MIT club cooks up delicious experiments

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You may think that 10 a.m. is too early to eat chocolate. But for six students gathered in the McCormick Hall dorm kitchen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is never too early to experiment with their favorite food.

On a snowy winter morning, the students break into three groups of two and gather around tables filled with extracts, spices, teas, and buckets of chocolate chips. They listen carefully as Sanghamitra Sen, a senior, explains the process of making ganache (guh-NAHSH). Ganache is the creamy inside of a chocolate truffle. Truffles are balls of soft, flavored chocolate often coated with a hard chocolate shell, chopped nuts, cocoa powder, or sugar.

This "chocolate class" is sponsored by the MIT Laboratory for Chocolate Science, affectionately known as the Chocolate Club. The club sponsors chocolate breakfasts, midnight snacks, and everything in between for chocolate-hungry MIT students. The group also strives to be educational, offering chocolate history and science lectures.

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Today is one of the club's most popular events: how to make chocolate truffles.

"Step 1," says Ms. Sen (she's club president), "choose what flavoring you want for your ganache." The group looks over their choices of banana chips, curry, ginger, hot pepper, mint, orange, peach passion tea, pumpkin pie, vanilla hazelnut, walnuts, and more.

"Step 2: Choose the kind of chocolate you want - dark, milk, or white chocolate," Sen continues.

After making their selections, the participants move to the stoves and carefully measure cream into pans. "Begin stirring immediately and don't stop until you are done," Sen warns.

After the cream warms, group members add their chosen flavoring a little at a time, tasting the mixture after each addition. Then they add the chocolate, stirring until the concoction looks like a thick pudding.

Chris Walsh (a senior neuroscience major) and his partner, Beth Baniszewski (a senior mechanical engineering major), choose peppermint and dark chocolate - a tried-and-true combination.

"The MIT chocolate lab offered free truffles last year, and I tried a wacky one loaded with hot pepper," says Walsh. "It tasted good when you first bit into it, but my mouth was on fire afterward." He never took a second bite. "But ever since, I've wanted to learn to make my own truffles."

Ms. Baniszewski tried making her own ganache. "But it never got hard enough to roll," she says. "I ended up with a lot of good-tasting goo!"

From the looks of their ganache, however, they are succeeding today.

Soojin Ha and Margarita Akiyana, wives of MIT graduate students, add blueberry tea and red raspberry jelly to milk chocolate. Their results aren't so good.

"This doesn't look like a very happy experiment at all," says Sen as she pours off liquid from their saucepan. But, she adds encouragingly, "You can always use the mixture over ice cream." Ha and Akiyana don't buy it. They start over, this time with dark chocolate and mint.

Brittany Montgomery (civil engineering) and Katya Jarrell (freshman, no major) go for a Mexican flavor. They mix cinnamon and cayenne pepper with dark chocolate. Their ganache looks and smells delicious.

Ms. Jarrell came to learn more than how to make truffles. She wants to know why chocolate behaves the way it does. "There were three of us in high school who sat in a corner of biology class and talked about the chemistry of food," says Jarrell, "particularly chocolate. We got a kitchen science book and read up on it on our own. But I want to learn more." She is looking forward to the group's "science of chocolate" lecture later this year.

When the ganaches are done, about 20 minutes later, the mixtures are lovingly placed in the freezer. After cleanup, everyone goes home to wait. They will return in two hours to roll the ganache into balls and dip them in chocolate.

Ariel Segall started the club last year. Ms. Segall, then an electrical engineering and computer-science major, tasted a commercially made black-pepper chocolate truffle at a party. She instantly fell in love with the confection and wanted more. But mail-order truffles were too expensive, and she couldn't find any for sale locally. So she tried making them herself. Her first two trufflemaking parties were just Segall and her friends. The "events" stirred so much interest, she started the club.

When Segall graduated, Sen took over as president. Sen's boyfriend got Sen interested in the club. He went to one of the truffle events and brought back a wasabi (Japanese horseradish) truffle for her to try. "It was so good that I had to learn to make them myself," she says. She did. This past Christmas, Sen made 12 dozen truffles for her boyfriend's family. "Now they treat me like a goddess!" she laughs.

Today the club also sponsors a "Battle of the Brownies," open to all. A chocolate sculpting "art" class turns chunks of chocolate into spiders, castles, frogs, or alligators. A dark-chocolate "taste off" featuring 50 varieties from around the world is also popular. Percentages of cocoa solids, cocoa-bean origins, and their effect on flavor are discussed.

In terms of activities, "Basically anything goes, as long as it is about chocolate," says Sen.

This is my kind of club!

The MIT Chocolate Club's recipe for truffles

Read the whole recipe first; this takes a while. Ask an adult to help.

Ingredients:

2 to 2-1/2 cups (12 to 15 oz.) dark or milk chocolate, or 3 cups (18 oz.) white chocolate. Chips are easiest; if you use bars, break them up so they'll melt faster.
1 cup heavy cream
Flavorings (extracts, spices, etc.)
Cocoa powder, crushed walnuts, or confectioners sugar (for coating)

Directions:

Pour cream into a saucepan over medium heat. Keep stirring gently with a wooden spoon so the cream won't stick or boil. Add flavorings: 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, whole cloves, a spoonful of jam. (Don't add extracts yet.) Stir, then taste. If you like the flavor, strain the cream to remove spice residue. Or add more spice, stir, and taste again. When it tastes right to you, strain out the spices. Return to heat, and keep stirring.

When cream is hot, add chocolate, one cup at a time. Stir. When the chocolate has melted, add extracts: orange, vanilla, lemon, or mint, perhaps. Try 1/2 teaspoonful at first. Taste carefully - it's hot. When it tastes right, remove pan from heat. Let it cool a few minutes. Pour it into a Pyrex bowl, cover it, and put it in the freezer for two to five hours.

Roll the truffles: Scoop up the cooled chocolate mixture with a metal spoon. Use your hands to roll it into quarter-sized balls. (You DID wash your hands, right?) Put the balls on plates or cookie sheets covered with wax paper. Put truffles back in the freezer to harden (30 min. or so).

Finish the truffles: Roll them in cocoa powder, confectioners' sugar, crushed walnuts, or coconut. Eat!

Spain's top-secret hot chocolate

Humans have been eating chocolate for almost 2,000 years. The Mayans and Aztecs of Central and South America found that seeds of the cacao (kuh-KOW) tree could be roasted and ground into a paste that dissolved in water. Nobles drank the frothy mixture, believing that it brought wisdom and knowledge.

In 1519, Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez was served 'chocolatl' by Emperor Montezuma of Mexico. The bitter drink was flavored with chile peppers. But sweetened with cane sugar, the drink began to catch on in Spain and the rest of Europe.

Spain planted cocoa in its tropical colonies to meet the demand. But the processing of the beans, which had to be fermented, dried, roasted, and ground, was a secret. It was done behind the high walls of monasteries and became a very profitable business. Spain kept its chocolate secret for nearly a century.

In 1606, Italian traveler Antonio Carletti discovered and published the secret of processing cocoa beans.

The world would wait centuries for the hydraulic chocolate press, Dutch-processed chocolate, milk chocolate, and a decent chocolate bar. But a name change happened sooner. A misspelling of 'cacao' by an English importer in the 1700s is probably why we call it 'cocoa.'

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