Most people don't recognize cocoa in its unprocessed form. The pulp-covered beans resemble chitlins more than chocolate, and the taste is just as off-putting.
But what if you let them ferment in that pulp for a week or so, wash and roast the beans, crack the husks and grind the tiny nibs until they release the cocoa butter? Add superfine sugar and temper the chocolate carefully with a molcajete and then a marble slab, and let it set for a few more hours?
Bam! The resulting gloppy mess will be the most unnecessarily labor-intensive love gift your sweetheart will never really appreciate.
"Very few people go from bean to chocolate," says Lynn Wong, owner of Viva Cocolat in Petaluma, of making one's own chocolate. "Those who do tend to stay with the bar."
This is good advice for those with the DIY mindset. Craft beer and homemade pickles are one thing, but homemade chocolate is not the best idea. Making chocolate isn't easy. Even with the right equipment, patience and skill, there are too many things that can go wrong. Starting with someone else's chocolate seems to be the best approach.
Wong makes a few of the confections in her shop, but mostly sticks to artisans like Barlovento from Oakland or Moonstruck from Washington. It's not just about sinful decadence these days, she says. There's a trend toward savory sweets with additions like cardamom, fennel and even cheese. "Now they're getting more adventurous with it," she says.
Speaking of adventurous, how about a nip slip? The most popular item at Gandolf's Fine Chocolate is the Nipple of Venus, says Guy Daniels, proprietor of the Santa Rosa–based business. Daniels creates truffles using both Belgian and American chocolate, and suggests home chocolatiers might be able to create acceptable goodies with enough patience. "Some things can come out really well. It just depends on timing, skill and luck," seays the 13-year chocolate veteran.
Even See's doesn't mess with cocoa beans—and the San Francisco company sticks to a roster of traditional favorites. "See's has a deep-rooted history, and they've been making their candies the same way for the past 90 years," says spokeswoman Christina Wong. "See's is not about following trends." The company gets its chocolate from Guittard Chocolate of Burlingame, and in true world-of-pure-imagination fashion, it's pumped in from a tanker truck into the See's factory in liquid form.
"I was an amateur chocolatier," says David Gambill, owner of Sonoma Chocolatiers. Thirty years have passed since starting the practice, he says, and "looking back on what I made then and what I make now, I wouldn't bother eating what I made then."
Putting the whole "grow your own" theory to rest, Gambill explains the difference between chocolate and chocolates. "Pastry chefs don't make their own flour," he says. "Chocolatiers don't make their own chocolate." The skill sets required for the two facets are simply too different, and to make a good chocolate requires the genetic disposition of a supertaster. "I don't encourage anyone to try to make chocolate at home from their own roasted cocoa beans," says Gambill.
Bottom line: chocolate is difficult to make, and it's not going to be great (or even good, probably) the first few attempts. Just buy the damn chocolate.