Monday, February 28, 2011

The Hot Cocoa Belt Around the World

And again on this day there is snow!  The banks of black snow and ice have again been dusted over, made magical by a respectable layer of flakes. Puddles, which had begun to form during the three days of dryness and relative warmth, are again made crystalline, where they formed in walkways and thorough fares through out Manhattan and the suburbs of North Bergen, New Jersey.

A Parisian chocolate is on the list to try tonight, when lights from the George Washington Bridge will shine, creating the sort of romantic landscape and ambience one might find in a café on the banks of the River Seine near Paris in France.  But here in America, I am looking to the waters of the Hudson, towards the Atlantic and dreaming across the pond, of chocolate … Ah, the chocolate!

On these shores, on this day, chocolate is the stuff of romantic musings and moments of comfort. While on yet other shores of the other side of the grand Atlantic pond, cocoa and the business of cocoa beans conjures up thoughts of political volatility, civil unrest and human exploitation.  


Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, the essential part of chocolate and most chocolate products. Its geographic neighbor, Ghana, which ranks second, leads in Europe for its cocoa which is prized for its quality. This means that the aggregate swath of West African soil, according to internet sources, grows the majority of the world's cocoa, according to internet sources at .

Not a new phenomenon, the same internet sources report, Africa is expected to remain the world's leading cocoa producing area into the next decade. With cocoa bean production in the Ivory Coast, expected to show growth of 2.3 percent a year from 1.2 million tonnes to 1.6 million tones, once at this level, production will account for approximately 44 percent of global cocoa.

The industry in West Africa imports cocoa and cocoa beans out of the continent, for manufacture and packaging in other countries, fuels governments and their military.

At lest they did until recently when, much like in Egypt, the incumbent failed to vacate the office following his defeat in democratic elections held last November.  Mr. Laurent Gbagbo lead an unsuccessful bid for reelection, yet remains in power.  In an effort to provoke his ouster, Alassan Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the November presidential elections, imposed a ban on Jan. 23 initiated to force Mr. Gbagbo out of the post by undermining funding from the export Mr. Gbagbo utilizes to pay his servants and supporters in the military.

Driven by unrest in the region, the commodity has gained 25 percent since late November and continued to climb since the boycott began. Bloomberg sources report the commodity has reached prices, per metric ton comparable only to levels seen in 1979. At date, cocoa beans had reached pricing upwards of USD $3,586 a metric ton.

More to come…

(c) 2011 Valerie Williams-Sanchez

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hot, Hot Cocoa, Everywhere!

It's been a sinfully sweet few weeks and months through which I have sipped, dipped and slurped. It seems hot chocolate is even more plentiful than I had first imagined, with iterations that are limited only by those doing the pouring. In private places and commercial spots, too, chocolate has been abundant.

When I'd headed out of JFK airport for my recent trip to California, a kiosk featuring Illy Italian Coffee products offered the special of the day, a "Zebra" Hot Chocolate that was concocted with milk and white chocolate hot cocoa, while a "Morocchio," hot chocolate with a shot of espresso and whipped cream, rounded out the menu.

Heading to the warmth, I thought the chocolate would pause, but even out and about in the Southern California sunshine, the warmth didn't stop the ubiquitous beverage, or me from indulging my sweet tooth.

At Jamba Juice, I found hot cocoa took a healthy spin, with soy. I didn't order it as such but found the subtle flavor twist one that kept me guessing what the secret spice could be. At first, I thought the splash of flavor was an unexpected splash of smoothie residue. Turns out, it was soy, and delicious.

Even at the home of Auntie Chrissy, who strangely, does not like chocolate -- how are we related again? -- we were treated to Keurig pods o' hot chocolate brewed barista style, in the signature, high tech and equally high-styled, espresso-press machine. Her cups were brewed with water, rather than milk, and noted a mellow sweetness which, like California itself, was refreshing and light.

Hot chocolate, the result of melted chocolate, and its cousin, hot cocoa, the marriage of cocoa powder and warmed milk or other liquid, are multi-generational crowd-pleasers that everyone from myself to my mother, a retiree, has testified to including on her "beverage of choice" line up. Our cases notwithstanding, it seems golden-agers with dietary restriction look to the chocolaty libation as a delectable treat still to be enjoyed despite lifestyles that increasingly include daily medications, different than over-the-counter drink offers with alcohol. Also, for those with diabetes, sugar-free hot chocolate, particularily if topped with equally sugarless creams, mallows or other toppings, is the perfect  indulgence.  And for those who don't "do" caffeine, by mandate or choice, variations of hot chocolate can be looked to as alternatives to coffees and often any similarily charged, caffeine-loaded, brewed teas.

