When Starbucks unveiled its latest holiday beverage lineup last November, there was an unfamiliar new specimen alongside the coffee giant’s usual Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Latte: the Toasted White Chocolate Mocha, described as having the flavor of “caramelized white chocolate” along with espresso and milk.
That same month, Hershey’s launched its newest confection, the Hershey’s Gold bar. Marketed as a “caramelized crème candy,” it’s touted as the company’s first truly new candy bar in two decades. Six months prior, Cacao Barry, a sub-brand of chocolate maker Callebaut that supplies professionals, released Zephyr Caramel, a new caramel-flavored white chocolate.
Three makes a trend, as they say, and it looks like golden is the hottest new hue in confectionery. But the deeper, toasty flavor provided by caramelized white chocolate is something of an open secret among pastry chefs, some of whom have been utilizing it in desserts for more than a decade.
“A lot of chefs don’t like white chocolate because it’s so sweet,” says Belinda Leong, pastry chef and co-owner of B. Patisserie in San Francisco. “Caramelization brings additional flavor. And everyone loves the world ‘caramelized’ — it just sounds sexy.”
Long before caramelized white chocolate was available commercially, chefs would prepare it manually by simply sticking it in the oven. Chopped white chocolate, or féves (small discs), are placed on a sheet tray or heatproof bowl and baked at a relatively low temperature — somewhere between 200 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit. The mixture is stirred frequently to promote even browning, and 30 to 60 minutes later it will have turned a deep golden brown, looking more like dulce de leche than white chocolate.
The resulting product is highly versatile: “You can use it any way you would use regular chocolate,” says David Collier, pastry chef at 1789 Restaurant in Washington, D.C., from ganache and mousse to anglaise and panna cotta. “It makes a mean ice cream,” he adds. After roasting, the chocolate can also be re-tempered and used in chocolate work such as truffles and bonbons. Collier also says he likes it in combination with salty things, and the magic of that pairing isn’t lost on Hershey’s: Its Gold bar includes both peanuts and pretzels.
The simple act of roasting is seemingly giving white chocolate a new lease on life. “White chocolate has been getting a bad rap for years now,” says chocolate expert Megan Giller, author of Bean to Bar: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution. “Even though legally it is chocolate, many people don’t consider it ‘real’ chocolate.”
In fact, up until 2002, white chocolate was not considered to be “chocolate” at all in the United States, but rather a “confectionary.” The Food & Drug Administration’s previous standards required chocolate to contain chocolate liquor, the pure cocoa mass which gives chocolate its brown color and distinct flavor. Now, in order to be marketed as white chocolate, a product must simply contain at least 20 percent cocoa butter. (For that reason, Hershey’s Gold cannot actually be called white chocolate; that’s the case today for much of the mass-market candy being pushed as white chocolate, including Kit Kat White and Reese’s White peanut butter cups.)
“There’s some stigma attached to white chocolate,” Collier says. That’s been particularly true in recent years as dark chocolate has been fetishized as a “health food” — the higher percentage of cacao, the better. In this Instagram-fueled era where acai bowls are portrayed as a near-religious morning ritual, a few squares of 85-percent chocolate is seen as a virtuous snack; sugary white chocolate, on the other hand, is simply junk food.
Pastry chefs don’t generally concern themselves with the nutritional profile of their creations, but roasting white chocolate changes the flavor profile, making it more complex. “Browning it gives it more depth and less sweetness,” Collier explains. He says he learned about roasting white chocolate around 2009, when Derek Poirier, the corporate pastry chef for French chocolate company Valrhona, demonstrated the technique at the World Pastry Forum in Phoenix.
Valrhona, a favorite brand amongst pastry professionals, says pastry chef Frédéric Bau, who oversees the company’s professional education program L’Ecole Valrhona, accidentally discovered the technique for roasting white chocolate back in 2006. According to Valrhona’s senior communications manager Marine Leman, Bau left some white chocolate on a bain-marie (a water bath) and forgot about it. “He realized a few hours later [that] the chocolate had turned a more brownish color and smelled very delicious — very different from regular white chocolate,” she says.
