What's Wrong With Chocolate


Photo by Michele Humes

To try lemon curd s'mores, click here for the recipe.

I like my sweets sharp and tangy--always have. Before I was old enough to grasp the social implications of my taste preferences, I shunned Rocky Road for lemon ices and Hershey's Kisses for sour Coke bottles. It was a simpler time, and many Starbursts were eaten.

Then puberty came, and with it involuntary induction into the Cocoa Sisterhood. Suddenly, value-packs of Mounds bars were supposed to soothe everything from menstrual cramps to heartbreak, "Is chocolate better than sex?" was a serious question, and the correct response to a brownie was a moan. To depart from this doctrine was sedition.

Now, I don't dislike chocolate, per se--at least not milk chocolate--but I never seek it out. I can't recall ever eating my way through two or three courses and thinking, "Well, wouldn't something dense, dark, and fatty just hit the spot!" I have thought, in those moments, of a brisk sorbet; of rhubarb compote on cool, thick yogurt; of shattering a burnt sugar top to get at a grapefruit tart--but of chocolate mousse, no, never.

Chocolate is the lazy cook's great enabler. It doesn't need peeling or coring, it's not seasonal or perishable, and it sells.

According to the top "casual dining" chains in America, who don't so much as fold a napkin without consulting a focus group, I am in the minority. I studied the carefully-calibrated menus of some of the country's most popular franchises and found that 68 percent of all desserts were chocolate-based, if not chocolate-dominated, and heaped with chocolate sauce and chocolate shavings besides. By contrast, only two desserts in my sample of 38 offered anything in the way of acidity; both were unadorned slabs of key lime pie.

I can accept that I'm in the minority, but is it really so slim a minority? The prevalence of sour flavors in children's candy suggests not. Of the customers who opt for brownie blitzkrieg, one has to wonder how many are bona fide chocoholics, and how many have been conditioned, victims of a powerful culinary rhetoric. For not only does chocolate dominate the menu and hoard the garnishes; chocolate gets all the most potent adjectives, too. A key lime pie is only ever key lime pie, but a chocolate cake might be a Triple Chocolate Meltdown, a Chocolate Outrage or, if you're dining at PF Chang's, the Great Wall of Chocolate.

Well, it's to be expected, you might say, this language of sin and excess. Chocolate is molten, gooey, decadent; a slice of key lime pie, fulfilling half your RDA of vitamin C, is entirely too wholesome. But the Meyer lemon cheesecake I crave is no less sinful, calorically, than a Quintuple Mocha Depravity. The only real sin at play here is sloth--that is, the sloth of the pastry chefs who come up with these one-note menus.

You see, chocolate is the lazy cook's great enabler. It doesn't need peeling or coring, it's not seasonal or perishable, and it sells. While it's certainly possible to work with chocolate at a very sophisticated level, it's also possible to microwave some couverture, skewer some banana slices, and call it fondue. A chef could throw himself into creating an inspired pastry program, or he could coast by on a flourless chocolate cake.

Happily, more and more chefs are opting not to coast. Where a 35-dollar entrée once stood between a diner and his raspberry soufflé, the farm-to-table movement, with its focus on local, seasonal produce, has democratized the fruit dessert. Pies, tarts, and ices, bright with the acidity of fresh fruit, are springing up in a whole new price range.

On menus across the country, and to my selfish glee, the chocolate dessert is fast becoming the token item--so at Seattle's Spring Hill, a scoop of chocolate-banana ice cream is the lone concession to the chocoholic, and the clear subordinate to a buttermilk panna cotta with huckleberries and a balsamic-drizzled plum crostada. More plums at Chicago's Mado, where a stone fruit and pistachio crisp is dolloped with tangy crème fraîche. And in New York City, Locanda Verde's sundae-for-two, assembled from rhubarb sorbet, lemon biscotti and fresh berries, is the very antithesis of hot fudge.

It seems there's hope yet for the 18 percent of us who, in a poll on this site, boldly came forward as lemonheads. But, should the trend prove fleeting and we find ourselves once more on our own, I have just the antidote: my take on the campfire classic, lemon curd s'mores.