Happy Fall

Dear Friends,

This poor blog has been neglected for months, and I pledge to get back to it soon.  So much has been going on with products and venues – including the new café SHOWPLACE.  Do check in at brucesbest.com for updates.  Happy fall!



There is always a special excitement around a new product: all that thought, planning, research, testing, design. This time it is something a bit different for bruce’s best, a beverage instead of a bonbon. The idea has been on the back burner for over a year, but now with hot summer weather on the way (and sometimes here already), it seems a perfect time for a debut.

My goal in creating Mayan Thunder was to formulate a delicious chocolate energy drink that would be as close as possible to the chocolate beverages invented in ancient Mesoamerica. To that end, I knew from the start that chocolate and chile would be the main flavors. Then I began to add in other ingredients to achieve the texture and flavor profiles I wanted while at the same time preserving the Mexican theme. The original chocolate beverages—and some modern ones as well—contained a viscous tropical vine extract added to produce the coveted foam that was at the heart of the chocolate experience. That vine extract is unavailable here, as far as I know, but I do have a nifty substitute that is derived from maize, the quintessential American grain. Xanthan gum is my modern ingredient, and it helps me achieve not foam exactly, but a rich mouth-feel without added fat. Coconut was not known to the ancients, but it is of course a very popular modern ingredient, and it adds richness without milk products.

Dried hibiscus flower infusion—modern aqua de flor de jamaica—has just the fruitiness I wanted, and is famously refreshing and tonic. So while hibiscus was not available to the ancestors, their descendants took to it right away when it was introduced, making it very much their own soft drink. It is fun to imagine the first shipment of dried hibiscus arriving on the Manila Galleon in the port city of Manzanilla in 1556, only a few decades after the Conquest. But perhaps hibiscus arrived in the Islands first, since Mexicans call it Jamaica flower. And hibiscus tea is popular in the Middle East and North Africa as well, and therefore was inevitably introduced at some point into Spain. So hibiscus tea may have come to the New World first from Europe rather than from its native Asia. Hard to say. But flor de jamaica is so much a part of Mexico today, that I am proud to include it in Mayan Thunder.

My sweetener is among the most exciting ingredients for several reasons. First, agave nectar is produced from the sap collected from the heart of mature magueys, using millennia-old methods. To this day the locals harvest the sap, now called aquamiel, for production of the famous beer pulque. But only since the 1990s has some of this juice been minimally processed and evaporated to form a delicious syrup. I am delighted to have agave nectar available for Mayan Thunder because it is a quintessentially American product, and because its pure flavor makes it more desirable than honey. And it’s extraordinarily low glycemic index—a remarkable 32 to honey’s 58—means that agave nectar is considered an appropriate ingredient in a healthy diet, a secret to long-term health, reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes and aiding sustainable weight loss. Because of the favorable fructose ratio, agave nectar is generally rated at 1.4 times the sweetness of sugar. So I can introduce fewer calories and promise slow release without sugar spikes. Not bad!

We start test marketing Mayan Thunder next week, and I will keep you posted on its progress. I placed a page marker at www.mayanthunder.com. The web site will grow as the product does. Please watch this space and the web site for updates!

A Flavor Is Born

Creating a new flavor at bruce’s best is always an exciting process. It calls upon different skills and energies from those involved in production and marketing. Recently John Duffy, the owner of Avignone pharmacy (Avignone on Bleecker, Ltd, 281 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10014, phone: 212.242.3033) asked for an exclusive flavor, and I was delighted to be able to comply.

We spoke of many things, including medicinal herbs and elixirs, the foundations of the old pharmacy system. But what really made John light up like a Christmas tree was mention of his beloved villa in Tuscany, surrounded as it is by fields of lavender, rosemary hedges, bee hives, and, of course, vineyards.

From there it was a straight shot to a new flavor formula that could harmonize with the dark chocolate ganache that forms the base of all truffle flavors at bruce’s best. So now I am excited to announce Tuscan Sunshine, flavored with lavender, rosemary, wildflower honey, and Tuscan red wine. It debuts tomorrow (Monday, May 5) just in time for Mother’s Day, and it is available exclusively at Avignone.

I have to say that I am very pleased with Tuscan Sunshine, and, more to the point, John is too. And we are hoping that his customers will love it as well. So how do new flavors happen? Ideas are everywhere, but this one was pretty much handed to me. I knew from the start what the main flavors would be: two floral notes, one herbal, a complex blend of fruit with a little tannin tossed in. It sounds really nice to the mind’s palate. Would a touch of citrus be welcome? How about bitter almond? I ruled these two out in the interest of simplifying the flavor experience. Perhaps I will try them someday. One of the greatest pleasures of a foodie life is the anticipation of all the tastings to come.