Bau began teaching the method to pastry chefs via L’Ecole Valrhona classes, and it soon gained traction in the pastry world. In 2009, author and former Chez Panisse pastry chef David Lebovitz shared the technique with the internet at large, posting a recipe on his popular eponymous blog after attending L’Ecole Valrhona classes in France. The technique first began appearing in cookbooks starting in 2010, including the debut cookbook from the influential blog Ideas in Food, and Eric Ripert’s book Avec Eric.
In 2012, Valrhona capitalized on the success of the technique and launched Dulcey, its commercial version of roasted white chocolate. “When [Valrhona] started offering a white chocolate with those toasty notes,” Giller says, “white chocolate suddenly had an opportunity to shine on a larger scale, in pastry kitchens across the world.”
Dulcey was Valrhona’s most successful chocolate launch ever, according to Leman, and remains one of the brand’s top five sellers. “The idea was to create a fourth color of chocolate to give pastry chefs more tools to play with,” says Leman. Valrhona refers to its roasted white chocolate as “blond,” adding it to the flavor spectrum along with white, milk, and dark.
For professional pastry chefs and chocolatiers, the advantage of buying Valrhona’s commercial product versus simply roasting white chocolate themselves is a key one: consistency.
“Caramelized white chocolate is a little tricky,” says Lebovitz. “Different brands [of chocolate] behave differently, so it’s hard to write a recipe for it with fixed times and temperatures.”
Calling it “caramelized” white chocolate is a bit of a misnomer though, as Michael Laiskonis, creative director for the Institute of Culinary Education and former pastry chef at legendary NYC restaurant Le Bernardin, points out. “We use the word caramelized, but from a textbook perspective that’s not generally the right term, because caramelization happens at a much higher temperature.”
What’s actually happening here is the Maillard reaction, Laiskonis says — the same chemical process that gives caramelized onions, seared steak, and bread crust their deep, complex flavors. “If you look at the composition of white chocolate, it’s cocoa butter, sugar, and milk solids. And what happens with prolonged heat — not super high heat, but prolonged heat — is that the proteins and the lactose in the milk solids turn brown and create flavor compounds that weren’t there before.”
According to Valrhona’s research and development department, the temperature used to produce Dulcey is twice as hot as that used for its regular white chocolate, and the chocolate also undergoes a longer conching process. “There’s no [additional] flavors added to it — it’s really all about the temperature,” says Leman.
Valrhona’s Dulcey proved so popular that in 2017 Valrhona launched a second blonde chocolate. Called Orelys, it’s deeper in color than Dulcey with slight licorice notes, characteristics owed to dark muscovado sugar sourced from Mauritius.
While six years might seem like a long time for Hershey’s and Starbucks to catch up on “blonde” chocolate, the research and development process for big food companies can be a lengthy one. “It’s sometimes a two or three year process from idea to store shelf,” Laiskonis says. “You have to be on trend that far in advance.”
But while the trickle-down has taken time, it’s really no surprise that caramelized white chocolate has caught on with mainstream tastes: It takes two flavors that are already well-known by the general public — caramel and white chocolate — and combines them for a new taste that’s fresh yet familiar. Even Food Network heroine the Pioneer Woman has gotten on board, posting a recipe for caramelized white chocolate on her blog in late 2016; suggested uses included incorporating it into cheesecake squares or the frosting for Irish cream brownies.
“Especially in cooking, coming up with something that didn’t exist before is a really elusive thing,” says Laiskonis. And several chefs point to caramelized white chocolate as being adjacent to salted caramel, one of the biggest flavor trends of the past decade, and a concept that once seemed daring.
“Now you can buy salted caramel at every bodega on the corner,” Laiskonis says.
It seems caramelized white chocolate may be headed for the same fate. Hershey’s, for instance, is already expanding the reach of its newest candy bar: It’s now available in cappuccino form at 7-Eleven stores.