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Taste of the Month: For the Love of Chocolate

by on February 01, 2018 9:16 AM

Fall in love – with chocolates – this Valentine's Day. Perhaps it is the chocolates' sweet and creamy indulgence that makes them such a guilty pleasure, or the chemical reaction that occurs with the release of serotonin in the brain that makes people feel happy. Whatever the case may be, the National Retail Federation projects U.S. consumers will spend a total of $18.2 billion on Valentine's Day this year, and 94 percent of people reportedly want to receive candy and chocolate.

Dating back to 1900 BC, chocolate originated in Mesoamerica where it was served as a bitter, frothy liquid, mixed with spices and believed to have aphrodisiac effects. This beverage was made from cacao beans that are allowed to ferment and were so prized that they were once used as a form of currency by the Aztecs. In the 16th century, after its arrival in Europe, sugar was added to the mixture and it quickly grew in popularity.

Today, the majority of the world's cacao beans come from West Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia. The process of making chocolate involves fermentation, drying, roasting, and hulling the shells to reveal the cocoa nibs. The blending and grinding of the nibs produces the various flavors and releases the cocoa butter. Heat generated from the grinding process mixes the cocoa butter with the finely ground nibs to form the chocolate liquor, a non-alcoholic mixture not to be confused with chocolate-flavored liqueur.

The varying percentages of chocolate liquor combined with cocoa butter and other ingredients results in the different forms of chocolate. As a rule, the higher the percentage, the more intense the chocolate flavor. Unsweetened is simply the cooled and hardened chocolate liquor. Semi-sweet is chocolate liquor and cocoa butter with added sugar. Milk is chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla. Dark is cocoa butter mixed with a higher concentration of chocolate liquor that gives it a more pronounced cocoa flavor. In contrast, white chocolate doesn't contain chocolate liquor, and is made with just cocoa butter, milk, and sugar. Other flavors and ingredients such as mint, coffee, caramel, fruit, and nuts are added to chocolate to create delicious confections that satisfy every sweet tooth.

Chocolatier Leopold Schreiber of Chocolates by Leopold satisfies every chocolate lover's palate with specialties such as Buttercrunch, Cherry Cordials, and Mint Delights. He uses fourth-generation German chocolate recipes and techniques that he learned at the age of 12 from a candy store owner. In 1994, Schreiber opened his first chocolate factory and store in Binghamton, New York. In 2005, he moved his factory and store to Montrose, Pennsylvania. Today, Chocolates by Leopold has two other retail stores, in Boalsburg, and in Johnson City, New York.

For their Buttercrunch candy, a century-old German butter toffee, the raw almonds are roasted in butter to give them an intense flavor, and the center is hand dipped in chocolate and rolled in crushed almonds. For Valentine's Day, Leo has created a special Cinnamon Nonpareil.

Another Pennsylvania chocolatier is James "Pike" Gardner, who was 16 years old when he started selling chocolates out of a small store in Tyrone in 1897. Later, with a horse-drawn wagon, he transported and sold candy, popcorn, and peanuts at local fairs and carnivals. The Sarris family of Canonsburg purchased Gardners Candies in 1997, and it is still very much a family-run business.

Today, Gardners Candies has 10 retail stores in Pennsylvania and is famous for the Original Peanut Butter Meltaway, a creamy, smooth peanut butter dipped in rich chocolate. A heart-shaped box filled with these confections is sure to melt anyone's sweetheart.

Chocolate actually has many health benefits when it comes to pure, dark chocolate. It is packed with antioxidants called flavonoids, which help reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and improve blood flow to the heart as well as the brain. Armed with this knowledge, show your special someone you care with a guilt-free assortment of local milk and dark chocolates.

For more information and to view the full line of chocolate confections from Chocolates by Leopold, visit chocolatesbyleopold.net, and for Gardners Candies, visit gardnerscandies.com.

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