Willy Wonka may have developed a number of unusual chocolate-covered inventions at his famous factory, but even his strangest confections can't beat some real-life combinations people are trying. What's even stranger is that some are catching on.
That's right -- chocolate, our favorite mood-boosting, endorphin-releasing concoction is now being blended with everything from mushrooms to meat. It seems that anything can become dessert, even the most obscure of flora and fauna.
With so many new chocolates to try, it can be daunting to make each calorie count. Couture candy boutiques are popular spots to indulge in these fun treats, but we've also explored the availability of less elitist, more accessible must-try chocolate combinations. Even celebrity chefs are getting in on the act.
As Willy Wonka said from the depths of his chocolate factory: "Little surprises are around every corner... but nothing dangerous. Don't be alarmed."
Some people get really snobby about sea salt, demanding to know its pedigree like a bottle of wine. But when a craving hits, who's got the time to be picky? If chocolate-covered pretzels satisfy the urge, what more do we need to know?
Chocolatiers, however, deny that choice of sea salt is incidental or inconsequential. They swear by salts of specific origin, paired with chocolate blends that best accentuate the salt's color, aroma and subtle flavors. Smoked salt from Wales is sweeter; gray salt from Brittany delivers a dose of minerals; a pink Hawaiian variety is reminiscent of a beach in the shadow of a volcano. According to confectioner Fran Bigelow, these factors give the finished chocolate a resonant connection to its provenance.
Bigelow, of Seattle-based Fran's Chocolates, explained this phenomenon to National Public Radio: "Chocolate's one of the most craved foods in the world, but we also crave salt. And it seems like the combination of the two has just struck a chord with so many people. It's really unbelievable" [source: National Public Radio].
It took a while, but we finally got bored with chocolate-covered pretzels, popcorn and nuts. And, as we already know, we won't be denied our salt fix. The latest game-day, lowbrow snack to get dipped? Potato chips.
Chocolate-covered chips are fragile and tend to get soggy, so you're unlikely to find brand-name offerings at the grocery store. Look at high-end snack stores or markets, or, if you can't find them, get cooking! If you don't mind a messy project, it's easy to make chocolate-covered chips at home. There are endless recipes available online, with only slight differences. It's the same method used to make other chocolate-coated salty snacks. First, obtain your favorite melting chocolate and favorite chips -- the ridged kind withstands the heat and the weight of the coating best. Melt the chocolate, taking care to prevent scorching. Dip chips. Garnish or decorate however you'd like. Let the chips cool on wax paper as long as you can stand it, and crunch your way to sweet and salty bliss.
Blending spices into chocolate isn't new or particularly adventurous; they're often used to flavor hot chocolates and cocoas that replicate traditional Aztec flavors of chili and cinnamon. They're also essential in chocolate cakes and cookies, so it was only a matter of time before they graced more sophisticated treats in concentrated flavors.
Spices used to be so valuable that the worldwide economy depended on their trade. Considering the history of these potent powders, it's no surprise that rare and expensive spices are a powerful method to increase a chocolate's sense of exclusivity.
Emboldened by the ever-growing demand for new and interesting flavors, high-end chocolatiers are experimenting with ingredients like cardamom, curry, masala and wasabi. Done right, these chocolates won't taste like sushi or Indian takeout, but biting into one still might take a leap of faith.
They're reminiscent of other flavor experiences: an anise-infused truffle, for instance, might make you think of absinthe, and a fennel-topped chocolate morsel can tickle the tongue and nose like a fragrant glass of Chianti. Other well-matched ingredients, such as fruits or nuts, can tone down or dress up a piece of chocolate. Traditional pie spices lend a fall breeze to a pumpkin cream, or you can warm up with a comforting chai tea truffle or chocolate-based drink. Ginger and chocolate is becoming a ubiquitous combination, perhaps because of ginger's reputation as a powerful energy booster.
If your tongue's accustomed to sweet, sugary chocolate, the heat of a pepper-tinged confection will be a good kick to the palate. Chili or cayenne peppers are key ingredients in Aztec-style hot chocolate, which also depends on a healthy dose of cinnamon [source: Lake Champlain Chocolates]. When paired, the cinnamon tips toward the hot end of the scale instead of flaunting its usual sweetness.
Pepper has started to show up in nearly every chocolate available. Chili and jalapeno lend their kick to a range of snacks, from cakes, chocolate bars and truffles to pepper-dusted, chocolate-covered fruit. High-end chocolatiers, always on the lookout for the most exotic specimen, favor guajilo, pasilla and ancho chili varieties.
The flavors are often carefully arranged so the heat is pleasurable instead of intolerable. Braver souls can take a bite of a chocolate covered pepper; the chocolate helps neutralize the burn of the pepper's oil (much like a glass of milk would) but leaves the smoky, savory flavor intact.
Tempted, but don't think your taste buds can take the heat? Get out the ice cream maker and experiment with chocolate pepper ice cream recipes. You'll still get the hot flavor in a pleasantly cold mouthful.
Mole, a staple of Mexican cuisine often made for meat, is a common sauce that uses the previously mentioned spices to great advantage -- along with vegetables and chocolate. It's a great way to experiment with the flavors of chocolate and meat, but the role of chocolate in the composition of the dish is hotly contested among experts of Mexican and Latin cuisine.
