Uncork the wine, put out a selection of chocolate bars with accompaniments like fruit and nuts on a beautiful board and invite friends to bring a few of their favorite chocolates to share. This fun chocolate-centric dessert party is a simple and perfect way to celebrate any occasion. We'll show you exactly how to dress up a beautiful chocolate spread to keep things festive and informal plus pointers on what to buy and, best of all, how to taste.
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Select three to four chocolate bars with a limited number of ingredients so you can really experience the flavor of the cocoa. Pick single-origin bars that have approximately the same percentage of cocoa mass (72% cacao, for example) and similar ingredients.
A great place to start for a variety of flavors are with bars from Ecuador, Ghana, Venezuela and Madagascar. As with wine, where and how cocoa is grown—its terroir, or taste of place—can impart layers of flavor to chocolate. The variety of plant, or cultivar, itself also impacts flavor. Ecuador, for example, is known for cocoa with floral and nutty notes, while beans from Venezuela are prized for delicate flavors of caramel and honey. And a good portion of craft chocolate made from Madagascan beans comes from a plantation known for cocoa with a sweet-tartness akin to green apples.
The majority of cocoa beans, however, are sold almost interchangeably—where beans from Ghana are considered equivalent to those from, say, Indonesia—and bred for yield and disease-resistance, not diversity of flavor. They're made into chocolate with strict recipes that require consistency. For good reason: we want to recognize the taste of our Ghirardelli or Hershey's bar every time we reach for it. But if it's terroir you're after, go craft.
We love these bars (pictured above) from Dandelion Chocolate. They're all 70% cacao but come from different regions. Plus, you can find the tasting notes from the roaster on the front of each bar's gorgeous paper wrapping. Or try sampling a few chocolates from the same origin by different makers—an excellent way to understand how the skills of a chocolatier are revealed through the bar.
Related: Our Best Chocolate Dessert Recipes
Pictured Recipe: Button Shortbread Cookies
While they aren't saltine crackers, some cubed pound cake, shortbread cookies and/or dry-roasted nuts (like pecans and hazelnuts) on this chocolate board are a great way to cleanse your palette between tasting each chocolate. Or use them to pair along with the chocolate, like you would with cheese and a cracker.
Related: Lightened-Up Cookie Recipes
Pictured Recipe: Chocolate-Dipped Pineapple Rings
Fill in the holes on your board while adding a pop of color and juicy flavor with fruit. Tried fresh figs, berries, citrus segments and even some dried fruit like apricots or crystalized ginger. If you really love chocolate, you could even add chocolate-dipped fruit to the mix. Or serve the fresh fruit on the board with a side of melted chocolate for dipping.
Related: Chocolate-Dipped Fruit Recipes
What's a chocolate board without something to wash it all down? Pour a sweeter white wine, like riesling, it's a natural with chocolate. Or go for an off-dry bubbly, like lambrusco, or port. You can also pull a wild card: bourbon. Yes, it totally works.
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Slowing down to savor the sight, scent and complexity of flavor will give you a deeper appreciation for every bar. Here's how to do it:
Before you dig in, look at the chocolate's color, sheen and shape. These visuals prime you for what's to come. Any whitish cast (known as "bloom") is the separation of cocoa fat, not mold. This can happen if the chocolate wasn't kept at a consistent temperature.
Hold the bar up to your ear and listen to how it breaks. A tight snap is a sign of good tempering.
Now smell the chocolate and notice what aromas are strongest. Most of what we think of as flavor comes from smell, not taste. Cocoa from Ecuador is known for nuttiness, while Venezuelan cocoa is celebrated for more delicate, caramel-like notes. The diversity of scents you can find in chocolate rival those found in wine. (If you want to really geek out on all the different scents, tastes and mouthfeels, download this Chocolate Sensory Wheel from renowned chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut.)
Taste chocolate in order of intensity—from dark to milk—beginning with bars that have a higher percentage of cocoa mass (and less sugar) and working your way to those with lower amounts. This ensures the sugar and lactose in the milk powder—or any other added ingredients—won't overwhelm your palate before you have a chance to appreciate the flavor of the darker cocoas.
Place a small piece of chocolate on your tongue and allow it to melt and coat your mouth. Cocoa beans are about 50 percent fat (cocoa butter). The aromas bound up in that fat fully disperse when chocolate starts to melt. You will now experience not only the smells, but tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.
Notice the mouthfeel of the chocolate. Is it creamy or waxy? Is the texture rough or velvety? Assess the finish: does it linger or end quickly? There is no gold standard in terms of texture; it simply indicates the amount of fat in the bean and the way the cocoa was processed. Cocoa ground in a stone mill, for example, will have a rougher texture, while the addition of extra cocoa butter makes a bar silkier.
The formal way to taste is to have a small sip of room-temperature water and an unsalted cracker between bites to cleanse your palate. Otherwise, dig right back in and sample again. And again. And again.