With the main notes established, it became a matter of trial and error to find the right flavor balance, and the right texture, too. Whenever honey is included, texture shifts. So it starts with what you know, or think you know, and goes forward until that moment when everything falls into place. This one was a relatively easy birth. But whenever chocolate is involved, life is full of surprises.
Tuscan Sunshine

“Isn’t the world full of wonderful things, Barnaby?” For those for whom I am hopelessly dating myself, that is a line from The Matchmaker/Hello Dolly. My “Day Well Spent” (the German play upon which Thornton Wilder based The Matchmaker) was actually a weekend, and spent in Portland, Maine, rather than New York City (where Cornelius and Barnaby get into such wonderful trouble, and where I normally spend my days in varying states of wonder). Early spring in southern Maine feels a lot like late winter, but last week, indoors at least, there was lots of new life bubbling up.

As I mentioned in my last post, I attended a Barry-Callebaut (www.callebaut.com) chocolate seminar weekend-before-last, and it was wonderfully informative and inspiring. The company chefs and teachers do a terrific job of understanding, exploring, and sharing the results of their experience. Now I am emulsifying my ganache in a different way, trying to be more patient, letting temperatures ease up and down gradually rather than shocking them, using refrigeration less, hoping to be a better teacher. It is exciting to learn the results of careful research. For example, there may actually be seven possible crystals that cocoa butter can form, not just six!

It occurred to me, with all this theory-and-practice going on, that it is not surprising that new discoveries are being made and new techniques perfected, considering that the science of chocolate is nearly in its infancy in the grand scheme of things. Though chocolate has ancient traditions as a beverage, as a fine confection it is barely more than a century old! With that in mind, I hoped readers would enjoy the following timeline that lays out the essential chocolate discoveries that bring us to modern couverture.

1828 The cocoa press is invented in Amsterdam by Casparus van Houten (Sr.). This simple hydraulic construction could squeeze out about half of the natural fat in the cocoa nibs, leaving behind a cake that could be ground into cocoa powder, much easier to dissolve in hot liquids than full-fat chocolate. So while the cocoa press was, on the surface, an advancement in chocolate the beverage, the isolation of cocoa butter was essential to the evolution of chocolate the confection. Plus, van Houten treated his cocoa powder with alkaline salts to make it more blendable, thereby adding a method (Dutch-process, alkalized, Dutched) that makes myriad cocoa – and chocolate – colors and flavors possible to this day.

1840 Belgian company Bervaerts produces arguably the first solid chocolate, in the form of pressed tablets, pastilles, and figures.

1846 The first chocolate bar is marketed by English chocolate manufacturer J. S. Fry & Sons. Pure chocolate liquor (the natural yield from the cocoa beans) and sugar will only produce a crumbly mass that, pressed into a bar, produces a very coarse product. In the years that followed the chocolate bar’s debut, producers learned that with the addition of some extra cocoa butter, as isolated by van Houten’s cocoa press, it is possible to create a relatively smooth cake.

1865 In Italy, chocolate is first blended with hazelnut praline paste to produce gianduja.

1875 Daniel Peter figures out how to combine his chocolate with Henri Nestlé’s condensed milk, and milk chocolate is born.

1879 Swiss chocolatier Rodolphe Lindt invents the conche. This mixing machine, originally conch-shaped, makes it possible to blend the basic chocolate bar ingredients over a period of days until the particles are tiny and smooth, with the added benefit that some undesirable acid compounds evaporate away during the process, improving the flavor as well. Chocolate as we know it is now possible for the first time in history.

1921 White chocolate comes on the market.

Once the basic materials existed, then it was a fairly straight shot to molded chocolate, molded filled chocolates, truffles, etc. The groundwork was set in the Nineteenth Century, so that the Twentieth could become the great chocolate century, with chocolate on every table, in every food shop and confectionary, in most market bags, and in lots of pockets, too. So where are we now? Still at the dawn of creation, as far as I am concerned. The whys of chocolate chemistry have been poorly understood until recent years, and there is still much to do and learn. With lots of thanks to Barry-Callebaut, I am hoping to help push the envelope and watch where we all go from here.