Chef Emeril Lagasse favors a mole sweetened to American tastes. He melts semisweet chocolate and cream into a mixture of roasted poblano peppers, onions, seeds and spices to create a mole he recommends serving with turkey [source: Emerils.com].
Other chefs believe mole should be more traditional. Chef Rick Bayless prefers a vegetable-based dish, consisting mainly of red chilies and tomatillos. From this viewpoint, chocolate is merely an accessory to a complicated list of other ingredients and flavors. Bayless says this style of mole is traditionally served with poultry, meat, and fish [source: Bayless].
It could have been included with meat, but bacon fans would argue that the combination of sweet chocolate and greasy bacon deserves a stand-alone mention. Chocolatiers seem to agree. The brilliance of the pairing comes from bacon's two most predominant characteristics, salt and fat. When chocolate bars are dotted with bacon bits, the textures melt together on the tongue. Heavy smoke tends to permeate the chocolate and add another layer of complexity.
Vosges' Mo's Bacon Bar collection blends crumbles of applewood smoked bacon and alderwood smoked salt into milk or dark chocolate. As potent as a bacon-infused chocolate bar is, though, some bacon fans crave more. The hardcore pork lovers dip full strips -- thick or thin cut, soft or crispy -- in chocolate.
Hippies with discriminating palates started the trend of dipping magic mushrooms in chocolate for more pleasant consumption, but they probably never anticipated that their Alice in Wonderland treats would someday inspire couture chocolatiers. The reputed mystical and medicinal properties of mushrooms (even the legal kind) capture imaginations and inspire stories; their dry, dusty flavors accent cuisines across the globe. How could a chocolate maker resist?
Organic forest flavor doesn't come cheap, though. Vosges' Enchanted Mushroom is a handcrafted 1.3 pound toadstool, filled with a soft blend of chocolate, hazelnut and ground reishi mushroom, finished and decorated with a colorful fondant-like coating. Considering the $75 price tag, we'd be tempted to display this whimsical piece rather than eat it.
It's an odd and rare combination (even for the most dedicated mushroom hunters), but you can still try it without breaking the bank. Reishi and Cordyceps varieties grace a small variety of lower-budget bars and hot cocoas, combined with other flavors to neutralize the earthy musk [source: Fungi Perfecti].
Go beyond vanilla! Though the sweet-seeded orchid is a ubiquitous ingredient in chocolate desserts, chocolatiers are using other flowers for flavor to complement delicate candies. Like spices, flowers offer strong fragrances and exotic origins that emphasize exclusivity while having a subtle effect on flavor and texture. The more rare and beautiful they are, the better.
Even common flowers like roses and violets are elevated to royal status after being candied in a bath of hot sugar syrup. The rock candy-like result is a popular decoration for wedding cakes, but chocolatiers are catching on. Even the smallest bonbon looks, feels and tastes extravagant if it's topped with a jewel-toned sugar bloom. Couture chocolatiers have experimented with the flavors of chamomile, Japanese cherry blossom petals and white poppy seeds, each meant to evoke a particular place or mood.
Long before crafty brewers experimented with its flavors, chocolate was consumed primarily as a beverage, which was thicker, richer and spicier than the hot chocolates and cocoas we know. After you've tasted a chocolate stout, you might wonder why this evolution took so long.
There are two common ways to incorporate chocolate into a brew: add it during the finishing process, or incorporate it in the main ingredients. Rogue Ales' Chocolate Stout combines chocolate malt with chocolate, resulting in a mellow flavor that they recommend pairing with desserts [source: Rogue]. Brooklyn Brewery, Sam Adams and Wells & Young's also make complex chocolate beers.
Don't overlook beer's potential in cooking; Guinness and other stouts are often added to chocolate desserts. As chef and food author Nigella Lawson told National Public Radio, Guinness creates an exceptionally dense, moist chocolate cake with a "resonant, ferrous tang. It's kind of a grown-up cake" [source: National Public Radio].
Try pairing your favorite beers and chocolates. Check your local event listings for classes or tastings, or experiment on your own.
Maybe we should have talked about cheese before beer; after all, the combination of cheese and chocolate requires a slightly smaller leap of faith. (Think of all the decadent Italian treats that are based on ricotta and mascarpone -- not to mention a plethora of chocolate cheesecake innovations.) It's last but not least for a good reason, though: the innovation of two Oregon-based artisan food companies takes the concept of cheese and chocolate to new heights.
In 2004, Rogue Creamery and Rogue Ales joined forces, and foodies rejoiced. The farmers brought Holstein whole milk cheese curd, the brewers contributed their infamous Chocolate Stout, and the award-winning Rogue Chocolate Stout Cheddar was born [source: Realbeer.com].
That's right, a chocolate cheddar, totally debunking the notion that a milk-based chocolate product should be bland and sweet. But if the dark brown marbling of Rogue's cheese is a bit too intimidating, there are other options. Award-winning Cocoa Cardona is an aged goat milk cheese with a subtle chocolate flavor, thanks to its cocoa-rubbed rind [source: Carr Valley Cheese]. An alternative approach: Try serving an appetizer of hot, crusty French bread drizzled with olive oil and topped with dark chocolate and Brie.
Do you know the carbon footprint of that chocolate bar you're craving? Take a look with HowStuffWorks.
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