Chocolate is an emotional food associated with warmth, sweetness, and contentment - as symbolized by the heart-shaped Valentine's Day box. Today's chocolates, however, are packaged with a creativity that leaps beyond that enduring tradition. Often called ``designer chocolates,'' they come in amusing forms: A platter of dark chocolate oysters with the shells half opened displaying white chocolate pearls nestled inside, or chocolate golf balls, or sardines.
It isn't only recently, however, that chocolate has become a symbol of things exclusive and expensive.
To our ancestors, chocolate was an exotic luxury, like caviar and truffles are today. At times it was reported to cost as much as $300 an ounce.
When first introduced into Spain, chocolate was served steaming hot with cinammon and sugar. In the best European society, hot chocolate was very elegant, as illustrated in 18th century paintings of beautifully dressed ladies on silk cushions drinking chocolate from little S`evres cups.
Dark, solid chocolate as we know it today was not invented until 1847 in England, and rich milk chocolate was developed later in Switzerland.
Americans soon discovered the chocolate craze and became among the largest consumers in the world. Yet America still imports many chocolates, and, until recently, prices were high.
A new addition to chocolate variety is white chocolate, which, according to the government identification rules, is not even chocolate, because it contains no cocoa liquor.
To be sure of even melting when working with white chocolate, it's a good idea to firm the chocolate in the freezer briefly if it is soft. After removal from the freezer it should be grated. The grating allows low heat to melt the small flakes more rapidly. If white chocolate tightens, add a small amount of boiling water and it will smooth itself.
Generations of Americans grew up on brownies. Maybe you learned to cook by making them, ate your spinach for them, or crammed for exams with a pan of them, sent from home, at your elbow.
Now might be the time to try some ``whities'' - brownies made with white chocolate. Here's Judith Olney's recipe, from her cookbook ``The Joy of Chocolate'' (Barron's Educational Series).
A few brands of white chocolate to look for are: Lindt Blancor, Tobler Narcisse, or Nestle's Alpine White bars. Whities 9 ounces white chocolate 1 stick unsalted butter 4 eggs 2 cups granulated sugar 11/2 teaspoons vanilla 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup slivered almonds
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Grate or finely scrape 4 ounces white chocolate and set aside.
Melt remaining 5 ounces chocolate over hot water. Do not allow hot water to simmer. Melt butter.
Beat eggs, sugar, and vanilla until thick and lemon colored. Stir in butter and chocolate. Gently stir in flour and salt until blended. Put into prepared baking pan.
Scatter chocolate bits and slivered almonds on top of batter. Bake 30 to 35 minutes. Let whities cool in pan, then cut into squares. Makes 12 servings. Frozen Alpine Crunch 1 cup heavy cream 1 5-ounce bar Nestl'e Alpine white chocolate, finely chopped 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 2 egg whites 2 tablespoons sugar
In small saucepan over medium heat, scald 1/4 cup heavy cream; remove from heat. Add 1/2 cup finely chopped white chocolate and vanilla extract and stir until melted. Transfer to large bowl; cool 15 minutes.
In small bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar; beat until stiff. Fold into cooled mixture.
Beat remaining 3/4 cup heavy cream until stiff. Fold in cream and 1/4 cup chopped white chocolate. Spoon into foil-lined muffin cups. Sprinkle with remaining chopped white chocolate. Freeze until firm. Makes 12. Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.