Chocolate has been around for millennia, but the smooth, melt-in-your-mouth bars we know and love today didn't exist until the late 19th century.
The first people to cultivate the small, tropical, evergreen cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) were the Olmecs of the southern Gulf coast of Mexico. As early as 600 BCE, the Olmecs introduced cacao to the Maya, who later traded it to the Aztecs. The Aztecs collected the large seedpods that the tree bears, roasted and ground them, and made them into a chocolate drink reserved for religious ceremonies.
Around 1500, European explorers witnessed the Maya and Aztecs flavoring chocolate drinks with chile pepper, vanilla, edible flowers, and other aromatic ingredients. Crew members aboard Columbus's fourth voyage brought cacao back with them to Spain, and over the course of the following century, chocolate found its way to England, France, and Italy. In England, cafés began serving hot chocolate, sweetened with sugar and made creamy by the addition of steamed milk. Chocolate remained almost exclusively a beverage throughout Europe until one Dutchman and two Swiss developed a few key innovations.
The first breakthrough occurred in 1828 when Conrad Johannes van Houten, together with his father, built a hydraulic press to remove cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans, isolating cocoa powder. They treated the powder with an alkaline substance to raise the chocolate's pH. This process, which is now called "Dutching," allowed the cocoa powder to dissolve more readily in water, caused the color to darken, and mellowed the astringent and bitter flavors. Confectioners discovered that the cocoa butter, which was at first thought to be a mere by-product, could be added to freshly ground cocoa beans to make a smoother, richer, more easily moldable chocolate.
About 50 years after van Houten's discovery, a Swiss confectioner named Daniel Peter used milk powder to create the first solid bar of milk chocolate. Then, his fellow countryman, Rudolph Lindt, invented the conche, a machine that slowly grinds cocoa beans together with sugar and milk powder to produce the very fine, smooth-textured chocolate we are all familiar with today.
Magic Chocolate Shell
Valentine's Day calls for equal measures of romance and fun. This recipe hits both marks.
Makes about 1 cup
½ cup coconut oil, warmed until liquid
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ cup agave or honey or maple syrup
In a bowl, whisk together the coconut oil, cocoa powder, and agave until completely smooth. Drizzle over ice cream -- in less than a minute, the chocolate will freeze and form a magic shell.