The Confectionaries of Love
As Valentine’s Day approaches, all one can think of is the chocolates and heart shaped treats for loved ones. Alongside flowers and jewellery, chocolate has become a standard gift to show love, but how did this semi-sweet treat achieve its iconic role?
The history of chocolate can be traced back to the ancient Mayans and even earlier to the early Olmecs of southern Mexico. Although the original versions of brewed chocolate drinks were concoated from cocoa beans around 500 BCE — many centuries before the first Valentine’s day; this drink played an important role in Mayan rituals, such as weddings, in which the bride and groom would exchange sips of the beverage during the ceremony.
The Aztecs also revered chocolate, associating cacao to their gods. Like the Mayans, they enjoyed drinking chocolate, but they also used cacao beans as currency and can be considered to be more valuable than gold. One of the most notorious Aztec names associated with chocolate was an Aztec ruler, Montezuma II. He was rumoured to have drunk gallons of chocolate each day because he believed it gave him energy and can act as an aphrodisiac.
Natural chemicals like tryptophan and phenylethylamine, which can release endorphins triggering feelings of love and desire, are found in chocolate. Although scientists say there isn’t enough of either substance to make chocolate a strong aphrodisiac, the act of giving and eating chocolate can also release Endorphins and Oxytocin in your brain, a chemical which gives pleasure.
The Rise of the Macaron
One treat that is gunning for chocolate’s symbolic role in the language of love, is the chewy, delicate, and versatile — macarons.
The popularity of macarons have increased over the years as it becomes more readily available across the world. Macarons today can be found in many flavours and fillings, appealing to a wider audience outside of Europe.
Macarons are considered to be of Italian origin, dating back to the 8th Century. The delicacy was thought to be introduced to France in 1533 by Queen Catherine de’ Medici of Italy. Legend has it that her pastry chefs brought the early forms of the macaron recipe with them when she married King Henry II of France.
However, it was the French who made the macaroon truly distinguished as a culinary delight. In spite of the simple ingredients in the recipe, macarons are very hard to perfect, challenging even the most reputable bakers in their skills and technique.
Not to be confused with the coconut cousin with a similar namesake of ‘macaroon’, the French macaron is a sweet meringue-based treat made with egg white, icing sugar, granulated sugar, almond meal, and food coloring.
Good macarons have a light, airy bite to them that can really bring a feeling of romance to the moment. When you give you significant other macarons for Valentine’s Day, this automatically sends a message that lets them know that you care
Romancing the Chef
Pastry Chef, Panha Rith Hak has perfected his culinary skills in making beautiful delicacies for the French café-restaurant and gourmet delicatessen, Khema, since 2013. Clad in a pristine white chef’s uniform, Hak beamed with pride as he gazed over an array of heart shaped chocolates and macarons he was preparing for the Valentine’s Day holiday.
In his 30 years of life in Phnom Penh, Hak has garnered a reputation as a reliable leader and a technical confectionary chef in Cambodia. He started his career in the food and beverage business in 2013 as a baker’s assistant at the fine dining restaurant, Topaz. Cultivating a name as a chef, he was promoted to a Chef de partie (CDP), also known as a “station chef” or “line cook”, and managed the whole bakery and pastry division at Khema Siem Reap. After 2 years in Siem Reap, he returned to Phnom Penh to further expand his role under the same position over the flagship venue at Khema Pasteur. After 8 years under Khema, Hak is now their main sous chef in desserts.
Hak explained how much of the cocoa beans he uses originated from South America. “Now, for cocoa, we have around 50 countries including from southern Asia,” Hak stated. Adding that this year, the Valentine’s Day menu will include chocolate tablets alongside many other bonbon chocolates.
‘Bon’, meaning ‘good’ in the French language, is a round shaped piece of chocolate filled with fruit, ganache, caramel, nuts or nougat in the center. Each piece is decorated with stencilled art or dusted with cocoa powder for a polished look. “The white chocolate ones have 30% cocoa,” Hak explained as he gently tapped a frozen mould, revealing small white bonbons with tiny hearts. “There are around 10 types(of chocolate bonbons). We do 3 to 4 types every 2 days, about 100 to 150 pieces.”
The process he uses makes the chocolate shiny and is popular with customers who want to decorate on top of other desserts. Hak expects the newest addition of chocolate tablets to become a popular item for the romantic holiday. The tablets he made are slabs of pre-cut chocolate bars mixed with nuts, in the rich colors of blue, pink, and dark brown.
Macarons are also a fun symbol of love, Hak noted. “Macarons are made from egg whites and sugar or a meringue base, and mixed with almond powder,” he explained. “What makes a macaron special is the crispy surface and soft filling inside.” When ordering a macaron, Hak recommends his favorite flavor, vanilla because of the excellent quality of vanilla beans they use in their kitchens.
So, keep an eye out for these delicate and rich edible treats of love.
Written by Sotheavy Nou