A flourless chocolate cake is the perfect showcase for fine dark chocolate. With few other ingredients to compete with it, the cake tastes like the very essence of the chocolate. Melted butter and beaten eggs work their magic in the background, providing moisture and creamy, melt-in-the-mouth texture. For chocolate lovers, the cake is, in many ways, more luxurious than eating a candy bar.
Dark, nuanced chocolates are in vogue now. The new intense chocolates are all over dessert menus, not only in flourless cakes, but in ice creams, mousses, and cookies as well. The best quality chocolates, once available only to pastry chefs, are now stacked on specialty market shelves, so the home baker, too, has access to them. While clearly a matter of taste - you have to decide whether you prefer flavor over sweetness, intensity over moderation - the baked results will be as strikingly different as the chocolate itself.
It used to be that home bakers could buy three chocolates: semisweet, bittersweet, and unsweetened. "Differences in chocolate were rarely discussed or promoted before the early 1990s," says Robert Steinberg, cofounder of Scharffen Berger chocolates in Berkeley, Calif.
Now the world of chocolate has changed, marked by an intriguing maze of options and somewhat bewildering terminology. Words that sound like they're describing fine coffees or teas - "single-variety," "single-origin," and "estate grown" - elevate the status of a chocolate; the descriptions are based on the type of bean used. Cocoa content percentages, which are printed boldly on wrappers, represent the varying intensities of flavor. The familiar categories of semisweet and bittersweet, once interchangeable in recipes, are now just vague terms. The new dark chocolates are made by many manufacturers, including Scharffen Berger, Lindt, Valrhona, or Callebaut.
Scharffen Berger's Steinberg offers a simple explanation for what the percentages mean within the burgeoning "dark chocolate" category: A 70 percent chocolate, for example, tells you that the remaining 30 percent is sugar, compared to, say, a 60 percent chocolate, which contains 40 percent sugar.
So it follows that the higher the percentage of chocolate, the less sweet it is. What the percentage represents, explains Steinberg, is the amount (by weight) of chocolate liquor or total cocoa content present in the chocolate.
Chocolate liquor is what makes chocolate taste chocolaty. It is the liquid paste left when cocoa beans are ground. It is also defined as the combination of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, or essentially everything that comes from the cocoa bean. Added to it, to make chocolate, are sugar, lecithin (an emulsifier), vanilla, and - in the high percentage chocolates - some additional cocoa butter (the cocoa butter improves the way the chocolate flows and melts.)
Some people find that chocolates with a high percentage of chocolate liquor are too intense and not sweet enough. Just as a coffee-with-cream drinker would find a strong, full-bodied cup of black coffee undrinkable, so, too, would a milk chocolate eater determine a 70 percent chocolate to be unpalatably bitter. "It's not that bitter is better," says Steinberg, "but intense and clear flavor is what high percentage chocolates are all about." Arithmetic aside, he continues, "no one would want chocolate at 70 percent if harsh tasting beans are used."
The roasted cocoa bean is not sweet, but complex, its various and subtle qualities are masked by sugar in low percentage chocolates. Try letting a piece of dark chocolate melt on your tongue and it may hint of bitter almonds, coconut, coffee, raisins, or cherries.
The issues for the baker are straightforward. The solutions, unfortunately, are not. A flourless chocolate cake made with a 70 percent chocolate will taste profoundly more intense than one made with a 40 or 50 percent chocolate. As well, the recipe may perform differently because most recipes, at least the older ones, weren't written with 70 percent chocolates in mind.
For chocolates simply labeled semisweet or bittersweet, the sugar content can swing from 30 percent to 65 percent of the weight of the chocolate - not minor discrepancies. (An 88 percent chocolate, usually labeled "extra-bittersweet," would reflect the extreme in bitterness, having an almost untraceable hint of sweetness. In baking, it would be treated similarly to unsweetened chocolate.)
In "A Year in Chocolate," chocolate expert Alice Medrich writes that cakes made with high percentage chocolates may be a little thicker and cook a little faster than cakes made with ordinary supermarket chocolate. Sugar adds moisture to cakes, and helps tenderize them. A cake with less sugar can dry out in the oven. So check for doneness earlier if you're baking with a high percentage chocolate.
For those who prefer their confections sweet, Medrich suggests adding a little extra sugar to the recipe or using slightly less chocolate.
Purists, however, will prefer the denser, less cloyingly sweet results from using the true bittersweets. If you want to know whether you're a dark-chocolate lover, bake first, then taste, then decide.