

White chocolate

Arguably the most argued-over category. “For those who insist chocolate must be brown, it’s not chocolate,” Werner explains. “It doesn’t have cacao solids, but when makers use cacao butter, there are some characteristics of the cacao bean.” Bars with elements such as blackened barley and activated charcoal take on extra depth that replicate a rich chocolate experience.

How to choose

1.   Narrow things down. Dark, milk or white?

2.   Do you want a pure chocolate experience or something with flavors?

3.   Are you buying for an adventurous eater? Do they like spicy food?

4.   Would you like to know which are most popular?

5.   Ask for a taste.

Where to Buy

Mindo Chocolate Makers (Dexter) — mindochocolate.com

Mongers’ Provisions (Midtown Detroit/Ferndale) —mongersprovisions.com

Zingerman’s Next Door Cafe (Ann Arbor) — zingermansdeli.com

Bon Bon Bon (Downtown/Midtown Detroit; Hamtramck) — bonbonbon.com

Plum Market (multople locations) 

Flavors, flavors, flavors

These ingredients are doing star turns in bars, chocolates and truffles.

·       Michigan cherries

·       Hot pepper

·       Rum

·       Jasmine Tea

·       Spicy Mango

·       Lavender

·       Hungarian paprika

·       Burnt/toasted barley

·       Porcini mushrooms

·       Bacon

·       Shrimp and bonito

 A Delicious Dozen

1.   Akesson’s Criollo Cocoa (100%), Madagascar

2.   Marou Ben Tre (78%), Vietnam

3.   Mindo Pure 77% Handcrafted Chocolate Bar, Ecuador

4.   Marou Tien Giang (70%), Vietnam

5.   Pump Street Jamaica Bachelor's Hall Estate (75%), Jamaica

6.   French Broad Scorpian Pepper (72%), Costa Rica

7.   Friis-hold Medagla (70%), Nicaragua

8.   Manoa Goat Milk Bar (69%), Hawaii; 

9.   Pump Street Rye Crumb, Milk & Sea Salt (60%),  Eduador

10.  Marou Coconut Milk Chocolate (55%), Vietnam

11.   Fruition Brown Butter Milk Chocolate (43%), Ecuador

12   Vanilla Bean Toasted White (38%) Dominican Republic

Mindo Brownies*  

16 ounces Mindo Dark Chocolate Chunks (77% preferred)

(or 5 50-gram Mindo chocolate bars, 77% or 100% cacao, preferred)

8 ounces unsalted butter 

2 teaspoons sea salt

1 1/4 cups organic cane sugar

4 eggs

4 ounces all-purpose flour, sifted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gently melt the chocolate, butter and sea salt.

Remove from heat and add in the sugar.

Whisk in the eggs.

Fold in the flour.

Pour onto a 13-inch x 9-inch parchment-lined baking sheet, spreading batter evenly.  

Bake at 325 for about 40 to 45 minutes. 

* For a gluten-free version of this recipe, substitute 2 ounces of oat flour and 2 ounces of rice flour for the all-purpose flour.

Recipe  courtesy of Mindo Chocolate Makers.

Black and White Haute Chocolate

This hot chocolate features a rich blend of chocolates from Peru and the Dominican Republic via Upstate New York’s Fruition Chocolate Works. Any 100% dark chocolate will do, but look for a white chocolate in the percentage indicated. The notes of dulce de leche and brown butter in the white used here add depth and complexity and produce a very special hot beverage.

1 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

Pinch salt

1 ounce 100% dark chocolate, finely chopped

1 ounce 38% Vanilla Bean Toasted White chocolate, finely chopped

Pinch cinnamon, or to taste

2 tablespoons half-and-half

Whipped cream, to taste

Place milk, sugar and salt in a small saucepan and heat until just beginning to bubble, but without forming a skin (about 166 degrees Fahrenheit). Turn heat to low, add the chocolates and whisk until thoroughly blended. Once the chocolates have dissolved, add the cinnamon and half-and-half. Whisk  to combine. Serve topped with whipped cream.

Note: This is a hot chocolate that can stand up to brandy or rum for a nightcap.

Recipe courtesy of Robin Watson

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