In response to several curious questions from our readers about chocolate making, we found an expert to inspire us, help us all understand the process a little better, and hopefully launch the brave among us on our own chocolate-making journeys. Meet Zohara Mapes Bediz, chocolate maker and research and development whiz at TCHO, in Berkeley, California. Don’t be confused by this chocolate company’s name—it’s just the phonetic spelling of the first syllable in “chocolate” (and we all know how to say chocolate). Read on for Zohara’s chocolate tales and tips, from truffles to TCHO and the exotic locales in between.
Chocolate Is a Magical Substance with a Fascinating History
Early in her adult life, Zohara began making (and eating) truffles to decompress and revive herself after long days of staring at a computer screen as a fine arts digital imager. Zohara began sharing her truffles with friends and family, who encouraged her to share them with the world. It wasn’t long before chocolate making whetted her palate and she launched a confection company, selling her goods at farmers markets in the Bay Area. Zohara explains, “Chocolate is this magical substance with a fascinating history, just thinking about it can make people smile—it connects sustainability, agroforestry, global commodities, and rainforest preservation. It just kind of took me.”
Zohara Heads to the Mayan Jungle
In 2002, Zohara began studying chocolate in-depth and took her first trip “to origin”. She visited Belize, where cacao beans, native to the Americas, are grown. Working in a very remote area, which she describes as “a Mayan jungle,” Zohara learned about the local farming and harvesting practices. A few years later, she visited an organic cacao farm in Costa Rica, with fellow chocolate makers Steve De Vries and Frederick Schilling, where she learned more about the fermenting and drying processes. There, she began to understand the cacao bean’s subtle flavor variations and dove deeper into her passion.
Zohara enjoyed running her own confection company but when she got the opportunity in 2007 to help launch TCHO, she couldn’t pass it up. The chance to have a greater impact was too enticing.
Making Chocolate Means Tasting Chocolate. A Lot.
All of the chocolate at TCHO is made by taste, which means Zohara and Brad Kintzer, the chief chocolate maker, taste chocolate throughout the process and decide exactly when it’s ready to be devoured. This may sound like the best job ever but Zohara notes that a lot of what she tastes is cocoa liquor—unsweetened, roasted, and ground cacao beans. Tasting chocolate at this stage in the process allows chocolate makers to experience the full flavor range and discern whether any defects are present. I asked Zohara if she ever tires of eating chocolate. She tells me, “Obviously I really love chocolate so I feel honored and privileged to be able to make it. But the amount of chocolate I have to put through my system on a daily basis is very high.” Like a winemaker, she does spit a lot of it out.
The Flavor Labs of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean
Zohara explains that, while chocolate is primarily a commodity product, during the past 15-to-20 years the specialty chocolate market has grown significantly. As part of this growing trend, she says that TCHO, “really focuses on the flavor and quality of the beans by working closely with the growers, because if you have great quality beans, you’re going to make a much higher-quality product.”
In fact, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and in partnership with Equal Exchange, TCHO has built and installed seven “flavor labs” in Ecuador, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. Through a second USAID-funded program, TCHO recently installed two flavor labs in Ghana and trained farmers on best practices for cacao growing, processing, and tasting. Through this program, called TCHOSource, farmers (experts in growing cacao, but not in making chocolate) are educated about how farming, harvesting, fermenting, and drying methods impact chocolate quality and flavor. In turn, the farmers provide TCHO and the chocolate industry at large with data about their growing conditions and farming techniques.
Make Chocolate in a Better Way to Make a Better World
Zohara is proud of TCHO’s efforts to create more economic opportunity for its partner farmers while simultaneously improving the quality of available chocolate. She explains that one of TCHO’s goals is to “make chocolate in a better way and make a better world for us all.” She continues:
The Complex Flavor Journey of Chocolate
Zohara and the team at TCHO are eager for more people to go deeper with chocolate. She wants more people to understand that eating chocolate can be a complex flavor journey. She explains:
Beyond understanding the diverse flavors of chocolate, it’s fun to dive in and get sticky fingers. For you, this may mean roasting and refining your own beans, but for many something simpler might be a great way to begin. Here, we offer a few tips from Zohara for the aspiring chocolatier.
