Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Come to the Dark Side - of Cocoa 

It's finally cooling down enough to make wanting hot cocoa a regular event. But only at night, when the darkness brings with it chilly temperatures. There is a reason this time of year is known as the Chocolate Season - and the low cost of chocolate has very little to do with it.

Chocolate is at its best when the nights are long and the days planked with dull clouds. The wind howls and sometimes, when cold and moisture conspire together, we get snow, or ice. All of this makes chocolate a refuge and a sacrament.

In the summer, when the days are sunny and long, the few clouds sporting like plushies and the nights warm and starlit, fruit is preferred, and chocolate but an accent, a reminder of the dark side of the year. Chocolate then is a thrill, like a roller coaster ride or a haunted house - safe and slightly sinfully scarey.

But we're in the depths of the dark part of the year, and consuming chocolate is a mystical, holy event.

The Aztecs flavored their bitter chocolate with chili peppers and vanilla. We've worked to recreate this drink that captured an entire civilization. Perhaps we have it wrong still, but the concoction we created is truly a magical experience.

Do you know much about the manufacture of cocoa?

If you buy fermented beans that haven't yet been roasted, you can come close to recreating the foaming cups of xocolatl once served to important Aztec people. All you need to do is roast, grind, winnow, and re-grind the beans into a lovely paste.

Keep the cocoa liquor with it - it improves the flavor of the final product. Grinding from the raw, fermented bean yourself gives you greater control, and you lose less of the tasty chocolate liquor.

Then you grind the spices into the paste until it's smooth and free of grit. I like to use cinnamon, vanilla straight from the bean (and I like using cocoa beans and vanilla from the same country, there's something complemetary about the flavor that makes the final beverage extra yummy), and distilled flower water - rose or orange are my favorites, although spicy nasturtiums or calendula petals work well. Here's a small hint - if you use red nasturtiums, the final beverage has the reddish cast that is much spoken of in historical documents. The final two ingredients are added just before foaming.

Heat the spicy paste with honey, then thin with pepper water. I like to use mild pepper water instead of dried and ground peppers or even fresh peppers to maintain a smoother drink with less grit in it - and in my experience, it foams higher. The foam is the important part of the beverage.

Use a molinillo to get the best, longest-lasting foam, and whip it when the cocoa is hot until it cools. It should foam very high.

To drink it, suck in some of the foam and allow it to melt on your tongue. The foam is the part that carries the best flavor. This is probably why the Aztecs drank small cups of it, and drank the cups quickly. Once the foam subsides, it isn't the fantastical beverage it was in foam form. It's still good, mind, but the bitterness predominates. You might want to add more honey, or even reheat it with heavy cream (not milk - it's too thin to carry off the flavor well).

Each cup of this Aztec cocoa must be made just prior to drinking. It is not a portable drink.

With the internet, getting raw, fermented cocoa beans is easier than it once was.

We love to flavor and tinker with hot cocoas in many ways, whether we get the raw bean, or buy the powdered, processed cocoa. Rose water, cardamom, and cinnamon makes a delightful libation to love, and with February 14th just a few weeks away, a perfect drink to share. Orange water, clove, and allspice is warming. Hazelnut, nasturtium flower water, and extra vanilla is luxurious. And don't skimp on the ingredients. Use whole milk, double creams, fresh spices and herbs (lavender water with a touch of tarragon is amazing in cocoa). Explore the use of vegetables, fruits, and grains in your cocoa, too. Thicken it with maniac starch or finely ground toasted wheat. Dollop in a bit of pumpkin puree with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Thin a thick, cream-heavy cocoa with a bit of apple juice or passionfruit juice. Make a mysteriously yummy cocoa with pureed blueberries, or stir in the juice of a pomogranate.

Arrange a make-your-own cocoa bar for these cold wintry days, and celebrate the bright joy that the darkness of chocolate brings.

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