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THE MANY SPLENDORS OF CHOCOLATE

It's no wonder that hopeful suitors ply the objects of their affection with chocolate on Valentine's Day. Chocolate contains a compound that mimics a chemical in the brain that produces feelings of well-being, satisfaction, even desire.

The filled chocolate candies produced by the millions and packaged in heart-shaped boxes for Valentine's Day weren't invented until 1913 (by the Swiss, the world's greatest per-capita consumers of chocolate), but chocolate itself has a long and fascinating history.

The cacao tree originated in tropical regions of Central and South America. Pre-Columbian natives consumed chocolate as a bitter, frothy beverage, mixed with chiles and spices. They valued it so highly they even used the beans as currency.

When the Spanish conquistador Cortez landed on the coast of what is now central Mexico in 1519, the Aztecs, believing him a god, offered him mounds of cacao beans -- which he promptly exchanged for gold.

But chocolate's appeal wasn't lost on Cortez. After his return to Spain, he kept a pot of it near him at all times.

By the mid-1600s, chocolate had become a passion throughout Europe. We can thank the Europeans for adding the ingredient from which we now find chocolate inseparable: sugar.

Chocolate glossary

Knowing how the different types of chocolate are created helps clarify the differences among them. The process begins the same way for all kinds: Cacao beans are picked, fermented for several days in the sun, then shipped to a chocolate producer.

There, the dry whole beans are roasted, then the kernels, called "nibs," are removed from their shells. These are ground up to create a thick, oily paste called chocolate liquor -- the essence of the chocolate. What happens next depends on the type of chocolate to be made.

Nothing compares to the full, rich, nuanced taste of best-quality dark chocolate. To make it, the chocolate paste is enriched with extra cocoa butter, the natural fat present in the beans that gives chocolate its smoothness and makes it melt in your mouth. Sugar is added as well; the amount depends on whether the chocolate is to be classified as bittersweet, semi-sweet or sweet.

The chocolate is then "conched," a slow mixing process that aerates it, increasing the smoothness of both its flavor and texture. (Baking chocolate is processed similarly, but no sugar is added.)

Milk chocolate has become the world's most popular chocolate for eating. To make it, the chocolate paste is enriched with cocoa butter and conched like dark chocolate, but milk solids are added along with sugar and other flavorings such as vanilla, creating a lighter color and a mild, creamy taste. (Keep in mind that because the milk affects the consistency of the chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate are not interchangeable in recipes.)

To make powdered cocoa, most of the cocoa butter is pressed out of the chocolate paste (making cocoa lower in fat than the other forms of chocolate). The remaining substance hardens into cakes and is then ground up into powder. Cocoa powder comes either natural or "dutched." In the Dutch variety, a small amount of alkaline solution is added to the cocoa to make it smoother, darker and less acidic.

White chocolate is a mixture of cocoa butter, milk solids and sugar, as well as other flavorings, such as vanilla. Because it contains none of the chocolate liquor, it is not truly chocolate, though it is an important ingredient in a number of desserts and confections.

Chocolate cookies

Shaped like hearts or decorated with them, these chocolate cookies are perfect for Valentine's Day. And with just 2 grams of fat each, you and your sweetheart can afford to indulge.

CHOCOLATE SUGAR COOKIES

2/3 cup packed light-brown sugar

1/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 large egg whites

3/4 cup Dutch cocoa powder, sifted

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt
Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In an electric mixer, combine brown sugar, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, butter and vanilla, and mix on medium-high speed until well combined. Add egg whites, and mix until combined.

In a small bowl, whisk together cocoa, flour and salt. Add to sugar-and-butter mixture, and mix on medium until flour is completely incorporated.

If you want to make cutout heart-shaped cookies, press the dough into a flat disc, and wrap in plastic wrap. For round cookies, turn the dough out onto a piece of parchment or wax paper, and roll into a 1 3/4 -by-8 1/2 -inch log. Chill dough for at least 1 hour or overnight.

For cutout cookies, roll the dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 1/4 inch, and cut out cookies with a heart-shaped cutter. For round cookies, slice the log of dough crosswise into 1/4 -inch-thick rounds, and use a small heart-shaped cutter or a knife to make an imprint of a heart in each round.

Place remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar in a small bowl, and dip each cookie in sugar, coating all sides. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing cookies 1 inch apart.

Bake about 14 minutes for chewy cookies; for crisp cookies, bake 2 to 3 minutes longer. Slide the paper and cookies onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes about 32.

Prep time: 20 to 30 minutes. Chilling time: 1 hour. Baking time: about 15 minutes.

Note: To slightly reduce the number of calories in these cookies, coat just the edges with sugar.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent to Stewart by electronic mail: mstewart@marthastewart.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column.