Tips for the Aspiring Chocolatier
- Get to know your origins. Zohara suggests buying several “single-origin” chocolates (made from one variety of cacao beans from a single region) and tasting each one to see how they vary. Try this with friends; each of you could attempt to describe the flavor profile of each chocolate. I asked Zohara if she had a favorite origin. Her answer:Many of the chocolates you find in stores are blends. As you become familiar with the differences between origins, you can begin to combine them to create new blends of your own.I love the flavors of Madagascar. [Madagascan chocolate] has a bright, more acidic flavor. I also like that about Peru because it’s kind of unusual in cacao. When you think of chocolate, it’s usually a deep, rich, fudgy flavor, which you typically get from West African beans. But I love that flavor too, so I don’t want to pick a region.
- Give truffles a try. Before rolling up your sleeves and attempting to make chocolate from scratch by roasting and processing the beans yourself, Zohara suggests starting with something simpler like truffles (see recipe below). She explains, “There’s a really interesting opportunity with more chocolates on the market. You can work with fine chocolates and get totally unique flavor profiles, and then you can pair them with different fresh ingredients.”
- Consult the experts. Zohara recommends consulting trusted sources like the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, which can be a helpful resource even for non-industry chocolatiers, and Ecole Chocolat, which offers in-depth online classes. She also recommends five books:
– Raising the Bar by Pam William and Jim Eber, which describes the “bean-to-bar” movement;
– Chocolate and Confections by Peter P. Greweling, a more technical book about confections;
– Seriously Bittersweet and Bittersweet by Alice Medrich; and
– The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel E. Presilla.
- Set a high bar by making your own chocolate. For those who are committed to trying the entire chocolate-making process at home, Zohara notes that Chocolate Alchemy and The Chocolate Life websites are popular resources among home chocolate makers. They offer guidance on buying equipment or completing the process with tools you likely already have at home. She advises that those who want to roast beans at home, but don’t want to invest heavily in equipment, use rudimentary tools and processes. For example, she suggests cracking open the cacao bean shell by hand and grinding it with a mortar and pestle with sugar. “It would not be a refined sort of experience, but it would give you an opportunity to work with the beans,” she says. Apparently, some juicers can also be used to grind beans. Making higher quality chocolate at home will require a bit of an investment because you’ll need some equipment such as a stone grinder, which costs approximately $500. Check out Cocoa Town, a company that adapted the Indian wet grinder to work for chocolate making. Another tool Zohara likes is the Crankandstein, which is used to crack the cacao beans after roasting and before winnowing (described below), to remove the cacao shells.
- Water is not your friend. “If you get water in your chocolate, it’s going to totally mess it up unless you’re making a ganache (a smooth emulsion formed by mixing melted chocolate and heavy cream together) for truffles where you’ll have a higher percentage of liquid,” Zohara warns. For example, she says, “Sometimes people add vanilla. I would add pure ground vanilla or vanilla beans, but not a vanilla extract because you don’t want to add any water content when making chocolate bars.”
Hopefully these tips provide some helpful guidance as you contemplate the best way to dip your fingers into chocolate making. In the meantime, you might want to familiarize yourself with the chocolate-making process we’ve outlined below.
- Source harvested, fermented, and dried beans from a trusted source.
- Roast the beans to develop their flavor and help them crack more easily.
- Crack the beans to break the shell.
- Winnow the cracked beans to separate the shell from the nib by hand or with a stream of air.
- Grind and refine the nibs to make cocoa liquor or cocoa mass. This is often done with a melangeur, a grinding machine with rollers that continuously refine the chocolate liquor, sugar, and other ingredients to get the right texture and flavor, reducing the nibs and sugar to a smooth paste.
- Conch to develop and round out the flavor profile of a chocolate by aerating and blowing off some of the volatile aromatic compounds.
- Temper through a delicate process that includes raising the temperature of the chocolate to about 110° F (and not above 120° F), cooling it to 82°-85° F, and raising it again to 87°-91° F to form the right crystallization pattern. The temperatures vary a little depending on the chocolate type. The tempering process is designed to ensure that the final product is smooth, stable, and not crumbly or soft. You can temper by hand for small batches, but some professional chocolatiers use tempering machines, which send the chocolate through a specific series of temperatures.
- Pour the tempered chocolate at a temp of 87°-91° F into a mold and let it cool with a fan or in a cool room that’s around 65° F. When the chocolate is hardened and fully cooled, you can remove it from the mold and wrap it up. Or, check out the recipe below to find out what to do if you’re making truffles.
Inspired to give chocolate making a try? We hope so. Here’s a simple truffle recipe from Zohara at TCHO—enjoy making and sharing the bounty. Let us know how it goes.
Author: Mara Rose
Editor: Maggie Wells
Photo: TCHO & Shutterstock