Ebony and Ivory
Chocolate vs. vanilla, to your corners. Here’s my vote in the never-ending duel over dessert.
By Leslie Bilderback 02/01/2011
I’m not a huge fan of chocolate. I mean, it’s good and all, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I am told that chocolate contains a chemical compound with an effect similar to that of caffeine, but I’d still rather have a cup of coffee. I am also aware of its popularity as an aphrodisiac. Reports indicate that chocolate melted on the tongue produces a heart rate more than twice as intense as the heart rate during kissing. On that, I call shenanigans. The only way chocolate could make my heart race is if it were fed to me by George Clooney.
Winter is chocolate season, but our house is under a strict chocolate embargo. On Valentine’s Day, I prefer to waste my money on items with a lower calorie count, like shoes. No good can come from a box of chocolate, unless it is used as a blunt object to thwart attackers.
Of course, it could be that I am simply sick of it. As a pastry chef, I knew that anything chocolate was always going to be the top seller. That’s because chocolate is America’s default flavor. When you are too chicken to try something new, but too weak-willed to forgo dessert altogether, chocolate is the go-to choice.
I prefer vanilla. (No, I am not racist, I am a flavorist.) I find vanilla’s subtle essence more versatile in both sweet and savory cooking. And not to be snooty, but good vanilla takes a more sophisticated palate to appreciate than does chocolate. (Yes, I just called all you chocolate lovers unsophisticated. I guess I am snooty after all. So be it.) Frankly, I am a little miffed that chocolate lovers use vanilla as a synonym for plain and boring. I think chocolate is boring, so there! (And by the way, I would like to state for the record that there is no such disease as chocoholism. First, I have never heard of “chocohol.” Why is it, when a person loves something, it is considered socially acceptable, and even funny, to add “holic” to the end of it? Just because you have no self-control when a Snickers is put in front of you does not mean you are ill. What’s next? Prescription Choc-o-rette gum?)
Chocolate does have a sexy history, which perfectly illustrates Western Civilization’s finders-keepers mentality. The Spanish came upon cocoa trees that had long been flourishing in the tropical forests and islands of the Americas, the beans of which had been used as food and currency for centuries. Moctezuma had amassed a chocolatey fortune by the time Cortés opened his can of whoopass in the 1500s.
It took a lot of really warped thinking to take that bean from currency to candy. Early people discovered (probably on a dare) that cocoa beans on the ground rotting in the sun tasted better than the freshly plucked ones. Fermented, roasted, shelled and ground, the bean paste was mixed with water and spices into a delicious drink called xocolatl. With over 50 percent fat, the paste created a sludgy, lumpy concoction when mixed with water and required copious whisking to emulsify into a frothy drink. This method is still used today throughout Mexico, Central America and Olvera Street. The Spanish recorded the practice in great detail (paying particularly close attention to the solid gold cups and flasks used in the process). The drink’s stimulating quality didn’t go unnoticed either. Cortés noted that one cup kept his soldiers fresh for an entire day. All the better to conquer you with.
It might surprise you to know that xocolatl means “bitter water.” I submit that the Aztecs were trying to outsmart the Spanish through reverse marketing. Need more proof? Their word for gold was teocuitlatl, which means “poop of the gods.” Hard to believe it didn’t work.
Spanish guy: “Is that hot chocolate?”
Aztec dude: “No, it’s bitter water. You wouldn’t like it.”
Spanish guy: “Is that a big pile of gold?”
Aztec dude: “What, this? No. It’s poop. You wouldn’t be interested.”
The original xocolatl recipe included my beloved vanilla, another ingredient previously unknown to, and therefore stolen by, the Spanish. It is the seed pod of a climbing orchid whose white flowers are followed by long green pods that have few redeeming qualities when picked. They must be cured and fermented before they emit the familiar fragrance. The guy who discovered this was no doubt from the same Fear Factor clan as the guy who first tried the rotten cocoa bean.
When cocoa hit Europe, it was a rock star. Dandies in powdered wigs drank cocoa seasoned with fashionable spices, and chocolate shops sprouted like Starbucks. But it was not until the mid-19th century that chocolate was processed into candy. It was the Swiss who combined all previous chocolate technologies into the chocolate we know today. Watches, banks and chocolate. Why bother to commit to anything political when you’ve cornered the market on time, money and deliciousness? You go, Switzerland!
Of course, vanilla was a hit too. The French tried unsuccessfully to propagate vanilla on the islands of Madagascar and neighboring Réunion (formerly Bourbon), but in a stunning turn of fate (probably due to a curse by the God of the Golden Poop), the orchid could only be pollinated by the Mexican varieties of bees and hummingbirds. To make matters worse, the orchid flowers opened for only a short time. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the cunning Frenchies began hand-pollinating, forever guaranteeing vanilla’s high price. There are three vanilla beans on the market: Madagascar beans are used mainly for extract production; Tahitian beans have more aroma than flavor and are widely used for perfumes; Mexican beans are fat, fragrant and flavorful. The extract from Mexico is the best, but it is hard to find in America because it sometimes contains the potent anti-coagulant Coumarin, which is banned here. (Stupid bleeders ruin everything!)
Look for vanilla beans that are thick and tough but pliable. They should be pounded gently to crush the millions of inner seeds and activate the oils before splitting them lengthwise. Once scraped, spent pods can be stored in sugar to harness as much of the oil as possible. Most people use vanilla in extract form, which is made by macerating the beans in alcohol. I like to do this myself with spent pods and rum. Vanilla is also available in a paste, which is concentrated extract with added seeds; a powder, which is made from ground-up dried pods; and an imitation extract, which is crap.
Choosing chocolate is more complicated. (Another mark against it). Proper chocolate is made with cocoa solids, additional cocoa butter, milk (for milk chocolate), sugar (in varying degrees to create sweet, semi-sweet, bittersweet, etc.) and vanilla. (Yep, you need vanilla to make chocolate, which further validates my preference. You don’t need chocolate to make vanilla, do you? Ha!) Each confection is available with varying proportions of cocoa, which, along with bean variety, country of origin and roasting method, all determine the chocolate’s flavor. And yes, white chocolate is not technically chocolate, because it does not contain any cocoa solids, just cocoa butter, milk, sugar and (ahem) vanilla.
Most people enjoy chocolate as a sweet treat in dishes that shamelessly tempt your weakness for misbehaving with names like “decadence this” or “that indulgence.” (I prefer giving my dishes names that are descriptive rather than rebellious.) But chocolate has its place on the savory side of the kitchen too, most famously in Oaxacan Mole, the rich, smoky, spicy sauce traditionally served over wild game birds. Clever modern chefs use unsweetened chocolate to intensify bitterness in rich stews and braises; sweet chocolate adds richness and balances acid.
Vanilla’s exquisite essence, while clearly benefiting all things sweet, also favors seafood, game meats, pork and root vegetables. Toss a bean with your roasted new potatoes, or use it with citrus zest, bay and butter as a dip for shellfish. I guarantee it will entice you over from the dark side.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker and chef, a cookbook author and lead pastry instructor at École de Cuisine in Pasadena. A South Pasadena resident, Bilderback teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.