Chocolate. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways. It’s luxurious, creamy, rich, soothing, sensual and satisfying. Americans crave it so much we eat more than nine pounds per person annually.
It’s only fitting then, that this object of our desire is linked to love and romance. “After being in the chocolate business for 15 years, I’ve found that chocolate symbolizes love because it makes people happy,” says Amy Dunfee, owner of Red Bank Chocolate Shoppe.
The connection goes back to the Aztecs, who considered their spicy chocolate drink xocoatl, an aphrodisiac. By the early 1600s, a sweeter version of “drinking chocolate” was popular in Europe as a cure-all and love potion. But, the association between romance and chocolate wasn’t cemented until 1861 when Richard Cadbury packaged “eating chocolates” in heart-shaped boxes adorned with cupids and roses for Valentine’s Day. Romance-crazed Victorians bought the beautiful boxes for their sweethearts, and after the candy was eaten, saved them to hold love letters and other mementos.
Science is involved here, too. Chocolate contains tryptophan, which makes serotonin, a chemical that helps us feel good and puts us in the mood for love. Eating chocolate releases mood-boosting endorphins and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
There may be other healing powers in the sweet stuff. Early civilizations used cacao-based remedies to treat infections, coughs, gout, dysentery, rashes, fever, and even seizures. Today, modern medicine believes chocolate can benefit
cardio-vascular systems, improve blood circulation, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol. Studies show flavanol-rich cocoa and chocolate can improve blood-flow to the brain, and enhance performance, alertness and cognitive skills.
Sorry, milk chocolate fans; this doesn’t apply to you. The more cocoa is processed and diluted with milk, sugar and butter, the fewer the health perks. Experts recommend dark chocolate with 70 to 80 percent cocoa—limited to seven ounces a week—to get the maximum benefit. More reasons to opt for dark: it’s loaded with antioxidants, and research shows it offers a greater feeling of satiety than milk chocolate, requiring less to soothe a craving.
Fortunately, ‘tis the season for chocolate, and Red Bank’s shops and restaurants are paying homage to the decadent treat.
At Red Bank Chocolate Shoppe, 17 White Street, Dunfee has a huge variety of chocolate gift boxes—including those iconic heart-shaped ones. Other customer favorites include chocolate-covered strawberries and, “anything that combines our homemade caramel and peanut butter, especially the Red Bank Twist,” a pretzel dipped in caramel, slathered with peanut butter and enrobed in chocolate.
According to Ayca User, founding owner and general manager of Antoinette Boulangerie, 32 Monmouth St., the French patisserie offers individual, heart-shaped Chocolate Mousse Cakes with Hand-dipped Chocolate Strawberries. And, chocolate is paired with raspberries, chocolate cake, ganache and raspberry compote in Chocolate Raspberry Indulgence.
Lauren Phillips, chef-owner with Claudette Herring of Via 45, 45 Broad St., says chocolate desserts are on the menu year-round, but adds, “We really step it up a notch around Valentine’s Day.” Favorites include Chocolate Fudge Caramel Sea Salt Brownies, Chocolate Flourless Cake, and White Chocolate Raspberry-Infused Cheesecake.
At Sugarush, 37 East Front St., co-owner Amanda Porter says vanilla is usually the most popular cupcake flavor, except around Valentine’s Day when chocolate, and cocoa-based red velvet flavors rule. “People see them as more decadent,” she says. Their Red Devil, a red velvet cupcake stuffed with chocolate mousse, iced with triple-chocolate fudge, and topped with chocolate chips, “Is a chocolate lovers dream,” she says.
Whipped: A Creperie & Dessert Bar, 6 Monmouth St., is serving Godiva Chocolate French Toast for breakfast, an entire hot chocolate menu, and a special Red Velvet Crepe with Chocolate-Covered Strawberries and Cream Cheese Frosting. According to Nick Napoletano, who owns the restaurant with girlfriend Erica Lieberman, the decadent creation inspired a sweet proposal last Valentine’s Day. “A young man asked us to put a note on the dish that read, ‘It would be crepe if you would be my girlfriend!’ I think it worked out pretty well for him,” Napoletano says.
Kids love the chocolate workshops at Chocolate Works, 36 Broad St., where they can make a personal chocolate pretzel pizza, or decorate a chocolate lollipop. But, Randi Garfinkel, who opened the business with her family last August, says adults go for strawberries dipped in white, pink, dark or milk chocolate. “They even look like hearts, so they’ve become a symbol of love and decadence,” she says.
The signature Valentine’s drink at the Molly Pitcher Inn is a Tuxedo Strawberry Martini with vodka, Godiva chocolate liqueurs, strawberry puree, heavy cream, and chocolate syrup. The dessert menu features Chocolate Hazelnut Cake with Dark Chocolate-Espresso Ganache, and “Fantaisie Dessert au Chocolat Pour Deux,” a treat meant to be shared. “In my world, chocolate is the ultimate food group,” says executive chef Bill Roll. “It can turn a lousy day into a great one. It’s fabulous as a candy, a cake, or my favorite, a warm chocolate chip cookie. What’s not to like?”