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New cookbooks champion chocolate

(ran ST edition)

Chocolate can make you feel better.

It can protect your "good" cholesterol, the HDL, and it does not raise the "bad" LDL. It is thought to guard against strokes and heart attacks by thinning blood, much as aspirin does.

Scientific research bears out these good effects of chocolate.

Chocolate cannot heal a broken heart, but it is possible that it may give a measure of solace to those suffering from loss, anxiety and sadness in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and a spate of cookbooks on desserts, especially chocolate confections, is ready to encourage chocolate consumption this fall.

Among them are Michele Urvater's Chocolate Cakes: 150 Recipes From Simple to Sublime, Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme, the great French pastry chef, and a long-awaited book, The Last Course, from Claudia Fleming, esteemed pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern, cowritten with Melissa Clark.

It didn't take a catastrophe to make chocolate popular. We eat it for its lush, inimitable mouth feel, for the way it melts on our tongues, for the satisfied feeling it gives.

There may be other reasons that were poorly understood until now. Chocolate may trigger the release of endorphins, brain chemicals that provide feelings of calm and relaxation, reducing stress and pain. It is possible that these naturally occurring substances even reduce depression.

Chocolate appeals on an emotional level, science aside, said Maricel E. Presilla, author of the new book The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao With Recipes. Presilla, a trader in heirloom cacao beans and a native of Cuba who now lives in New Jersey, said, "Chocolate is eternal. It does lift your spirits."

The final proof of the (chocolate) pudding may not be in on all of the scientific findings, but, in some ways, chocolate is already a winner.

New research shows that solid chocolate, however it is used, is an antioxidant. Like red wine and blueberries, it is a defense against air pollution, smoking and ultraviolet radiation. The darker the chocolate, the better, said Joe Vinson, professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

"Chocolate is extremely high" in antioxidants, said Vinson, who is one of the authors of a study on the topic, which will appear in November in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. "There's not a lot out there that can beat it. Only tea could beat it."

Weight for weight, milk chocolate has twice as many antioxidants as blueberries, a potently healthful fruit, and dark chocolate has five times as many, Vinson said.

Only cocoa powder, which also happens to be lower in fat, is even better than solid chocolate, said Vinson, containing twice as much antioxidant effect as dark chocolate. (He dismissed white chocolate as "just fat and sugar.")

"I've always liked dark chocolate," Vinson said, "and I didn't know why."

He tries to eat more of it now, he said, and, he said, chocolate ice cream has a higher antioxidant effect than vanilla, with the chocolate canceling out bad sugar and saturated fat, the worst kind, to some degree. Dark chocolate, which contains more cacao solids, also has less butterfat.

"When I eat chocolate, I try to eat some nuts with it," said Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University in State College, Pa., and another author of the upcoming study. She does this because nuts are another healthful food.

At the University of California, Davis, Carl Keen, professor of nutrition and internal medicine and chair of the department of nutrition, is part of a research team that has found that the compounds called flavanoids, found in chocolate and other plants, bring rapid, positive changes to the blood after they are absorbed into the body. One change, said Keen, is a reduction in the tendency for platelets to clot, "an effect not identical but similar to aspirin."

Substitute chocolate or food containing it for meaningless cookies, ice cream and cakes of other flavors, high in fat but with no antioxidant properties, the researchers advised.

Many people are rethinking their priorities now, and thin is not necessarily high on the list, said pastry chef Claudia Fleming.

"Dessert sales have gone up" at the restaurant, Fleming said, "because people are not feeling bad about trying to nourish themselves and comfort themselves."