When John Scharffenberger makes chocolate, he starts with the cocoa beans. And my favorite stop when he showed me through his factory was the cocoa bean roaster. Here the beans tumble and toast at just the degree of heat that brings out the flavor we anticipate in chocolate. The aroma was heavenly. John slid open a little door, pulled out a few hot beans, and cracked open their papery shells. Inside, the beans were so brittle they crumbled into tiny chunks ― technically nibs. "Taste," ordered John. I did. The nibs were a paradox ― crunchy and silken, dark and mellow, slightly bitter but faintly sweet ― if only by way of my mental bridge to chocolate confections. I was hooked.
But not until the past few months have Sharffen Berger Cacao Nibs become available for all to enjoy ― for munching, to sprinkle over ice cream or into cookies, to use like nuts in salads, or even, if you follow package instructions, to turn into chocolate (more for fun ― especially for curious children ― than for creamy perfection).
Scharffen Berger Cacao Nibs (roasted shelled cocoa beans) are sold in fancy and specialty food stores; a 6-ounce tin costs about $8. You can also order at (800) 930-4528 or www.scharffen-berger.com.