There's no doubt about it: I'm a lucky girl. As far as food is concerned, one thing about which I feel fortunate - and I'm going to lay my credibility on the line here - is that I can take or leave chocolate. It's not that I don't like the stuff: I do - ebony to ivory, artisanal to mass-produced, and fudge to brownie. But for me, dark and milk chocolate hardly incite craving, swooning or prolonged reverie. Furthermore, I find zero appeal in the idea of following a hearty, savoury dinner with a warm, gooey puck of molten chocolate, the favoured way to end a nice meal for millions of mentally fit people.
If the cheese stands alone, I'm happy to keep vigil. It's hard for me to ignore a lovely wedge of cheese, but I can - and do - blithely disregard chocolate. It is because I am able to hold chocolate at arm's length, literally and figuratively, that I'm able to store vast quantities of it for baking and for moulding homemade truffles without it boring a hole into my perpetually peckish subconscious. Call me crazy, call me lucky, but my attitude toward chocolate is diplomatic to the point of distant.
I do, however, harbour a secret weakness for white chocolate, despite the legions of self-professed chocolate fiends out there who denounce it. "It's not real chocolate," they'll insist. Composed of cocoa butter (which, like chocolate, comes from cacao beans), milk solids and sugar, it is pooh-poohed by naysayers, but mythbusters maintain that poor, misunderstood, underrated, underestimated white chocolate has its merits.
Until 2002, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forbade white chocolate even to be called chocolate. Eventually, the FDA modified its standards of identity, allowing white chocolate to be called chocolate as long as it contains a minimum of 20 per cent cocoa butter. Therefore, white chocolate made to those standards is chocolate, albeit of a different kind; its creamy, ivory appearance the result of containing none of the ground beans or cacao mass in dark and milk chocolate. The higher the percentage of cocoa butter, the creamier the texture and the richer the flavour.
Percentages posted on bars of white chocolate reveal the proportion of cocoa butter content, whereas on a milk or dark chocolate bar, they disclose the percentage of cocoa solids. It's cocoa butter that gives chocolate its seductive qualities while melting, releasing aromas and flavours as it is warmed in a pan or on your tongue. Cocoa butter is distinctively chocolatey and quite delicious; it's why real white chocolate tastes wonderful and provides an incomparable backbone to so many desserts and even savoury dishes.
In the 1930s, Nestlé launched a white chocolate bar in Europe as a way to use excess cocoa butter. It was first popularly distributed in the US in 1948 as Nestlé's almond-studded Alpine White Chocolate bar, the first mass-distributed white chocolate confection, which met its demise in the 1990s. If it is a waxy texture and a cloying sweetness that you fear, avoid the Alpine's substitute, the Nestlé Milkybar, something I remember well from my schooldays when stragglers who tried to buy chocolate at the end of lunch break were often left with no alternative to the dreaded Milkybar.
I like to melt white chocolate into milk steeped with fresh mint leaves for a white hot chocolate. A common pitfall when working with white chocolate is ending up with a product that is too sweet or just plain uninteresting. But white chocolate can take an aggressive lashing of acid that darker chocolate cannot handle. One of very few things I violently dislike is the combination of dark chocolates with most fruits: the acidity of the fruit obliterates the nuances of the chocolate, and vice versa. White chocolate, on the other hand, was made for pairing with fruit: pears, raspberries, lemon, lime - and even herbs like lavender.
Most of all, I love David Lebovitz's recipe for "The Toffee of Milk", otherwise known as caramelised white chocolate. The recipe, which can be found on Lebovitz's website (www.davidlebovitz.com), is guaranteed to make even the staunchest dark-chocolate devotee do a double take - or a double dip. Together, silky white chocolate and austere, bittersweet chocolate are as suave and subtle as a handmade tuxedo. The dark side has its draw, but good white chocolate is a dark horse in itself.
I've always found bad white chocolate to be immeasurably worse than lousy milk or dark chocolate, and have long suspected that many people who think they don't like white chocolate have simply never been exposed to the good stuff. A decent starting point for sceptics is Green & Black's vanilla-flecked bar of white chocolate.