Hotel Chocolat- trying to do the right thing

Chocolate

Chocolate…could we imagine life without it? We’ve all wanted to drink from the Wonka River at some point. But this dark delight also has a darker side hidden at the cocoa farms in places like Cote d’Ivore (The Ivory Coast). One of the things that impressed me most about England during my return over Christmas was the amount of ethically sourced chocolate easily available. Here in the States, most people I meet have never heard of the human right’s issues surrounding the cocoa industry. To be honest I am not surprised when you consider that the major chocolate companies in this country are the ones continuing to fuel the problem. It’s hard for us to accept in our modern society that chocolate is a luxury item when we consume such massive amounts. Even more so, in this difficult economy, we aren’t interested in paying more money for something that you can find everywhere for much cheaper prices. But the truth is, that chocolate is a luxury item and the only reason it has become such a predominant part of our lives is because cocoa is being harvested in harsh conditions and mostly on the backs of child workers, a lot of whom are slaves, so it can be a cheaper commodity.

chocolate

Just for a moment think about all the ease with which we find chocolate and use it in daily life…..desserts at restaurants, in healthy snacks as well as indulgent ones, baked goods, in coffee drinks, chocolate milk, and breakfast cereals not to mention all the holidays that focus on candy and chocolate….Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Easter. You then start to realize why this issue is not being brought to the forefront as much as other human rights issues. Can you imagine the impact on the cocoa industry?….No but seriously, can you imagine the impact on the cocoa industry? Our choices make all the difference for other people around the world. I think as consumers we feel so powerless against these corporate giants. It almost reminds me of the Disney-Pixar movie A Bug’s Life where all the ants think that the grasshoppers have this terrifying  control over them. But, there’s the great moment when the ants suddenly get it…..there are more of them, they are the ones who provide food and they have the real power after all. We are the ants….there are more of us than there are greedy corporations and our money and purchase power are what they depend on. If a company starts losing profits, and their shareholders are not happy, you can guarantee that they will change tactics to get their ‘piece of the pie’. Just look at the ‘organic’ industry and all that has changed in the last 10 years. Once sales for non-organic items began to drop, smart companies realized they needed to start producing more organic items to recoup their profits. Already, we are beginning to see the pressure in some parts of the country and in the UK and it’s forcing companies not to turn a blind eye anymore but to take responsibility for their cocoa farmers/suppliers practices. And, although not enough change has happened yet, there are several cocoa companies, such as Divine (on-line and specialty stored) and Green & Blacks (only one available at major grocery chains), specializing in producing chocolate in ethical ways.

Slave Free Chocolate

While in England my brother introduced us to the masterful world of Hotel Chocolat and you can imagine my delight when I discovered that they are making it part of their mission to treat and pay their farmers as valued employees and investing in their well being and success.  I then felt totally free to wander round their little Cambridge boutique and admire the ingenious chocolate creations. Here are the ones my generous brother purchased for us to sample. Needless to say they were amazing!

Hotel Chocolat

Some of you may not have heard about the issue of child labour and slavery in the cocoa industry, and probably have lots of questions There are obviously many factors contributing to these problems and I have only touched the surface so here are some helpful links to aid you in your own research. 

Hotel Chocolat

Crossing Borders Fair Trade

CNN Freedom Project

Food is Power

Finally, I understand that it can be quite overwhelming when you begin to learn about this issue and might be uncertain about what to do next. Even if it is informing others, trading out just one of your usual candy bar choices for a slave-free one, or going all out and only purchasing/consuming slave-free options, everything is beneficial in sending the message that these kinds of practices are not acceptable. It is a long road ahead to make the world slave-free but the worst thing we can do is remain ignorant and not do anything.

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Chocolate Almond Baklava Rolls- in loving memory of Aunt Ellie

My Aunt Ellie recently passed away. It was rather quick and a shock to all of us when she got sick as we knew her as a very vivacious and lively woman. She was the wife of my dad’s eldest brother, Tony, and they lived in Canada or America throughout my childhood. They would occasionally pass through on their way to Greece/Cyprus, or sometimes he had a conference to attend in England and they would spend more than a few days. I didn’t really know them very well during this time but one thing I always remember is that she had the funniest stories, mostly about crazy things that had happened to her (like greeting a waiter at a reunion thinking he was one of the family, praying aloud for a young person referring to them as ‘he’ only to discover later that ‘he’ was a ‘she’, and many more). I loved that she could laugh at these things and her accounts were extremely entertaining.

Tony and Ellie moved to Cyprus a couple of years before my family did in 1993. I was 15 and finally at an age where my relationship with them began to deepen. One thing I soon learned was that Ellie welcomed everyone into her home with a lot of joy and a full plate of food! Although they moved away the following year, we ended up living in the same town again for about 6 months when I came to the States for my graduate degree in 2002. Every Sunday lunch featured a table full of people she had invited for a delicious meal and a dose of her amazing hospitality. All of my roommates soon loved being invited to Auntie Ellie’s and even when I went alone they would wait eagerly as I came home with several bags of Tupperware packed with leftovers every week. (Greek people always plan food for about 20 more people than they invite and Ellie was no exception!) She and I would have discussions about life and faith, and even though we may not have agreed on everything, and although I would arrive each week to find that she was trying to set me up with whatever single guy from church she could find (without warning me!), I had a lot of fun getting to know her better as a real person and not just ‘some relative that comes to visit.’ I have two very vivid memories of my time with her during this period. The first was when she took me out shopping for 10 hours straight (my feet still hurt thinking about it!), and the second is when she taught me to make her famous baklava rolls. Tony and Ellie moved permanently to Greece in the middle of my first year of grad school. When she passed away this summer, numerous people (around the world!) poured out their happy memories of her cooking and hospitality among many other qualities they admired in her. I only hope I have impacted half the number of people that shared their thoughts after her passing.

