Combining savory cheese with sweet chocolate results in unique flavor sensations.
Autumn excites chocolate lovers. The summer heat that melts the sweet stuff in our hands also coats a silky, dark brown bar, left to sit, in a bloom of white dust. But let the cooler weather set in, and we gravitate towards chocolate, just as a greater variety of cheese beckons.
Chocolate and cheese may seem worlds apart, but they make for highly compatible culinary mates. It’s all in knowing how to pair them. Forget simplistic advice about pairing a certain cheese with dark versus milk or white chocolate. Not all dark chocolates are the same. Likewise, milk and white chocolate vary widely. And there’s a huge difference between the impoverished flavors of industrial, or commodity cacao (cocoa) beans, found in the major chocolate brands versus the rainbow of aromatics found in “fine” flavor beans coveted by artisan chocolate makers. To pair convincingly, we need to consider flavor profiles, no matter what kind of chocolate or cheese ends up crossing our lips.
As a cheese lover, you might be perplexed if someone described a sample wedge as “cheesy.” What does that mean? Brie? Or feta? They might as well be speaking Greek. They’re likely referring to a commercial cheddary cheese-in-a-can aroma. But what if they’re thinking pizza cheese? When those of us with a deeper appreciation are presented with a piece of cheese and take a whiff, our sense memories serve up a world of flavor—fresh grass, butterscotch, mushroom, buttermilk, citrus, red fruit or other aromas. “It tastes cheesy” is gibberish.
It’s the same for chocolate aficionados. “Chocolatey,” seems to mean a roasted, cocoa powder aroma that dominates a semi-sweet industrial bar. There may be hints of nut or vanilla. Milk chocolate may include caramel aromas. That’s about as complex as it gets. The phrase “tastes like chocolate” stops me in my tracks because I perceive chocolate in terms of flavor profiles, which vary widely due to the origins and processing of the cacao beans. A bar may smell of citrus, berries, tropical fruits, nuts, coffee, herbs and spice or more. These are not added flavors; they come from the DNA of the cacao beans themselves and how they are handled during critical stages of processing.
Quantity vs. Quality
Richness and variety in chocolate come from the beans, which are seeds, of the cacao fruit. Beans are roasted, then ground to produce liquid chocolate. Fine flavor chocolate needs little more than sugar before it is tempered and molded. Some traditional artisans add vanilla, more cocoa butter and lecithin.
Dark bars range from 60-100% cacao. Modern craft chocolate usually runs in excess of 70% with few additives. The goal is to let fine beans reveal themselves.Craft dark milk bars may contain between 40-70% cacao, often overlapping regular dark bars’ cacao values. The percentage of cacao or cocoa mass in an industrial dark chocolate bar is usually less than 55%, and milk chocolate less than 35%.
Commodity cacaos purchased by major chocolate companies are bred for disease resistance and high yield to lower costs. The beans aren’t as flavorful, so industrial chocolates make up for it by increasing sugar and other additives. Dark and milk industrial chocolate bars used to add cocoa butter, but increasingly they are substituting cheaper dairy or vegetable fats. Vanillin (a wood by-product), has largely replaced more natural vanilla extract or pure vanilla bean. When it comes to flavor, ingredients matter.
Chocolate originated in ancient Mesoamerica. Before the Spanish conquest, chocolate was savory, usually mixed to drink with corn flour, flowers, chilies and spices. The Europeans brought sugar and milk into the picture but continued to consume chocolate mainly as a drink well into the 19th Century. We are accustomed to dairy in chocolate milk, milk chocolate bars, puddings, pastries and bonbons with centers containing cream and butter. But cheese and chocolate pairing may not come so naturally to us. That’s easy to explain. Cheese is complex. So is chocolate. And we have to know the individuals well to create a compatible duo.
Hot Cocoa or
French Chocolat Chaud
Let’s start with drinking chocolate. Several excellent artisan chocolate makers produce specialty cocoas or ‘sipping chocolates.’ Fruition Chocolate, Shokan, NY; Potomac Chocolate, Occoquan, VA; Ritual Chocolate, Park City, UT; French Broad Chocolate, Asheville, NC; Castronovo Chocolate, Stuart, FL; and Dandelion Chocolate, San Francisco don’t turn out the usual alkalized cocoa powders. They’re made with ethically-sourced, fine flavor beans. You’ll find descriptions of the cacao origins and the ingredients on the company websites.
Award-winning Fruition Chocolate’s Bryan Graham is known as one of the top chocolate makers in the United States. I’ve been a fan for years, so wife and co-owner, Dahlia Graham, was kind enough to send me a care-package of their products for researching this article. Their Sipping Chocolate is made from beans sourced from the Dominican Republic and Tanzania, which give their cocoa a broad spectrum of pairing-compatible flavors. The instructions call for plain milk, but I used half and half for added richness. While delicious hot, which was how I paired the Sipping Chocolate with cheese, I also highly recommend chilling the mix overnight. Not to pair, just as a stand-alone refreshment. It was out of this world!
