WHITE CHOCOLATE!” snorted a friend of mine. “What a waste of calories!”
She was implying, of course, that if you’re going to indulge, you might as well go for the stronger dark chocolate. But white chocolate is not a pale version of the real thing; it is a confection in its own right.
Where dark chocolate can overpower, white chocolate can elegantly accompany. White chocolate complements most berries – especially raspberry, strawberry and blueberry – as well as tangy citrus flavors and the slightly bitter edge of nuts such as unblanched almonds and pistachios. Bitter and semisweet chocolate, mocha and coffee flavors also benefit from this chocolate’s contrasting accent.
The difference between it and dark chocolate is one of composition. While dark chocolate gets its color and inimitable taste from the thick, brown liquor that remains after the butter is extracted from roasted cocoa beans, white chocolate has none of that. It is made of cocoa butter, milk solids and sugar, plus a little vanilla and lecithin, a natural emulsifier from soybeans.
It’s also true that white chocolate is about as far as you can get from the chocolate Europeans first sampled — a bitter, spiced, red-colored cocoa-bean drink that the Aztec ruler Montezuma offered to Hernando Cortes in 1519. Although Europeans transformed the drink using different ingredients, it was not until 1847 that an English firm produced the edible sweet chocolate we know today.
White chocolate was first introduced in Switzerland in the 1920s. It appeared in the United States in the 1940s and ’50s but was not widely known until the ’70s. Even today, white chocolate is little understood and often under-appreciated.
The best white chocolate has cocoa butter as its only fat; lesser grades contain varying amounts of vegetable oil. Color is another indicator of quality, since the cocoa butter imparts a decidedly creamy, buttery shade to the “white.” And finally, says the authoritative book “Chocolate Passion,” good white chocolate “should be rich, mellow, not too sweet, and not dominated by vanilla flavorings.”
Rose Levy Beranbaum, in her classic book “The Cake Bible,” writes that white chocolate mixed into cake batter adds a velvety texture and a “melt-in-the-mouth” quality. This is because the cocoa is a good emulsifier, and while remaining firm at room temperature, melts faster than butter at body temperature. She also finds that white chocolate can help stabilize whipped cream, allowing the cream to hold its shape at room temperature and to freeze well.
If you’re interested in making white-chocolate desserts, “Chocolate Passion,” compiled by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty of “Chocolatier” magazine, is a treasure trove. This lavish volume includes full-page photographs and no fewer than 14 white chocolate recipes ranging from bars with dried and candied fruit to mousses, cakes and truffles with the uncommon flavors of lemon grass and coconut.
But you needn’t go to all that trouble to enjoy white chocolate in the Seattle area. For those who like their white chocolate on the go, the German company Ritter makes a white chocolate bar containing whole hazelnuts and some crispy rice for crunch. (Beware: White chocolate can be just as addictive as dark.) A range of Ritter Sport chocolate bars is available at the Continental Store in the University District. Godiva makes a white-chocolate liqueur that serves as a silken sauce over chocolate, mocha or coffee ice cream. The liqueur can also spike coffee or espresso, with the added touch of real vanilla and a swirl of whipped cream.
B & O Espresso, at its original location on Capitol Hill, offers a popular white-chocolate cake served with a striking splash of raspberry sauce. Swiss white chocolate goes into both the cake and its buttercream icing.
Macrina Bakery in Belltown uses white chocolate as a garnish or ingredient in several baked goods. White chocolate scrolls and piped squiggles decorate the Rustic Lemon Tart; a white-chocolate-cream-cheese icing adds requisite contrast to the dark chocolate layers of the Tuxedo Cake. As a dessert special for lunch, Macrina sometimes makes individual tarts of robust piecrust filled with banana slices in pastry cream and dotted with blueberries or strawberries. A forest of white-chocolate shavings on top subtly weaves in and out of the other flavors in this superb tart.
For a special occasion, an excellent choice for dessert is the White Chocolate and Fresh Strawberry Bagatelle made by Dessert Works bakery in Phinney Ridge. At dinners and parties where I’ve seen this inspired cake served, people murmured with appreciation for its sensual qualities. The white chocolate fulfills its role, playing a rich, harmonic accompaniment to the strawberries’ bright aria.