I have carried on her baklava legacy by making these rolls for tons of friends throughout the States and have helped teach others how to make them too. It was a little sad making these and writing about this recipe but I hope it will be one that you greatly enjoy.

Ellie’s Baklava

One thing every one should know is that there is no rule to making baklava. Much like eliopita (olive bread), it is primarily based on people’s family recipes. However, the basic formula is always a combination of nuts, sugar, spices, phyllo dough, and syrup (honey or sugar). This is Ellie’s recipe, which uses almonds, and the only change I have made is that I don’t include rose water because it’s an acquired taste and not always popular with non-Greeks.

Recipe

When I made Baklava this week, I decided to try a chocolate version as well as Ellie’s classic, so I have included both below.

(Makes about 40 pieces)

Syrup:

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

squirt of lemon juice

Almond Filling:

1 1/2 cup almonds

2/3 cup of sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

pinch of salt

1 tbsp water or syrup.

(For Chocolate Baklava: add 1 cup of very dark chocolate chips)

Rolls:

1 box of Phyllo dough (two rolls)

3 sticks of unsalted butter

Yes, there is a lot of butter and sugar in this recipe. This is one dessert that you cannot skimp on and have a great result. However, it does make 40 small rolls, so instead of eating a whole square as with normal Baklava, you can nibble up a couple of pieces. They also keep for a week in the fridge so there is no need to eat them all at once! And, they make great gifts and are perfect for pot lucks.

Method:

Place all syrup ingredients into a small pan, mix well and then put on low heat and gently simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Set aside to cool.

Combine nuts, sugar and spices into food processor and slightly pulse. Do not pulverize the almonds – you just want them to be chopped down a bit. Transfer into a bowl and stir in  water/syrup to help bind the mixture together.

Baklava Fillings

If you are making the chocolate version, pulse the chocolate chips first to break them down a bit and then add the almonds and continue as above. Because of all the sugar in this recipe, it is important to use very dark chocolate. My favourite at the moment is Guittard extra dark. Not only are they delicious, but they care about cocoa farmers and the environment.

Guittard

Melt 1 stick of butter in a microwave safe bowl for 40 seconds. It should be melted but not really hot.

Melted butter

Brush the bottom of your baking pan with butter to prevent sticking during baking. You can spray the bottom if you like, but I find this actually changes the flavour and the bubbling filling that leaks onto the pan makes the baklava stick.

Buttered Pan

Set up your rolling station with your filling and butter bowls on one side, and your sheets of phyllo dough on the other. I like to roll my baklava on a cutting board in the middle.

rolling station

Phyllo dough is rather intimidating. One of the main problems people have is that the very thin sheets tend to dry out if not used swiftly. However, if it gets damp, the sheets will stick together and be impossible to separate. Here are a few tips to help you manage this delicate balance

  • Get good quality phyllo dough (Athens is pretty good and easy to find at major grocery stores)
  • I recommend defrosting the dough overnight in the fridge. I find it tends to get wet on the sides when defrosting at room temperature and this makes it harder to work with.
  • Only open one of the rolled packets at a time.
  • Be gentle. If the sheet tears, don’t panic, you can always ‘glue it’ back together with the butter.
  • Some suggest placing a layer of plastic wrap over the sheets you are not using and then a damp towel on top to help prevent the dough drying out in the air. (Be careful to make sure the dough is completely covered in the plastic wrap so it doesn’t get wet). I have worked often enough with the dough that I find this just slows me down, but if you have never used phyllo before, I recommend trying this method.

Lay out 1 sheet of Phyllo. Using a pastry brush, spread some butter all over. You don’t want the sheet to be saturated, just covered. I usually put on a couple of globs and then spread the butter around, making sure to cover all the edges and corners.

Brushing Butter

Buttered Phyllo Sheet

Lay a second sheet of phyllo over the top and butter again. Spoon a small amount of the filling mixture in a line along the bottom of the sheet. Leave a tiny gap at the edges because the filling will bubble up and expand.

Chocolate Filling

Roll up tightly to the very top

Rolling BaklavaRolling Baklava

and then slice into three sections.

Cut Baklava

Brush the top with more butter and place tightly together on the baking sheet.

Baklava in Pan

It is tempting to skip this step because it means more butter but this serves an important purpose other than amazing flavour. As the rolls sit and you continue to work, they can get dried out, and the butter helps to keep them moist so make sure to lightly coat the edges especially. It also, helps them brown in the oven much like an egg wash.

Brush Corners

Repeat until you are out of filling mixture. Melt more butter as needed, one stick at a time.

Chocolate Filling

If you chose to do both flavours of Baklava, make sure you use two separate pans so chocolate doesn’t leak onto the plain ones.

Almond filling

Make sure they are all tightly snuggled into the pan. This is important to ensure that your edges don’t burn (especially for the chocolate ones).

Baklava Snuggle

Place in the oven at 350 for 50-60 minutes. They should be golden brown. Remove and immediately pour the cold syrup over the top.

Baklava

The syrup needs to be cold and the baklava piping hot so that the syrup is absorbed well without making the baklava soggy.

Chocolate Baklava

Allow to cool and then serve. These keep for a week in a sealed container in the fridge. Just remove the amount to be eaten and bring to room temperature before serving.

Chocolate and Almond Baklava