Chocolate Chemistry

Part of the joy of chocolate is in learning about its complex chemistry. This is particularly strong in my mind today as I prepare for the Callebaut (www.callebaut.com) chocolate seminar this weekend in Portland, Maine. Normally I find myself too busy to consider attending a trade event out-of-town. But this time I just felt I owed it to myself and my business to attend, to see what I can learn about chocolate from this particular panel of experts.

Next week I will share with you anything exciting that happens this weekend. Even if there are no new chocolate discoveries in the hopper, there will doubtless be new discoveries for me. There is never a dull moment in the chocolate life.

Meanwhile, for those of you who have not read my “Public Service Announcement” about chocolate at www.brucesbest.com, I tried to gather together all the main points in chocolate’s nutritional/psychoactive chemistry profile. I reprint it below in the hope that you find this story as endlessly fascinating as I do.

A Public Service Announcement about Chocolate

Not only is chocolate the world’s favorite treat, it is perhaps the most beneficial as well. To start with nutrition, exciting evidence is mounting to show that the antioxidant polyphenols in chocolate, called flavonols, work to inhibit the formation of sticky ldl cholesterol oxidations that form blood clots and clumps on artery walls. So consuming chocolate may actually help to improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular accidents associated with clots. Do not expect your doctor to take you off your aspirin therapy in favor of chocolate therapy, yet the evidence is promising.

Chocolate does contain a good bit of saturated fat, which is of course implicated in raising serum cholesterol levels. However, eating chocolate has been proved to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels (perhaps with the help of the soy lecithin that fine chocolates contain). And cholesterol starts to become irrelevant if it does not stick or clump. Also, naturally saturated fat like cocoa butter is highly resistant to rancidity, the oxidation process that releases free radicals implicated in a wide range of human ailments, from gout to cancer. So chocolate not only contributes no free radicals of its own but also fights the free radicals from other sources! Not bad for candy.

Keep in mind that high (natural) fat treats modulate blood sugar levels, discouraging the sugar spikes and resulting inflammation and mood swings associated with sugary snacks. So chocolate treats are less likely than high-carb, low-fat treats to lead to obesity and diabetes. And, finally, chocolate does not promote acne nor tooth decay, as has been claimed in the past. In fact, it is likely that cocoa butter prevents some of the damage done by dental plaque by leaving a protective film on the teeth.

All this healthy stuff would be of much less interest were it not for the feel-good side of chocolate chemistry. Among chocolate’s more than three hundred chemical components are mild doses of several psychoactive drugs. The stimulants include caffeine, theobromine (named for the cocoa tree itself, the food of the gods, theobroma cacao), tyramine, and phenylethylamine, an amphetamine-like substance that releases dopamine to the appropriate brain centers of lovers and chocolate-lovers alike.

The uppers are mellowed by downers. An ongoing marijuana study in San Diego, CA, has discovered that a substance in chocolate called anandamide enters the blood stream and bonds with the cannabis receptors in the human brain, producing a mild but measurable euphoria. No average adult will get stoned on chocolate – the required dose is about twenty-five pounds in one feeding frenzy – but the trace chemistry is real. This may be part of chocolate’s proven analgesic properties. Some of the most effective pain relief medications have been designed around a pain reliever coupled with caffeine to help speed the analgesic across the brain/blood barrier. Chocolate appears to be doing the same thing naturally.

The other important relaxant begins as the amino acid tryptophan. One of its chemical products is serotonin, famous for promoting feelings of calm, relaxation, confidence, and well-being. Tryptophan is also a precursor of melatonin, the circadian (waking/sleeping) rhythm regulator, and niacin, which has a host of functions (including cholesterol balance, leading us back to the nutrition side). So it is clear that there really is a chocolate high that both invigorates and relaxes. And it is legal. And remarkably healthy. Who could ask for more?

Keep in mind that all of these facts pertain to natural dark chocolate. Milk chocolate might contain as little as half as much natural chocolate as bittersweet, so the benefits decrease accordingly. And white chocolate is missing the bitter cocoa solids that contribute all of the drugs and most of the nutrients. That is one reason why at Bruce’s Best we use only high quality dark chocolates for our centers, with a bit of milk and white for finish and garnish as needed. Beware of imitations. The products called coating, summer coating, compound, or chocolate-flavored-something-or-other are loaded with trans fat and typically very high in sugar as well. And the cocoa powder they may contain is normally low in flavonols and other desirable components. These imitations are sweet, cheap, and easy to handle; but they are not chocolate.

Mayan Cacao God

The Cacao God, from a Classic Mayan bowl

April 2017
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