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,
- coriander and
- freshly grated nutmeg and
- a heaping table spoon of (sugarless) cocoa powder (dutch process is good.)
- a mug full of milk,
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract.