Monday, November 5, 2007

Stalking Spicy Cocoa (Cocoa Capsaicin)

Last winter I made a serious attempt to cut all refined sugar out of my diet. I was also not drinking coffee at the time. Either one would have been fine, but removing both left a gap that I needed to fill, so I started experimenting with a sugarless cocoa. I ended up with a recipe that I felt was drinkable, but not stunning. Still, after several months of making it, I found that I could not go back to the normal sugared cocoa. Anything over a pinch of sugar tasted out of balance. Winter is knocking at the door again (in San Diego, that means it is getting down to 50F at night and doesn't make it to 80F during the day), so I'm going to start fiddling again.

I knew two interesting facts about cocoa: adding a pinch of salt improves the flavor; the Aztecs used chile peppers instead of sugar. I like spicy foods and there's a local chocolate company that makes a nice chile pepper chocolate bar, so I felt I had a good starting point.

Removing the sugar definitely leaves a gap. Adding salt warms the flavor of the chocolate, but it is easy to go too far. With sugar, I add just a few grains of kosher salt per cup. Without sugar, I increased this to a small pinch with good results, but if I went as far as a normal pinch for savory dishes, the flavor of the salt came through. The quantities are small enough that measurements with standard kitchen equipment are tough, and I think it's better to find the break point with your own taste buds.

Next, I added cayenne pepper. This produced a satisfactory bite, but there was still a gap on the tongue where the sugar used to be. So I started adding other spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg. You can get pretty aggressive with the cumin, but the coriander is like the salt in that a little helps and a little bit more is too much. It's hard to get a nice clean flavor with this technique, but you do get a sort of earthy bass line and that's what I ultimately came to like.

I also experimented with adding back just a pinch of sugar, about the same amount as the salt, and that was enough, given all the other new flavors, to make it taste sweet again.

As I'm writing this, it occurs to me that I should go back and get a whole variety of dried chile peppers and start from scratch. There are a lot of varieties that I have not dabbled with, many with more rounded flavors than cayenne. Also, I doubt the Aztecs used milk. Perhaps there is another path that will lead to a better result. Seems like an excellent project for the coming winter.

To make this yourself, put a small, heavy sauce pan over low heat and add a pinch each of:
  • kosher salt,
  • cayenne,
  • cumin,
  • coriander and
  • cinammon.
Toast the spices gently for thirty seconds or so. Add:
  • freshly grated nutmeg and
  • a heaping table spoon of (sugarless) cocoa powder (dutch process is good.)
Toss to combine. Add:
  • a mug full of milk,
whisking in a little bit at a time until the cocoa is fully combined with the milk. Heat until the milk begins to steam, but not to the point of simmering. Add:
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Pour and serve. The spices accumulate in the bottom of the mug. If you don't like the grittiness, be careful as you pour to leave them behind or strain the cocoa through a fine sieve.


Anonymous said...

One word: Honey

Clifford.Beshers said...

Interesting. I would think the honey would taste terrible with cocoa, but I suppose I'll have to try it. But in any case, I was trying to avoid sugar, whether refined or not, so that isn't really an option.

KG2V said...

sounds good - I think I have all the makings - Maybe Christmas Morning....