Let me say right now, if you don’t care about the mystical relationship between chocolate and vanilla, just run along. I am well aware that I can get a wee bit obsessive about some topics, so if you’re not up for this, I completely understand. For those of you who are still here, let’s carry on, shall we?
Part The First, In Which I Wax On About the Not-So-Reciprocal Relationship of The Two
I began Mulling the other day. Here’s how it started. I made a lovely Van Halen pound cake for friend Michael’s birthday. It was vanilla/sour cream with chocolate ganache glaze, and it tasted like a black and white cookie. And that got me thinking about whether chocolate is really the yin to vanilla’s yang (or vice versa). I mean, in the symbol, there’s a wee spot of yang in the yin and a wee spot of yin in the yang. The two parts of yin and yang are constantly in motion, and one cannot exist without the other. So, I began to consider the relationship between vanilla and chocolate: is it the same relationship as Yin and Yang? Are they opposites, or complements? Can one be fully itself without the other?
At first, I thought that vanilla and chocolate were the perfect yin and yang, but then I realized something. While chocolate seems to always benefit from the addition of a little vanilla (most chocolate cake and brownie recipes call for some vanilla extract), vanilla doesn’t always benefit from the addition of chocolate. Adding a little melted chocolate to a vanilla pudding is just going to give you sort-of-chocolate pudding. Chocolate is best able to complement vanilla when it isn’t completely incorporated. Unlike adding vanilla extract to any sort of chocolate batter or ganache, chocolate sets off vanilla to its best effect when each element retains its own characteristics.
Chocolate acts as a visual foil to vanilla–dark against light. In the mouth, sweet vanilla is balanced by the slightly bitter earthiness of chocolate. Pairing chocolate and vanilla also affords us the opportunity to play with temperature. There’s a reason why a hot fudge sundae is a classic.
Other ways to insert some chocolate oomph into vanilla desserts include tossing in some chocolate chips, shaved chocolate or adding it in the form of icings, frostings and sauces. Maybe part of the issue is that there really aren’t discrete “pieces” of vanilla that you can add to something chocolate. Yes, there are those white chips, but they don’t taste like vanilla. Vanilla generally comes in its liquid form, thus making it almost impossible to keep it separate from the rest of a batter. The only real example I can think of is a marble cake, in which a vanilla batter is swirled together with a chocolate batter. But vanilla-all-by-itself? I don’t think so.
Part Deux, in Which I Ponder the Horror of Imitations and Implore You to Seek Out Excellence
Vanilla and chocolate are both products made from plants–vanilla from the pods of vanilla orchids, and chocolate from the seeds of the cocao tree. As such, chocolate and vanilla can vary widely in flavor profile depending on where the pods or seeds were grown and how and with what they are processed. Vanilla and chocolate both should express terroir just as wine does. Unfortunately, while most of us don’t expect to taste the same flavors in every glass of wine we drink, we do expect this of our vanilla and chocolate. Maybe it’s because, even though there are a lot of wine drinkers out there, almost everyone likes chocolate and vanilla. In order to fill the demand for these flavors to hundreds of millions, even billions, of people, manufacturers have had to find a way to produce a consistent product. And consistency flies in the face of terroir. What the masses recognize as “vanilla” and “chocolate” are pale reflections of small batch vanillas and chocolates that true aficionados appreciate. For most of us, vanilla is the flavor of supermarket ice cream or (and this is really upsetting) instant pudding. Chocolate is the flavor of a Hershey’s kiss. Or instant pudding.
While I dig a Hershey’s kiss every once in awhile, I want nothing whatsoever to do with instant anything (other than instant gratification).
If you haven’t dug deeper into the chocolate/vanilla Situation than the instant pudding aisle, allow me to offer you some Options.
There are many very good small batch vanillas out there. Here are three that I have used and really enjoyed.
Baldwin–aged in oak barrels for a very intense vanilla experience. Definitely worth a try.
Nielsen-Massey–head and shoulders above supermarket brands, N-M Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla offers a straight-up vanilla flavor. Very consistent, very tasty product
Sonoma Syrups Vanilla Bean Crush–my current favorite, a mixture of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla and Tahitian vanilla. Very complex and floral.
The chocolate issue is a bit trickier. Since it is a solid, often it will have to stand on its own, so you want to like the taste of it. If you’re a Hershey or Nestle kind of person, start with other milk chocolates: you can usually find Callebaut at Whole Foods stores, and sometimes they have El Rey as well.
Lindt is ubiquitous in Europe and is also easily found in the grocery store aisles these days.
Look for varietal chocolates, also called single source or single origin chocolates–chocolates made exclusively from one type of bean grown in a specific area. Fortunately, these types of bars are becoming easier to find. I see them at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and even at the regular grocery. If you’re very lucky, there’s a guy making chocolates from “scratch” where you live–we have Escazu in Raleigh. Good stuff.
And now, I think I might have saved the best for last. My destinations for All Things Chocolate (along with a few extras): Chocosphere and World Wide Chocolate. Take a virtual trip to one of these sites of Wonder and stock up. Taste and find what you like. Then use it.
Oh, and snd don’t forget the cocoa powder. You can do much better than those brown boxes at the grocery store.
If you’ve made it this far, please add to the essay. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between vanilla and chocolate, your favorite way to enjoy the two flavors together or maybe a tip about a really great chocolate or vanilla that you’ve found and love. All comments are welcome.
See you soon.