Cheese Pairing for Cocoa
or Chocolat Chaud
Hot chocolate works with a variety of fresh cheeses, from mozzarella to goat chèvre, and with Brie-type soft cheeses, such as:
Saint Angel by Fromagerie Guilloteau (France)
Cremont by Vermont Creamery (USA)
If you’re in the mood for a truly decadent pairing, try triple cream Saint Angel. So buttery! The Cremont, a double cream mix of cow and goat milks, has just enough of the latter to give the pairing an edge. I didn’t miss the usual pinch of chili in my cocoa at all! Both cheeses derive their bloomy rinds from Geotrichum, which tends to make a sweeter paste than Penicillium candidum.
Bonbons or Chocolate Caramels
There are too many bonbons and chocolate caramels offered by chocolatiers to mention here but I included one example to explain how to go about pairing them using flavor profiles. When pairing, think balance. No element should overpower to the point of obliterating the chocolate, the centers or the cheese.
Fruition’s Passion Fruit Caramels presented intriguing possibilities. They have a 68% Dominican cacao shell that is nearly overpowered by the dominant sweet and tart combination of the passion fruit centers. I wanted to find a cheese that would allow the chocolate to show up. Alpines can have complementary fruit notes as well as enough salinity to counterbalance the caramel. Sampling Alpine-types, several worked adequately with the citrusy caramel element, but one Alpine truly stood out. Swiss Appenzeller allowed the chocolate to hold its own while producing full-bodied flavors for each component. CCCombining savory cheese with sweet chocolate
results in unique flavor sensations.
Pairing Cheeses and Dark Chocolate Bars
To pair cheese and chocolate bars, start with either. What are the dominant flavors? Identify a partner with complementary and/or
counterbalancing aromas and flavors.
Here are some examples using common cheese types.
Prairie Breeze by Milton Creamery, Milton, IA
& Portland, OR’s Creo Chocolate’s Heirloom Hacienda Limon (Ecuador) 73%
The sharp notes in the cheese are counterbalanced by the honey and caramel in the chocolate, while lemony and nutty cheese notes are complemented by the nuts and red fruit in the chocolate. An earthier cheddar with umami notes, such as the UK’s Montgomery’s can pair with a classic Madagascar cacao.
Toma by Point Reyes Farmstead, Point Reyes Station, CA, & San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate Hacienda Azul (Costa Rica) 70%
Sweet butter and mild tang meet cocoa, almond and caramel.
Fontina PDO (Italy) & Marou Chocolate (Vietnam) Tien Giang 70%
Fruit and earthy mushroom meet brown fruit and spice.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve by Uplands Dairy, Dodgeville, WI & Dandelion Chocolate’s Maya Mountain (Belize) 70%
Tangy fruit acids, butterscotch, caramelized onion, and a whisper of grass meet pineapple, other fruits and cocoa. If an Alpine has lemon or pineapple notes, try a Madagascar bar. If the Alpine leans more savory, try a Dominican bar.
Whether an Italian Pecorino, a Spanish Manchego or a sheep cheese from elsewhere, Dominican Republic cacaos, bold and versatile, with red fruit and solid backbone of cocoa, work nicely. Candied citrus in both Manchego and Bonnat Chocolate’s (France) Madagascar 75% also matched.
Aged Goat Logs:
Boucherondin by Sevre et Belle (France)
& Soma Chocolatemaker’s (Canada) Creole Gardens (Haiti) 70%
The log’s lemony tang is easily matched by this complex bar with cocoa, spice, raspberry and other fruit notes.
Red Hawk by Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station, CA, & Ritual Chocolate (USA) Soconusco (Mexico)70%
Apricot and tangelo, cream cheese, and Cheetos meet a whisper of citrus, toasted nut and cocoa.
Stilton PDO (UK) by Colston Bassett
& Marou Chocolate (Vietnam) Tien Giang 80 %
Chocolate, umami and pepper notes in this cheese meet the spice and brown fruit of the Tien Giang. With milder, sweeter blues, try Tien Giang 70%.
If you prefer, try pairing a dark milk with a similar, but muted, profile to the bars recommended.
Once you find pleasing combinations, venture beyond cheese plates. Grate chocolate onto a warm cheese soufflé, quiche or mac and cheese. Try a grilled cheese and chocolate sandwich!
French-style Hot Chocolate aka
Instead of pre-made mixes or powdered cocoa, you can make your own hot chocolate the European way by melting your favorite dark chocolate bars. For my purposes, Fruition Chocolate’s Hispaniola 68% bar served as a comparison with their Sipping Chocolate, and I didn’t need to add any sugar. But you can use any favorite dark bar. If you choose a higher percentage cacao bar, just add sugar.
Basic Recipe: Makes 3 cups
3 cups of whole milk, or half-and-half
6 oz of finely chopped dark
Optional: brown or Demerara sugar, fleur de sel, or spices.
Bring milk to a low simmer. Do not boil. Remove from the stove or microwave oven, and whisk in the chocolate until completely melted. Add an optional pinch of fleur de sel, ground cinnamon or nutmeg, or a dash of cayenne or habanero chili powder. Bring to simmer again, remove from the heat, and whisk for approximately 1 minute. Sweeten to taste with brown or Demerara sugar. Whisk until fully dissolved and foamy.
Chocolat Chaud is so rich that it can be served in demitasse cups. Less is more! Indulge by topping with a dainty dollop of whipped or Chantilly cream.