Recapping the Basics of Chocolate Tasting With the Owners of Zak's Chocolate in Scottsdale

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Zak’s Chocolate knows how to put on a good chocolate talk.

John Q. Tullius is famous for saying, “Nine out of 10 people like chocolate. The 10th person always lies.”

This line of thinking is part of what was behind a virtual chocolate-tasting workshop put on last month by Maureen and Jim Elitzak, owners of Scottsdale bean-to-bar chocolate shop Zak’s Chocolate, in conjunction with Les Dames d’Escoffier.

It was called "Talks with Desert Dames, an Informative Chocolate Tasting." Viewers received a bag for the event with a number of chocolate items. The instruction card inside read: "Store chocolates at 55 to 73 degrees. A wine fridge is OK. The regular fridge is not. Chocolate absorbs other aromas."

Once the word chocolate enters your brain, it's all anticipation of the sweet nuances. But you have lessons to learn first. The first is ethics.

What started as Maureen’s hobby now produces award-winning chocolates. The Elitzaks are big on the ethics of chocolate beans, which they source from Central and South America (Belize, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru), Papua New Guinea, the Caribbean (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Madagascar.

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Chocs come from Nerf football-shaped fruits that grow on cacao trees.
Zak's Chocolate
Chocolate comes from the seeds or beans of cacao pods, foot-long, Nerf football-shaped fruits that grow on cacao trees. Each pod contains about 30 to 40 beans. One bean makes a half-inch piece of chocolate, and one pod makes one Zak's bar. Harvesting the pods and processing them into the beans is done manually by the farmers. Historically, the low-paid farmers who could hardly support their families used their children as free labor on the farm. Some children are even abducted and used as labor. Thus, it's good to buy fair-trade stuff. Buying fair trade means kids can attend school.

If you break open a pod during harvest, you’ll see a white pulp with seeds, the taste of which has been described as candy- or citrus-like. The farmers break each pod open, gather what's inside, and ferment it for a week to develop flavor. During this time the color changes from white to brown as the pulp liquefies and drains away. The seeds are then spread in single layers to dry by air. The farmers remove the rejected beans and bag what's left for sale.

The chocolatiers roast the beans to develop more flavor. An almond-shaped roasted bean is the first item in the tasting. Break the husk and small pieces, cacao nibs, come tumbling out. They actually taste like chocolate. Slow-grinding the nibs turns them into liquid, decreases the acidity, and enhances the flavor. Sugar and cocoa butter are added during this process. Next is tempering (increasing the temperature to a certain number, then decreasing it by a few degrees. The numbers vary by chocolate type). Tempering gives the chocolate the shine and snap you feel in bars and bonbons.

Next, Jim discusses the percentages listed on the bars and bags.

The percentages indicate the amounts of cocoa solids to sugar. An 87 percent has that amount of solids (cocoa) and 13 percent organic cane sugar. The solids include cocoa butter with beans for dark chocolate, only cocoa butter for white chocolate. Their 100 percent chocolate has no added sugar. You may expect a bitter assault on your tongue, yet the first word that comes to mind is creamy. This is the art of a good chocolatier.

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Your tasting kit.
Kim Haasarud
It may feel intimidating to trust the tastebuds to get all the flavors, but chocolate sommeliers say there is no wrong way to taste chocolate. You taste and smell the memories of foods you grew up with. Just let the chocolate come to room temperature and be present.

Chocolate tasting employs multiple senses: The eyes look at the color, the ears listen for the loudness of the snap, the nose finds the aromas, and then the mouth does its thing. Take a bite to break the piece in your mouth, then let it melt between your tongue and palate, and be open to discovery.

Next up are the bars.

The Sonoran Desert white chocolate is a must-try, its flavor a testament to the importance of using excellent ingredients. Made from only three ingredients (cocoa butter, made in-house; whole milk powder; and organic cane sugar) it is melt-in-your-mouth velvety, caramel sweetness, a chocolate lover’s dream. The color isn't pure white because natural cocoa butter is ivory and "when we press our cocoa butter, we do not filter out the small amounts of cocoa solids that are pressed out along with the butter," says Jim. This tints the color but makes their white chocolate richer.

Finally comes the bonbon box.

Chocolates, in different shapes and patterns, beckon from inside a golden box. This is where Maureen gets creative with the outside patterns and inside filling (ganache). She designs the outside using transfer sheets. For the fillings, she uses earl grey lavender, yuzu lemongrass, toasted coconut, blackberry cardamom, honey, prickly pear, and for the adventurous, strawberry “balsamic.” Balsamic in quotes is actually black garlic. No, there is no garlicky flavor present. Cut it in half and smell. Tamarind, balsamic aroma rises up. Take a bite and let it melt on your tongue. The shell quietly supports the center, which hails creamy, bitter-sweet, tart, ending on a fruity note. Barrel cactus seeds add texture.

Be on the lookout for future events at Les Dames d'Escoffier and Zak's. Or order Zak's chocolates now here. Give it all a try if you can. After all, practice makes perfect.