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For me, Valentine’s Day is just another Hallmark holiday. It’s not that I don’t believe in love or romance, I could just care less either way. That’s not to say I would turn down a bouquet of roses, an invitation to dinner or chocolate — especially chocolate.

The world of chocolate is expanding, and chocolate manufacturers are including more details on their packaging, including cacao percentages, regional names and type of bean. These descriptions are hard to decipher — or use to your advantage when baking, buying or eating — without a brief understanding of chocolate: where it comes from and how it is made.

Chocolate in its raw form is harvested from the fruit of the cacao (ka- kow) tree. The cacao tree grows in tropical climates, both north and south of the equator. Three variety of cacao trees are grown for their chocolate-making abilities: The Criollo, the Forestero and the Trinitario. The Criollo is considered by connoisseurs to produce the best tasting chocolate, with a good balance of flavor and acidity.

The cacao beans, which eventually are turned into chocolate, are collected from large, melon-like pods that grow on the trees. These beans are then fermented, roasted and ground into two masses: one, a paste that chocolatiers refer to as chocolate liquor, and the other, liquid fat or cocoa butter. From here the chocolate liquor can be refined into cocoa powder or turned into chocolate for eating or baking.

The chocolate liquor is altered (in a process called conching) into several products, depending on the amount of sugar and cocoa butter fat that is added back into the chocolate.

Unsweetened or bitter chocolate has no sugar. It is 100% cacao liquor and is designed strictly for baking.

Bittersweet, dark and semisweet chocolates are essentially the same products, containing a minimum of 35% cacao liquor, but ranging up to 90% cacao, the remaining percent being sugar. This is where the percentages come into play. This category of chocolate fluctuates the most and each manufacturer tastes slightly different depending on the amount of cacao used. A good rule of thumb is products labeled as bittersweet or dark tend to have a darker flavor, a higher percentage of cacao and, therefore, less sugar.

Milk chocolate contains a minimum of 12% milk solids that have been added to the chocolate liquor along with the sugar. The amount of chocolate liquor varies by manufacturer. Milk chocolate has a wonderful caramel-like flavor from the milk, and is softer in nature than bittersweet or semisweet, making it the most popular chocolate used in candy bars.

White chocolate is not actually chocolate at all since it does not contain any cacao liquor. Rather, it is a blend of pure cacao butter, sugar and vanilla flavorings.

According to legend, chocolate was first consumed by the ancient Olmecs and Mayans as a drink, often combined with flavoring agents such as honey, vanilla, cinnamon and various fruits. The Mayans were aware of chocolate’s strengthening and “stimulating” powers. So as the wind blows outside, snuggle up with your valentine and a warm cup of hot cocoa, which is sure to bestow that natural “love buzz” that makes chocolate perfect for this time of year.

Mexican Hot Chocolate
Courtesy of Gale Gand, Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs

• 2 cups whole milk
• ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 1 ounce semisweet chocolate
• 3 drops vanilla extract
• Whipped cream for garnish

“In a heavy saucepan, heat the milk, ground cinnamon and cinnamon stick until simmering. Add the chocolate and let melt. Remove from the heat and add vanilla extract. Transfer to mugs and serve with whipped cream.”