A Brief History of Chocolate & A Simple Recipe for Ganache
Chocolate truly is one of the most extraordinary and complex of foods; it is made, essentially, from bitter and astringent seeds. Then, through a unique and intense process (harvesting, fermentation, drying, roasting, grinding, refining, conching, carefully cooling and finally, forming) chocolate is transformed into a food with one of the fullest and most complex flavor profiles; however, the chocolate that we have come to know, the chocolate that is packaged and consumed all over the world today – at room temperature, with its smooth, hard texture and contrarily melting and cooling-in-your-mouth-all-at-once sensation* – has only been this way for a petit portion of its fairly long history.
The cacao tree is thought to have evolved in the river valleys of central South America. The cacao pod – seeds & pulp – is a tropical fruit whose nutritional values are unrivaled. High in fat, protein, vitamins B, D & E, extra doses of micronutrients and numerous antioxidants, today, it would be the ultimate hiker’s dream food. In fact, anthropologists believe it was spread throughout Central America and Mexico by nomadic people using the nutritionally dense pod during their travels as an easily portable, excellent source of energy. The first detailed account of chocolate comes from Milanese Girolamo Benzoni; in his book History of the New World (1564,) he writes “…though it seems more suited for pigs than men … it satisfies and refreshes the body without intoxicating.”
“The transformation of the fresh cacao bean into a finished chocolate is an intriguing collaboration between the tremendous potential of the natural world and human ingenuity at finding nourishment and pleasure in the most unpromising materials,” (Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking.) Thanks, in part, to indigenous tribes sharing their precious cacao drinks with Italians like explorer Milanese Benzoni and Englishman Henry Stubbe (who wrote a treatise on chocolate titled The Indian Nectar,) inventors and inventions, like Van Houton’s screw press in 1828, Henri Nestlé’s invention of milk powder in 1876 and the invention of the conche by Rudolphe Lindt in 1878, we get to savor and enjoy the sweet confection that we all know and love today as chocolate. Faith in humanity, its ingenuity and our anthropological progress RESTORED. Thank you, chocolate, I think we all needed that!
Long before the word ganache pertained to the beautiful marriage of chocolate and cream (which occured in 19th century France), it was used in French to mean “cushion.” I love this sensorial imagery; it gives me a delightful way to envision ganache – a soft and pillowy “cushion” for my taste buds.
Ganache can be infused with flavors, cooled and then whipped, poured on top of sweets and stuffed into treats. It is simple and versatile. And the skills to make a proper ganache are essential for every chef, home cook and chocolate fanatic.
1. Weigh your chocolate and cream in the ratio that appropriately suits your dessert ( see infographic above: a. for drizzling over a cake, eclair or ice cream, b. for frosting a cake, filling a pastry or for daintily licking off of a spoon, & c. for shaping and placing in molds.)
2. Roughly chop chocolate and place in a heat proof bowl (a metal bowl works best.)
3. In a small or medium sized sauce pan, heat the heavy cream on medium-high heat. As soon as the first bubble pops through the surface, carefully pour the hot cream over the chocolate.
4. Allow the cream to sit for 2 minutes, then briskly whisk until all of the chocolate has melted. (Note: if you are making a firm ganache - 2:1 ratio chocolate to cream - you may need to place the bowl over a bain marie - hot water bath - and stir until completely melted.)
Et voila! You have ganache.
NOW, some things to keep in mind:
a. if time permits, allow the ganache to cool at room temperature over night - called maturing - to allow all of the super science stuff to work (after all, ganache is a super rad science experiment involving suspension, cocoa butter droplets, emulsion, complex fat globules and solid particles of yumminess.)
b. do NOT under any circumstance, allow the ganache to come into contact with water. It will seize up and be ruined. period.
c. the higher quality the chocolate, the higher quality the ganache.
d. to make a shinier and richer ganache, add a dollop of salted or unsalted butter at the very end of whisking.
e. to infuse a ganache, you can either infuse a flavor (like a cinnamon stick) into the cream before pouring it over the chocolate. Or, you can slowly whisk a liquid (like reduced blood orange juice or pomegranate molasses) a teaspoon at a time until fully incorporated.
f. to really impress your friends, cool the ganache overnight and then whisk in a stand mixer for several minutes. Now that is a pillow for your taste buds!
g. you can save extra ganache (or you can pipe it straight in your mouth) in the fridge for a couple of weeks or in the freezer. If you allow it to mature (see a. above) it should reheat easily over a bain marie with vigorous whisking.