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Scientists have long debated the merits of chocolate, but the latest research suggests that one of our favorite addictions is one of the most healthful foods we can consume.

"That's such a good thing for those who love chocolate," says registered dietitian Allison Knott.

This past fall, a limited study of almonds and chocolate by the American Heart Association found that this tasty combination may help lower cholesterol, as almonds are known to be one of the healthiest nuts on the planet. Further studies need to be made to conclude this association between almonds and chocolate, but until then, you can feel better indulging in this tasty snack.

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Anne Braly

The health benefits of chocolate center on compounds called flavanols, which are found in cocoa. Flavanols are highest in dark chocolate, as compared to milk chocolate, and may have benefits on the heart by helping to reduce blood pressure and inflammation.

"There really isn't a prescription amount of dark chocolate that should be eaten daily or weekly," Knott advises. She says this is because the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine has not yet established a standard recommended dietary allowance for flavanols found in chocolate.

"The key message is if you're eating chocolate, choose dark over milk chocolate," she adds. "Enjoy it in small quantities, and eat it as a replacement to other sweets, especially those high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates."

Newcomers to the world of dark chocolate may not enjoy its bitter taste. "It does take some adjustment," Knott says. So, she offers several ways to develop a liking for it.

» Pair dark chocolate with small amounts of salt to cut the bitterness. Think dark-chocolate-covered almonds with sea salt. Remember, keep the salt amount to a minimum to avoid going overboard on sodium.

» Melt it to use as a dip for fresh fruit for dessert. The bitterness of the chocolate paired with the sweetness of the fruit is a perfect combination. Dark-chocolate-covered strawberries, bananas, mango and orange are just a few that work well together.

» Start with a chocolate that's 55 to 65 percent dark chocolate. Once you've acquired a taste for this ratio, work your way into the world of darkness from there. You'll find that many chocolate companies are creating dark-chocolate bars that are quite exceptional.

This Valentine's Day, pair your dark chocolate with a glass of red wine — you'll double the health benefits.

"Red wine is also a source of flavanols, which may have the same benefits as dark chocolate," Knott says.

And if you're looking for a great red wine to share with the special someone, Josh Cellars has a new North Coast Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that retails for $19.99. With aromas of fresh black cherries, black currant, rose petals and roasted walnuts, it's a wonderful compliment to dark chocolate.

This recipe — perfect for your Valentine's dessert — is not overly sweet, though you can add to the sweetness by topping the tart with sweetened whipped cream or a scoop of your favorite ice cream. For those of you who love the taste of dark chocolate, fresh berries and kiwi are a beautiful topping that add a nice finish — their wonderful vitamins adding to the overall health benefits of the tart.

Dark Chocolate Tart

Crust:

12 graham crackers

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons butter, melted

Filling:

10 ounces dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa)

1 1/3 cups heavy cream

2 eggs

Dash of salt

1 teaspoon almond extract

Ganache:

2 ounces dark chocolate

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon light corn syrup

Crust: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place graham crackers in a food processor and pulse until fine crumbs; remove to bowl and combine with cocoa powder, sugar and butter. Press mixture to the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of an 9-inch tart pan. Bake for 9-10 minutes, until browned. Cool completely.

Filling: Place chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat heavy cream to a boil, remove from heat and pour over the chocolate. Let stand for 1 minute, then whisk to combine. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for 5 more minutes. Beat eggs with a whisk. Add salt and extract. Slowly add eggs to the warm chocolate mixture, stirring constantly.

Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve, then pour on top of the cooled crust. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until set. Cool to room temperature.

Ganache: Place chocolate in a small bowl. Heat heavy cream just to a boil, remove from heat and pour over the chocolate. Let stand for 2 minutes. Add the light corn syrup, and stir until smooth. You don't want any lumps. Pour ganache on top of the dark chocolate tart to coat evenly. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Garnish as desired with sweetened whipped cream and/or fresh fruit.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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