Ode to the humble chocolate chip

It’s chocolate time again, folks! I’ve blogged about chocolate before, specifically about the very depressing fact that world chocolate consumption is exceeding production, putting us at risk of having this most sublime of treats go extinct on us.

That thought, however, was simply too depressing, so I will rather dedicate today to a celebration of the chocolate chip (invented in the 1930’s by Ruth Graves Wakefield). In case you’re wondering, today, 15 May, is Chocolate Chip Day.

Chocolate chips about to liven up some otherwise plain banana muffins.  Hmmm, can't wait for the final product! (© All Rights Reserved)
Chocolate chips about to liven up some otherwise plain banana muffins. Hmmm, can’t wait for the final product!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Now a chocolate chip is an interesting thing. Unlike a slab of chocolate, or a fancy box of chocolates, chocolate chips don’t share that level of sheer indulgent decadence. No, they’re much more subtle – usually hiding away inconspicuously in the fridge or grocery cabinet. When they do appear, however, they can stand their ground against all kinds of exotic ingredients to play a part in the most extravagant culinary creations. Forget about chocolate chip cookies (good as they can be!) – I’m talking about chocolate chip mousse pyramids, blondie-brownie pies, chocolate chip waffles, chocolate chip and mascarpone cupcakes or, wait for it… the chocolate chip martini!

But aside from these moments of mouth-bursting glory, the chocolate chip remains quiet and unassuming in its corner of the cupboard.

It is exactly this indistinct nature of the chocolate chip that makes it so great. Even when all the other chocolate in the house has been greedily consumed during late night chocolate cravings, there’s likely to still be some chocolate chips in the cupboard, ready to be whipped out and made into something special.

In a way, life is much like chocolate (where have I heard that before!?). You get your slab-of-chocolate people – striking, impressive and in your face, but often too conspicuous for their own good. Then there’s the pick-a-mix chocolate types – all dressed up and fancy, but often more sight than substance. And then there’s the chocolate chip people, the salt of the earth, the unassuming ones who come to save the day when all the other chocolates are gone.

So let’s use Chocolate Chip Day to celebrate the chocolate chip, its inventor Ruth Wakefield, and all the chocolate chip people out there!

Celebrating liquorice, sweet or savoury, strong or mild

Today, 12 April, is the celebration of National Licorice Day, an unofficial US holiday thought up by US licorice company Licorice International. As I tend to do with these regional days, I will again simply disregard the ‘national’ and internationalise the day for the rest of us – why, after all, should our US friends have the exclusive right to celebrate this amazing candy? So let’s just standardise the English, and celebrate (international) Liquorice Day.

Liquorice is made from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, a legume native to southern Europe and Asia. As a legume, it is related to beans and peas, and despite its flavour it is not related to the similar tasting and smelling aniseed or fennel. Interestingly, in many liquorice flavoured sweets, the liquorice flavour is in fact enhanced with aniseed oil (in some cases, there may not even be any liquorice in the candy!). The liquorice extract from the the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant is created by boiling the root of the plant and evaporating most of the water.

Liquorice candy comes in all shapes and sizes, with some types really tempting you to play with your food! (© All Rights Reserved)
Liquorice candy comes in all shapes and sizes, with some types really tempting you to play with your food!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Flavours and styles of liquorice differ vastly between different parts of the world. Most liquorice produced and sold in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand tend to be sweet, ranging from very mildly flavoured to medium strong. Continental Europe, on the other hand, prefer their liquorice strong and robust, in both sweet and salty varieties. Dutch liquorice is sometimes flavoured with mint for a different taste sensation. Italian and Spanish liquorice is often enjoyed as small pieces made from unsweetened, 100% pure liquorice extract. In China, liquorice is used as a culinary spice for savoury dishes.

Beyond its use as candy, liquorice is also consumed for medicinal purposes. Liquorice contains glycerrhizic acid, which, among other things, increases mucus production and decreases acid secretion. These properties make liquorice useful as an aid in the treatment of mouth and stomach ulcers, and the general treatment of an upset stomach. It is also used to treat irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. Liquorice is also used to relieve a spasmodic cough. In Japan liquorice extract is used for the treatment of chronic viral hepatitis, while the Chinese use it to treat tuberculoses.

(Note that, while it has beneficial properties, excessive liquorice consumption may cause hypertension, hence it is recommended that liquorice products should be consumed in moderation.)

Whether you prefer your liquorice sweet or salty, strong or mild, and whether you eat it for medicinal purposes, or simply because it is so irresistibly yummy, I am sure you’ll agree that it is worthy of a day of celebration!

Celebrating yummy, syrupy, sticky caramel.

It’s April 5th, which means it’s Caramel Day – the perfect opportunity to go all gooey about sweet, syrupy caramel.

Caramel in a chocolate shell - now that's what an easter egg should look like!(© All Rights Reserved)
Caramel in a chocolate shell – now that’s what an easter egg should look like!
(© All Rights Reserved)

There are basically two ‘categories’ (for lack of a better word) of caramel. First, there’s caramelised sugar – when sugar is heated to around 170 °C, the molecules in the sugar breaks down and re-arranges itself as a smooth, shiny tan/brown syrup. When caramelised sugar cools down, it sets and becomes hard and shiny – most kids know and love this type of candy as used in caramel toffee apples, for instance, where an apple on a stick is dipped in caramelised sugar syrup and allowed to cool and set.

Then there’s the runny, creamy caramel that we find in toffees, inside caramel chocolates etc. This is something very different, and is made by cooking a mixture of butter, sugar, milk/cream and vanilla. As the mixture heats up, the sugar reacts with the amino acids in the milk, resulting in the caramel’s brown colour. This reaction between sugar and amino acids in the presence of heat is known as the ‘Maillard reaction’ – a form of non enzymatic browning. The same reaction is responsible for the browning of roasted meat and fried onions, roasted coffee and the browned crust of baked bread, among others.

The level of ‘runny-ness’ of this second category of caramel depends on the relative amounts of the ingredients, ranging from fairly solid, sticky caramel toffees through to smooth, soft and creamy caramel sauce.

From rock-hard caramelised sugar to smooth, creamy caramel sauce – the world of sweets and desserts would surely be a much poorer place without caramel!