It was fun to share a cup of cocoa -- instead of coffee -- during a visit with my mom. During the visit, she, my now 15-year-old little girl and I sat and gabbed, telling each other stories of the latest family what's up, high school gossip download, and community scuttle-butt.

Reminiscent and rich, Mom's hot chocolate of choice was a traditional cup of Swiss Miss made with whole milk, the same blend my daughter spiked, in her cup, with jumbo marshmallows. Old fashioned, and fun, I thought the choices were clearly those indicative of the purests they are. Their choices paired perfectly with conversation that was equally warm and up beat.

Now returned to the Eastern cold, after the visits to my native Southern California last week and its 80 degree weather, it is again flurrying, here, in the North. When will it end? Puxatauwney Phil, the sage groundhog with mystical powers of weather devination, recently promised Spring's arrival would come sooner rather than later. But whenever the season does arrive, it will still be too far off for this sun worshiper's druthers.

Meanwhile, and true to my goal at the start of the season, I am meeting Mother Nature's coldest and snowiest with chocolate. Today, thinking back and conjuring up the warmth of the people and places of a few weeks ago, I opted for a chocolate on chocolate, "triple chocolate suicide." That equals hot chocolate topped with chocolate whipped cream and sprinkled with chocolate shavings. Perhaps less creative than cups crafted on previous days, I took the less (ingredients) is more approach on this one. You'll feel like a kid again, slip-slurping the decadent, nearly saccharin-sweet delight.

Make the moment complete, and indulge your inner child. Consider this idea for a blistery northern winter day like today, or even a comfy Cali night. Curl up with a cups cocoa for yourself, others and kids. Then read a story to a child. If you don't have a favorite story of your own, consider one of these. With just a few cups and a book, you can create a new memory of life at its very sweetest.
  • "Good Night Moon", by Margaret Wise Brown;
  • "Glad Monster, Sad Monster", by Anne Miranda;
  • "Young Cornrows Callin' Out the Moon", by Ruth Forman;
  • "My Skin Is Brown", by Paula DeJoie; 
  • "The Snow Day", by Ezra Jack Keats;
  • "The Very Hungry Caterpillar", by Eric Carl; and
  • "95 Kilos of Hope", by Anna Gavalda.
Which book title would you add to this list?


(c) 2011 Valerie Williams-Sanchez

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nuts! Hot Chocolate

There is nothing you cannot do with hot chocolate.

And a Few Peanuts...
With my coat, scarf and gloves on, a few nights ago, I set out the door, destined for Karby's Sweet Treats, in New Jersey.  Trying to call to get shop hours, I learned that the phone number had been changed. Undeterred, I hit my favorite search engine to find an alternative purveyor of the chocolaty stuff. Those that came up were either closed or too far away to make the drive before closing hours. Hmm, what to do? Make my own!
So, into the kitchen I strolled, pondering, searching my taste buds for the taste I was after. Gazing into the refrigerator, recalling my experience at Dylan's Candy Bar, I spied the jars, jars of peanut butter and jelly.
As easy as that, the menu del dia was chosen.
Into a mug of room temperature water, I unceremoniously dumped a heaping tablespoon of chunky peanut butter, and then placed it into the microwave for a couple of minutes. Down and dirty, quick and easy, whipping up this chocolaty brew, I decided against any hoity-toity, liqueur silliness.
"Beep-beep," the microwave sounded. I pulled out the mug and began to stir. Slowly, the butter melted. Into the mixture I added chocolate and another heaping tablespoon, this time of organic apricot preserves and again, I stirred. Then, warm from stirring the cocoa, my spoon cut into fresh-from-the-ice-box cold, cinnamon whipped cream, and piled a Matterhorn-sized scoop of the white stuff atop the creation. Perfection!
Flopping onto the sofa, I slurped down the frothy delight made slightly crunchy, slightly salty, with bits of peanut. Glug, glug, glug, down it went, smooth. Gone in just a few silky swigs, it was as comforting as a grade-school, lunch box, peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Or Even Hazelnuts...
After going comando with the PB& J, yet another blistery cold night has me seeking solace, the solace of a warm beverage.  It's a weekend, so I'm feeling a bit festive. Heading to the pantry, this time the DiSaronno provided the twist that made an otherwise humdrum mug of cocoa worth mention. So subtle a twist, the hazelnut essence melted away like just another sweetener, an equal or Splenda, or teaspoon of sugar. But, was different. No medicine taste there at all, this one, with a modest spritz of chocolate whipped cream in a teacup, was simply delightful.

