Chocolate Done Right

From Co-Operative Food UK
Where does your chocolate come from?

For my grandmother, buying chocolate was Ritual.  While she no longer wore a best hat or wore gloves, it was easy to imagine her slipping them on as she prepared for an outing to buy chocolate.

Les Marais Chocolates, Santa Monica, CA
It was part of hospitality, and I felt so very grown up when I was lucky enough to be at her house when she was going out to perform this feat.  We drove in the car to the original Mrs. Cavanaugh's, since my grandmother had known her personally back in the day.  Inside, I would smell the chilled air and laugh about the picture on the wall of a chocolate moose while we waited.  Then the choosing began...who was coming?  What were their dislikes?  Allergies?  My grandmother hovered over the glass case like a nervous bird, picking each chocolate individually.  Woe befall me then if I tried to interject!  These were for the adults, to be arranged carefully on a plate or in a dish, even if no one touched them.

Such attitudes have mostly fallen by the wayside, which makes sense when most chocolates are mass-produced, and sold in preselected mixes at the grocery store.  This is not the way is should be, though, and American chocolate in particular has suffered for it.  Hershey's is waxy.   Most candy-bars more candy coating then cocoa.  Chocolate risks become a condiment, with no more thought given then to a bottle of Heinz Ketchup.

In the meantime, our disconnection with where our chocolate comes from risks endangering chocolate all together.  Problems like climate change and deforestation mean that the cost of plants like cacao, peanuts, and coffee grown in Africa are expected to soar in the near future, due to a combination of environmental factors and human rights issues
Chocolate-covered marshmallow from Theonista

We, as the consumers, rarely can predict the rout that our chocolate (or other exotics like cane sugar or vanilla) took to reach us, but we can do our best on our end to support those who bring chocolate to our tables this Easter season.

Buy from local shops, like  my grandmother did, keeping your money with small local businesses. If you don't know one in your area, try search functions like Yelp to find one.  My favorite while living in Idaho was Florence's, a small mom and pop place.  Don't be afraid to ask questions, either.  The modern American business climate is often hard on small stores, who have trouble competing with large monopolies like WalMart and Costco even on specialty items.  The small local business where you live might not know where it's cocoa comes from either...unless you ask questions.  Chocolate often passes through many hands before it reaches you.

Schurra's Fine Confections
If you can't find a local shop, here is a list of how the large brands stack up in terms of ethical practices, particularly child labor(as well as a list here of smaller, more ethical brands).  While looking for products that claim to be Fair Trade(meaning that the farmers and workers who harvest the crops are given a livable wage), can help, some large brands have recently fallen under criticism for using it without following the requirements.

Today, my family will be checking out a South Bay staple for the first time: Schurra's Fine Confections.  While I'm not putting on a hat and gloves, I will be looking for a small local business that knows it's chocolate--from beginning to end--to buy my candy this Easter.

Update:  I ended up making a holiday out of it and checking out three chocolate shops in South Bay today.  Schurra's, which I listed above, was first.  Classy shop.  Not the most creamy chocolate, but the egg we tried was hand-made and much better then a similar peanut butter-filled item from the grocery store. 

Next, we went down to Los Gatos and checked out the Powell's Sweet Shop(local chain).  This is very much a candy store...every candy you can think of, with a little chocolate counter to round things out.  Not what I was looking for today, but my kids loved it! At the very least, between here and the imports at a store like World Market, we should have Christmas amply covered.  Also got myself a pack of the classic Choward's Violet Mints from the 30's. 

Last was Chocolate Dream Box.  Very, very good.  I would go to Schurra's unless I was in the area, but theirs tasted like the best quality, highest chocolate content, and the individual chocolates in the case were dazzling. 

Great Grandmother's Easter

More beautiful vintage cards can be seen at the Greencastle Museum website. 

Art by Thalia Took
Easter time is a unique blend of  Catholic and Pre-Christian traditions all over Europe.  The name of the holiday itself comes from a Germanic goddess, and variations on the name range from Eostre to Ostara. Linguists theorize a Proto-Indo-European word awes, meaning "to shine", which would explain similarities to Greek and Roman dawn goddesses(Eos and Aurora) as well as the minor Indian goddess Ushas.  Whatever the case, at least in Northern Europe, common themes are flowers, hares (the predecessor of the Easter Bunny), and eggs. This linguistic link does not carry over into cultures that speak Latin-based languages, however, where Easter is called La Pasquette, Paques, or Pascua. 

The date of Easter changes each year(unlike stationary holidays, like Christmas) because it falls on the Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox.  Why this reliance on the lunar calendar?  Because the Council of Nicaea reasoned that Passover, which falls on that new moon, would have come directly before the death of Christ

 So what did our great grandmothers do for Easter?  It depends...while many traditions translate easily to similar American customs, others are very unique. 

There are eggs a-plenty:

Spectacular Swiss Eggs from You Craft Me Up
Romanian Eggs
From Poland

As well as bread and cakes:
Greek Easter Bread, recipe here
Swiss Easter Cake
Hot Cross Buns, a favorite at our house.

In Sweden, little children also dress up as Easter Witches, complete with painted red cheeks and freckles, and go door-to-door for treats, based on a tradition that all the local witches fly over the water to a mountain in Northern Germany the Thursday before Easter for a meeting with the devil (another one of those "huh" moments...some suggest the tradition dates to a rather ugly witch hunt in the 1600's). 

A lovely Victorian Easter Witch
Interested in other strange Easter traditions?  Here's a collection! 

Whether Christian, Pagan, or purely secular, this time of spring is a wonderful time to celebrate new life, and the return of light over darkness.  Happy Easter!

Book Review: 1001 Ways to Please a Husband

I stumbled on this one in a local thrift shop in Idaho, bearing the stamp of the "Cuyahoga County Public Library", and the copyright date 1958.

Apparently, it was a common practice in the first half of the 20th Century to write cookbooks geared specifically towards new brides. Because of this, the book contains basic, useful advice about making good use of the freezer, cooking with cheaper cuts of meat, budgeting and finance advice, and menu planning. Much of this would still be useful today, and I found the freezer section helpful in my ongoing efforts to reduce plastic in my kitchen.

It turns out that Myra Waldo, the author, was well-known at the time for her international cookbooks(even ones on South American and African cuisine), in addition to a successful career as the food consultant for Pan American Airlines.  While I can't find a birth-date for her, the date on the cookbook means that she was definitely at the height of her career, explaining the mix of recipes ranging from new and upcoming(fondue) to classic French, to Victorian foods beginning to disappear(potted meat), in addition to expected 50's fare of biscuit crusts, canned soup casseroles, and various meat-based loaves. All-in-all still healthier then the food served in many modern American homes.

What is even more interesting to me, though, is what her commentary tells the reader about 50's perceptions of a good housewife.  Little fictional diary entries through the book tell the story of the first year of marriage for Peter and Jane, and follow Jane's first efforts at such challenges as cooking on a particularly tight budget and acting as a hostess for girl's luncheons, cocktail parties, and dinners.

This is easily the most fascinating aspect of the book to me. Jane is shallow And officious, convinced of her own irrationality. She gloats when her husband is inept in the kitchen, and seems determined to prove herself better at homemaking then her friends, even occasionally at their expense. Particularly cringe-inducing is her insistence on feeding "exotic" friends dishes from their native lands, as a vehicle to introduce such exotic ideas as pizza and fillet of sole, bonne femme. Thus, the introduction to a Sukiyaki recipe is all about Peach Blossom, the Japanese War Bride who (gasp) speaks perfect English and rushes to obey her spouse's every whim.

A moment of culture shock, indeed. It's easy to forget just how much more acceptance there is now in terms of different ethnicities, interracial marriage, and even something as basic to the "plot" as a woman's ability to run her own life. An excellent reminder that, while the past is fun, I'm fairly sure I wouldn't want to live there...especially when there is still so much room for racism in modern American culture.

Jane, commenting on the meal "her Japanese War Bride" helps prepare;
It was simply delicious, and I don't know where I ever got the idea that Japanese people eat nothing but seaweed soup and raw fish...I had made a chocolate roll for dessert, not knowing whether or not anyone would be able to eat the sukiyaki. But they ate the sukiyaki down to the last spoonful and then proceeded to devour the chocolate roll. P.B. thought the chocolate roll was terrific, and asked me for the recipe. The United Nations? I suppose P.B. and I did our little bit to further international relations in our own quiet way.

A simple but international menu:
Chocolate Roll

My Japanese War Bride Sukiyaki from 1001 Ways to Please a Husband by Myra Waldo, 1958
(for six to eight)

3 onions
1 cup celery
1 cup canned bamboo shoots
1/2 pound mushrooms, or 2 cans, sliced
4 scallions (green onions)
2 pounds sirloin steak
4 tablespoons salad oil
1/2 cup stock or 1/2 boullion cube dissolved in 1/2 cup boiling water
3/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon sherry
1 pound vermicelli or thin noodles, boiled and drained

Sukiyaki is fun to prepare--you can cook it almost as the Japanese do-- at the table in a chafing dish or electric skillet, or on the range in a skillet. Prepare the vegetables early in the day or whenever you have time and wrap them individually in aluminum foil, waxed paper, or Saran wrap. When you're ready to cook it, the entire operation will just take a few minutes.

Slice the onions very thin. Cut the celery in 1-inch lengths. Slice the bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and scallions.

Cut the steak into strips 2 inches long by 1/2 inch wide. Mix the stock, soy sauce, sugar, and sherry in a bowl.

Don't begin to cook the dish more then 15 minutes before you are ready to serve it.

Heat the oil in the utensil of your choice. Place the steak in it, and brown on all sides. Push the meat to one side of the pan and pour half the soy sauce mixture over it. Place the onions and celery in the pan and cook over medium heat for three minutes. Push to one side. Add the bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and remaining soy sauce mixture to the pan and cook 3 minutes, add the scallions and cook 1 minute.

Serve directly from the skillet, or heap the vermicelli on one side of a heated platter, and arrange the sukiyaki in the other.

Chocolate Roll

2 squares(ounces) unsweetened chocolate
2 tablespoons brewed coffee
4 egg yolks
3/4 cups sugar
6 tablespoons sifted cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 egg whites

Turn on the oven and set at 400 (hot).

Grease a jelly-roll pan (11 x 16 inches) and line with waxed paper. (GGK note: it would be much wiser to do this with parchment paper, as waxed paper is not designed to get hot.)

Combine chocolate and coffee in a cup; place over hot water and let melt.

Beat the egg yolks until light; add the sugar to the yolks, beating well. Sift the combined flour, baking powder, and salt over it, mixing until blended. Stir in the vanilla and chocolate.

Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into the previous mixture thoroughly. Spread evenly in the pan.

Bake 13 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Loosen the bottom by running a spatula under the cake.

Sprinkle a towel with cocoa and turn the cake out onto it. Carefully peel the paper from the cake. Roll up gently in the towel and let cool for one hour. Don't worry if the cake cracks. Unroll and fill with whipped cream, ice cream, or soft custard. Re-roll and serve.