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Sugar and Spice: Chocolate Heats Up
A year or so back, I was wandering a trade show with a friend. She mentioned that she wanted to stop by a certain chocolate exhibitor’s booth to try a new bar of theirs that contained chiles. “I thought I’d try something new,” she commented. Then she looked at me and we both started to laugh. Combining chocolate with spicy-hot ingredients is nothing new, but it’s only in the past decade or so that Americans seem to have discovered this idea.
If you recall your chocolate history, the Mayans and the Aztecs consumed cacao beans, ground, in the form of a beverage. To the ground beans, they added water, ground and toasted maize (corn), and indigenous chiles; wine, honey, and allspice may also have been used. While we don’t know just how spicy-hot this drink was, or at what temperature the Mayans drank this, it doesn’t sound like anything I’d want to consume, hot, cold, or in between. Funnily enough, the Conquistadores who came to the New World felt the same way. They brought cacao beans back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and the beans were once again used for a sort of chocolate drink, but with rather different additions. The Spanish royalty became fond of consuming the beverage when the ground beans were blended with sugar, rice, cinnamon, anise seeds---and black pepper.
By modern tastes, use of spices was decidedly heavy in the medieval era and even after that time. Part of this may have stemmed from the idea that the chocolate beverage had distinct medical uses. A 1631 recipe for hot chocolate included such delights as “long red peppers” and “logwood” (supposedly similar to fennel). A 1644 Spanish recipe for hot chocolate included (along with cacao beans), “chillis” (though black pepper could be substituted), anise, something called “powdered roses of Alexandria” (itself a substitute for two other spices), vanilla, cinnamon, almonds, hazelnuts, and achiote (also called annatto, this was probably used to impart a reddish-brown color).
There’s more to the story than just chocolate as a remedy, however. Subtlety was not the strong point of the rich, especially among the nobility. At least in Europe, if you had wealth, you displayed it. There were a number of ways to make the point that you weren’t lacking in material wealth. You could have big-ticket armor, weaponry, and horses; you could choose pricey materials and decorations for your clothing; and you could provide expensive and exotic foods at your table. In the latter category, one expensive food item was spices, which were very costly. They were most assuredly not local products; spices had to travel great distances to reach buyers, and their availability was never a guarantee. The household that was able to provide guests with lavish dinners and banquets, featuring many dishes with different spices and other exotic and imported ingredients, would be thought financially well-off indeed.
Many people insist that the medieval taste for spices rose from the fact that large quantities of spices could disguise the taste of food that had gone “off” or was outright spoiled. Some of that is probably accurate, too. In an era when the true causes of illnesses were unknown and education was an iffy matter at best, it wouldn’t have been difficult to find items consumed as foods that would have been better discarded, especially in times of political unrest or crop failure. A heavy hand with spices, or combinations of spices, would have helped to mask flavors that weren’t what they should have been.
By the time chocolate had spread beyond the upper classes and become a product geared toward children, with the addition of a lot of sugar and milk powder, the spicy side of Theobroma cacao seemed to be a thing of the past. But it is always remarkable to see how aspects of the chocolate world, much as articles of clothing, cycle in and out of fashion. Spicy chocolate has once again become a “hot” item, as it were, and any number of manufacturers are producing toffees and bonbons and hot chocolate mixes geared toward the spice-lovers among us. Even chocolate-covered jalapenos are sold as a confection these days. If you love the combination of sweet and hot, you can bet that someone is making a chocolate treat to suit you!
---The True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe (New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1996)
Recipe of the Month:
Bob Batson’s Oaxaca Flats
Bob Batson is a self-described “mystic fire priest”; I think that means he enjoys spicy foods. Chocolate has an affinity for hot spices, especially pepper. These are rather fragile, crisp, dark chocolate cookies; they contain coffee, cinnamon, and both black and cayenne peppers to give them a little zing. The amount of pepper I use is quite small, but you can increase it to taste.
You’ll need a rolling pin and a cookie cutter to make these. My cutter is round, and exactly
2-11/16 inches in diameter. Yes, I know; I have the only cutter this size in the universe, but a cutter 2-1/2 or 2-3/4 inches in diameter will be fine here. Incidentally, I use a French rolling pin, which is one long piece of wood tapered at both ends, as I find this style much easier to use than any other. I also roll out the dough between two sheets of wax paper. This dough becomes soft quickly at room temperature, and this way there is no chance of it sticking to a pastry board. If it too soft to work with, I simply leave it on the wax paper and place it back in the fridge for a little while. The finished cookies will keep for a day or two at room temperature. They freeze nicely for a month or so, as well, but if frozen for much longer, the spice flavors begin to fade.