But those with Almonds...
Nights ago it was peanut butter, yesterday there were hazelnuts and tonight, again, nuttiness was the flavor du jour. This time though, I decide to try out the nuttiness of a TAZA Chocolate product. Chocolate Mexicano, the stone ground & organic discs are chopped or grated, and folded into milk. Opting for the salted almond flavor, my expectations were high for an authentically crafted product.
Sadly, though the discs disappointed this choco-addict.
Mild and slight, the flavor lacked the intensity for which I had hoped and experienced in other traditionally produced products. TAZA's chocolate tablets also lacked creaminess and didn't blend well. Rather that velvet heaven, my blade chopped through a dark brown puck that produced a powdery pile that caked its residue on the surface of the milk in my cup.
Following the adage, "when all else fails, follow the directions," I went on line as suggested, hoping to find cues for some corrective action. I musta done something wrong, right? No remedy was to be found and by all accounts I had prepared it as recommended.
My only mistake, it seemed, ultimately, was in purchasing the product.
Oh nuts!

(c) 2011 Valerie Williams-Sanchez

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Two Kinds of Hot, Cocoa: Caliente Y Picante!

This vignette's brief. But, it perfectly suits my mood, today – hot 'n spicy!
All the snow, rain and ice are getting to this Cali girl. So, I've decided to warm things up and to get creative over a cup of cocoa.

Still here in the eastern side of the continent, I'm dreaming of warmer climes, like the beaches of the Yucatan, or Veracruz and Mexico's Eastern shores, where I have found inspiration. Like the stacking platforms of the Mexican pyramid of Chichen Itza, this latest cup of cocoa is hot on multiple levels.

I've added to a milk chocolate for hot cocoa base, a healthy dose of Kahlua and, get this, hot sauce. Yep, you read correctly, hot sauce. My measurements are far from exact, less about science and more to taste. And wonderfully, the organically measured dose of habanero pepper sauce has added a warm dimension and subtle heat to a traditional flavor. The hot sauce, with its tongue-tingling savory heat, is the perfect punctuation to the Kahlua's mellow sweetness and slightly bitter, coffee-enhanced zing.

Further, and tipping the cup's flavor scale back toward sweet, I've dropped a generous dollop of cinnamon whipped cream to bring the beverage into balance. Cinnamon sticks, and a coffee bean provide a lovely garnish and visual finish.

Mind you, I do not recommended blending hot sauce with white chocolate cocoas, as the sweetness produced, I found, a collision of flavor that lacked the saturated and harmonious heat, a milk or even dark chocolate blend created.

El Yucateca brand red pepper sauce is my current flavor of choice -- it impressed me when it was spritzed over my New Year's Day, eaten-for-good luck, black-eyed peas -- though any other brand like Tabasco, Tapatio, Red Rooster, etc., would probably do as well.  El Yucateca, though, made with habanero peppers, packs a wallop that the aforementioned brands, made with chili peppers, can't match.

Also worth note, bypass mocha flavored chocolates too if you're hitting the "Kahlua con spicy." Paired with strong insinuations of coffee brought on by the Kahlua, mocha chocolate overpowered the heat of the pepper sauce.

This one was memorable, and touched on most all of the six types of taste: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, unami and, of course, spicy. Also surprisingly robust, the flavor melange left an aftertaste that was equally complex and haunting, like the winding feathered serpent shadows cast by the main pyramid in Chichen Itza, a Mayan architectural treasure.

(c) 2011 Valerie Williams-Sanchez

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hot Cocoa Ganache Online

My love of chocolate is obvious. It is a relationship that, like the substance and even love itself, is sweet, warm, comforting, and at times magical and seductively, intoxicating surprising.

Anticipating another dateless Valentine's Day, on a recent Wintry night, I decided to be my own secret admirer. Comfortably curled up on the sofa under my Snuggie, I pampered myself with a new a mug and a new flavor creation: Chambord spiked Raspberry Hot Chocolate, finished with a flourish – hand whipped, stiff peaks of fresh raspberry crème, made with heavy whipping cream, pureed raspberries, and brown sugar!  With, of course, a raspberry on top, added for good measure.

Rich, chocolate with the lovely ribbon of fruity sweetness was a surprising twist that took the flavor above and beyond my everyday. Savoring each drop through to its sweet finish, the drink felt cozy yet luxurious and languid like the blanket under which I lay in repose, a modern, brown-skinned version of Goya's "La Maja Vestida."

The set-up, with the rich treat, was the perfect way to unwind from a long work week, during which no less than two snow storms dumped about 15 inches of the white stuff, sending fleets of snow plows into the streets, burying my car more than once.

Plowed and covered in snow, armed with my red shovel, I had dug my car out each time.

That's why the notion of relaxing, being still, warm and dry, was the one and only place I could see myself or wanted to be on this night. Other Fridays could have found me in New York City, perhaps dining with friends, or just being out on the town, meeting new, fabulous people, entertaining the prospects of finding love. But recent attempts to "get back out there," as my mother would often prod, had fallen flat for the most part.

