Life Style

The nuances of mastering chocolate

Everyone from seven to 70 loves chocolate. But do you ever wonder about the story behind it? A cacao seed passes through exactly 13 different stages before becoming chocolate. Chocolate expert Ahmet Çakır, general demonstration chef at the Elit Chocolate Factory, uses models made of chocolate to illustrate the story of a cacao seed on its journey to becoming chocolate.

His friends call him the “chocolate trainer” because he created a chocolate version of the famous Ottoman-era Osman Hamdi Bey painting, “Kaplumbağa Terbiyecisi,” or Tortoise Trainer. “There is no one who is not made happy by chocolate, but it makes everyone the happiest,” Çakır says. In fact, he’s interested in opening an exhibition composed of the pieces he has made out of chocolate, pieces that took him a long time and lots of work and that stun those who see them.

Çakır began working with chocolate in his father’s pastry shop in İstanbul’s Feriköy. After working there for a while, he headed to Belgium for further training. He also visited various famous chocolate factories and stores throughout Europe, attending seminars to try to learn as much as possible. Since 2012, Çakır has been working at the Elit Chocolate Factory. “I head into the kitchen at home too, for my wife and children,” he says, noting that his family is quite pleased with this arrangement. The master chocolate chef, who has one son and one daughter, says: “My daughter comes home and hugs me, calling me her father who smells like chocolate. Right now, both of my kids are students. If they decide they want to do what I do later, they’ll be very lucky, since they’ll have behind them a father who loves to make tableaus and statues out of chocolate.”

A short history of chocolate

It was thanks to the Spanish explorers of the New World that Europe was introduced to cacao in the 1500s. Europeans tried adding all sorts of different flavors to cacao, sweetening it before drinking it. This was when the culture of drinking chocolate began to spread rapidly among Europeans. After 1650, chocolate was used to make rolls and cakes. When the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s rolled around, machines were invented that could crush, grind and even press the cacao seeds, producing cacao powder and oil. The chocolate factories built in Europe and America after this date were what ultimately brought chocolate in a solid form to store windows everywhere, though only after the cacao beans were put through much processing.

Çakır’s chocolate models tell the story of the cacao seeds’ journey

With very few exceptions, cacao trees grow in low, damp tropical areas near the equator. When planted in the right environment, a cacao seed will push up leaves in just a few days.

Young trees flower in their third or fourth years. Every flower on a cacao tree turns into a large seed pod containing some 30-40 cacao seeds. These trees generally reach heights of 12 meters or so, and after their fourth year, produce an annual 60-70 seed pods. A cacao fruit weighs between 200 and 800 grams.

Harvest: The moment a cacao fruit changes color, it is harvested and the pulp is removed from the thin envelope that protects the seeds. The next stages are fermentation and drying.

Fermentation: The matured cacao seeds are mixed. Later, they are placed in wooden boxes that are then covered with leaves and left to ferment. The goal is to keep the sugary essence that surrounds the cacao seeds from disappearing and to prevent the seeds from sending out shoots. It is during this period that the seed darkens and begins to emit its characteristic aroma. During fermentation, the seeds need to be regularly stirred and aired out. The fermentation process lasts around five or six days.

Drying: When fermentation is finished, cacao seeds are traditionally placed on a bed of reeds and left out to dry in the sun. The goal of drying is to keep the seeds from molding and spoiling. During this process, the cacao seeds lose more than half their weight. Before being roasted, cacao seeds have a moisture level of 65 percent. After roasting, this drops to 7 percent.

Roasting: The cacao seeds, which have been cleaned and kept in proper storage conditions, are then roasted in special ovens. The roasting process is critical for developing the taste and aroma of the cacao seeds. During this part of the process, the cacao seeds become softer and darker. After the roasting process, when the seeds’ shells are sorted out, they are sent to the grinding machine.

Grinding: The roasted cacao seeds are put through a grinder made up of special breaking discs and cogs. What emerges from the grinder is a runny, thick liquid that is composed of oil and oily grains. This is called chocolate liquor.

Alkalization: During alkalization, chemicals are added to the chocolate liquor to unify and intensify taste and color. Potassium or sodium carbonate is added during this part of the process in order to control the product’s spreading in water. Alkalization occurs when these elements are added to a pot of chocolate liquor kept at a certain temperature.

Pressing: Cacao oil and cacao powder are separated during pressing. Chocolate liquor is put through a hydraulic press, from which emerges cacao oil and cacao powder. If the cacao produced is to be used in bitter chocolate, it is held in tanks kept at 45-50 C. If it is to be used in milk or white chocolate, it is put through a deodorizing process.

Making powder: After cacao dough is obtained (by putting the cacao liquor through a pressing process), it is then left to cool down, and put through large and small cogs until it is crushed and disintegrates. It is thus made into fine powder.

Mixing: Depending on what kind of chocolate is to be produced, chocolate liquor, cacao powder, cacao oil, finely pressed powdered sugar, milk powder and amounts of lecithin are measured out. These are then placed into large mixers and mixed for around 20-30 minutes, until the dough becomes homogenous. The mixer breaks up sugar crystals, fibrous cacao masses and the solid parts of the milk powder, making the particles in the mixture around 200-250 microns smaller. The product here is like a paste.

Thinning out: The cake-like mix that emerges from the mixer is placed into a five-cylinder machine that brings the particles in the mixture down to 18-20 microns.

Conching: The refined chocolate mix is placed into the conching machine, and then kneaded, beaten and aired out for some 12 hours. This process enriches the chocolate’s taste, while also getting rid of unwanted aromas. After the heavy kneading process, the moisture in this mixture is largely reduced.

Alex Richardson / alex@thelondonpost.co.uk

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