1 tsp. instant coffee granules
1 egg, graded “large”
1-1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened, alkalized (Dutch processed) cocoa powder
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/16 to 1/8 tsp. (or more to taste) freshly, finely ground black pepper
3 large pinches (or more to taste) finely ground cayenne pepper
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
Combine coffee granules and egg in small cup. With fork, beat to mix well; let stand at least 10 minutes. Into small bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and salt. Set aside.
In medium bowl, combine softened butter, sugar, and vanilla. With large spoon, cream until well-mixed and fluffy. Beat in egg. Add flour mixture and blend in thoroughly (dough will be on the stiff side). Divide dough in half. Flatten each half, wrap tightly in wax paper, and chill for at least 1 hour.
To roll dough, work with one half at a time (keep remaining half refrigerated). Roll out dough between two very lightly floured sheets of wax paper. If dough is too cold, it will crack; if this happens, wait a few minutes until dough softens slightly before rolling. Periodically, peel off, then replace, top sheet of wax paper, then flip dough by holding both sheets of wax paper together and inverting. Peel off, then replace, what has now become the top sheet of wax paper. If any sheet of wax paper becomes too wrinkled, discard it and replace with a fresh sheet. Roll out dough to a scant 1/8 inch thickness. Place dough, still between wax paper sheets, on a cookie sheet so it will hold its shape. Return to refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Repeat with other half of dough.
About 15 minutes before you want to bake the cookies, adjust rack to center of oven; preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with aluminum foil, shiny side up. Remove one cookie sheet of rolled-out dough from refrigerator and peel off, then replace, top sheet of wax paper. Flip dough as described above; peel off what is now the top sheet of wax paper. Using your cookie cutter, cut rounds of the dough as close to one another as possible; gently lift the cut cookies onto a prepared baking sheet (use a spatula if necessary). If required, flour cookie cutter very lightly. Place only three cookies on the first sheet! It can be difficult to judge when these are done; these three will be your “test” cookies. You can continue to cut out enough cookies to fill a second foil-lined sheet at this time (because these spread, place only 12 cookies on a 15-1/2 by 10-1/2 inch sheet), but refrigerate this second sheet of unbaked cookies, as you’re not sure of your baking timing yet. Collect any dough scraps and combine them into a ball, press with your hand to flatten, wrap in wax paper, and chill.
Bake your test cookies for 8 to 9 minutes, turning baking sheet back-to-front once about halfway during baking time. Cookies will spread and puff up slightly; they are done when the center just feels firm. Remove from oven; let stand 1 minute before removing to cooling rack. If you haven’t made these before, it might be wise, before baking any more, to let your test cookies cool completely, then try one. They should be crisp throughout, but not burned. Continue cutting and baking cookies, re-rolling the chilled scraps once or twice.
Cool cookies thoroughly before storing at room temperature for up to two days; freeze for longer storage.
About 3 dozen cookies
Chocolate Find of the Month:
I have a confession to make. I can’t eat spicy-hot foods. I’m a complete spice wimp---I’ve always been that way. So instead of recommending a product I haven’t tasted, which really wouldn’t be fair, I’m providing the names of several chocolatiers who make spicy chocolate products, and you can order what you like and judge for yourself. Lillie Belle Farms (www.lilliebellefarms.com) makes a Spicy Pecan Toffee, a Chipotle Ganache, a Black Pepper Ganache, and something called a “Crunchy Fire Bar”. I’ve tried many of the rest of their products, which are very good. Wen Chocolates (www.wenchocolates.com), previously mentioned in this column, offers two kinds of hot truffles, the Mocja and the Savannah. Again, while I haven’t tried either of these two, the other products I’ve tried from Wen have been delightful. Chuao Chocolatier (www.chuaochocolatier.com), whose products I haven’t tried, has a Spicy Maya Hot Chocolate, Spiced Macadamia Nuts, and a Spicy Maya Bar Set. Perhaps the most famous player at this game is Cowgirl Chocolates (www.cowgirlchocolates.com). Not all of their items are spicy-hot, but with everything from a Spicy Lime Tequila Truffle Bar to Buckin’ Hot Habanero Caramels to Spicy Old Fashioned Hot Chocolate, lovers of heat will find themselves with plenty of choices. Diva Chocolates (http://diva-chocolates.com) gets into the act with hot chocolate blends (including a spicy one) as well as two spicy grilling rubs, both containing cocoa or chocolate. Lake Champlain Chocolates (www.lakechamplainchocolates.com) presents an Aztec hot chocolate and a similarly-titled dark chocolate bar. Get the picture here? If you do a little looking around, you can find all kinds of spiced chocolate products, you pepperhead, you. If you can stand the heat, order the chocolate!
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.