Sipping a second round of warm chocolate from a white glazed, ceramic mug with a thick red rim, I recalled a few ghosts of dating meet-ups past which had included introductions arranged through friends, family and work associates. But one particular incident stood out in my mind as I nursed my beverage. It happened some three years ago on my one and only foray into the strange and anonymous universe of online dating.

The notion of online dating had never really appealed to me. In my mind, the whole endeavor seemed sort of sordid, and smacked of the party telephone lines made popular in the 80's. Online dating sites were, for me, too similar to the conference call rooms in which random strangers, loitered and stalked for hook-ups with others who were equally desperate.  Back then, the interactions seemed so pitiful, aimless and impersonal.

I had seen and heard my high school friends make such calls. A few had become hooked on the "technology" and would gather with other girl friends at their homes to make the calls. Back then, groups would clamor around a touch tone or finger-dial telephone to make calls from which they would awkwardly switch between multiple phone lines, talking to one person to the next laughing, flirting and generally having fun.

That's what it was all about: teenagers looking to have fun. Girls baited and teased the inevitable creepy old guy or unwitting dolt, who was a bit too excited and forth coming at having more than one hot young thing with whom to indulge in conversation, never mind, and never knowing that each and everyone was woefully underage.

In stark contrast, it was not until recently that the notion of meeting and marrying a real and normal person, a future husband in fact, seemed possible. It was because of my newly and seemingly happily wed, co-worker, had met his new spouse via an online service that helped me overcome my objections, and got me to try the approach while I was still living in Southern California.

And so it was with that hope, and a huge chunk of lingering reticence and reluctance, that I assumed the alias, "Cocoa Ganache" and wadded cautiously out into the World Wide Web. I took my new moniker out for a spin on couple of sites, creating accounts, writing and posting personal profiles in which I included details about my love of chocolate.

Over the next few weeks, I got a few responses from secret and not-so-secret admirers.  A babe in the woods, I posted my information on one site which turned out to be nothing more than an internet hotline for those looking for spontaneous sexual encounters. Subscribers to these sites were quite frank about their intentions.

One respondent in particular wasted no time and had no compunctions about telling me in very, very graphic language of his interests and intentions. After a few truncated pleasantries and an introduction of himself as a Northern European professional and ex-pat, living in the U.S., this fellow followed up by asking with undue excitement whether "Cocoa Ganache" was my porn name. Cause if I were into that, he said, it'd be very hot. Whatever Cocoa Ganache was, though, he said, he was willing to try. When informed it was simply a nod to my passion for cooking and chocolate – I was especially fond of high-end truffles at the time -- he was undeterred. Unabashedly, he suggested we meet for an impromptu rendezvous during which he intended to show me some tricks with his spatula.

His notes were written in stilted commercial English probably learned abroad and that no doubt mimicked a similar accent his speaking voice might have. When I explained that I would prefer to be treated as a lady, he asked bluntly, in decidedly more explicit language, "Do you want to [do it] or not?"

The liaison was short lived, very short lived. But it wasn't the only. Cocoa Ganache also attracted other, similarly bold courtesans, if they could be called such. Another of the more brazen in the bunch was a beautiful, young Asian man with rippling pectorals, rolling abs and spiky, black hair that partially masked his face as featured in his profile, and on online pictorial. From one frame to the next, he showed his true self as an exhibitionist.

With an apparent need to bear his soul – and everything else, in a close up no less – he posted a series of three pictures of himself standing in front of a bed in a bedroom. Upon opening the second file, in which he was nude, the angle and of the closely shot image had the effect of someone hurling a Frisbee almost without warning at my head.  I ducked for cover from the picture that seemed to extend out, almost in 3D.

"Whoa!" I yelped dodging the surprise visual. I then burst in to laughter, realizing what I had seen, amused by my naïve, knee-jerk reaction. Flush and flustered, I felt like a schoolgirl, as I quickly closed the web page and logged off of the site not wanting to linger. Unsolicited and caught completely off guard, I never went back to either of those guys; neither did I go back to the sites, figuring it all to be too much for my maturing sensibilities which prefer old-fashioned courtship and in-person contact and connection. "I'm too old for this," I thought to myself with light-hearted resignation.

I still laugh at the realization of how silly the entire experience was, even more so when I recall myself hunched down in front of the computer screen, nearly hitting the deck, belly first to avoid a picture! And I can't help but giggle at myself and how absurdly seriously I can see the world at times.

On this night then, happily sipping my sweet treat, I was reminded to not take myself nor many of the things in my life so seriously. And even though these days I prefer to keep my "Cocoa Ganache," offline, as I looked down into my mug, I contemplated whether it was half empty or full and was assured that  my life is quite full.

(c) 2011 Valerie Williams-Sanchez