Discovered over 2000 years ago, the cacao tree is native to Central and South America where ancient cultures used both its fruit and seeds. These people, including the Maya and Aztec, mixed ground cacao seeds with various seasoning, such as chile peppers and vanilla beans, to make a spicy, frothy beverage for ceremonies and celebrations which is why chocolate received the botanical name, Theobroma, meaning “food of the gods” in Greek. The cacao seeds were also used like pennies as currency for small transactions. In the early 1500’s, Spanish conquistadors brought back chests of cacao beans to Spain, where they doctored the beverage with cinnamon and other spices as well as sweetening it with sugar and serving it warm. It was a symbol of wealth and power as it, as well as sugar, was an expensive import. In the late 1600’s milk was added to the already popular drink for a lighter, smoother flavor. For centuries it remained a handmade luxury, but by the 1800’s, innovations and mass production by men like Cadbury, Nestle, Lindt and Hershey made solid chocolate candy affordable to the public. Today, each American consumes an average of 12lbs of chocolate a year.
A small, evergreen tree, the bark is brown with bright green lanced leaves with small, delicate almost odorless flowers clustered on the trunk and lower branches. The pods are 4-12 inches long and ripen from green to a variety of colors including yellow, orange, red or purple after 5 months. Inside of the pods are up to 50 almond-sized seeds or enough to make about seven milk chocolate candy bars!! Cacao trees grow best in tropical rainforests where they received the perfect amount of rain, shade, humidity, wind and nutrients and the tiny flowers can be pollinated by small, gnat-like insects. Harvesting must be done at the correct stage to use the seeds, usually in June and December, which are then fermented, dried, roasted, crushed into nibs or pieces, then ground to release the delicious chocolate flavor we know and love. Leftover cacao husks make good mulch and cattle feed.
A favorite ingredient in specialty dishes like Mexican mole, desserts and drinks including liqueurs plus a luscious indulgence in its own right, there are several forms of chocolate. Bitter-sweet chocolate is partially defatted and solidified with a little sugar added. Milk chocolate has powdered or condensed milk added to sweetened chocolate. White chocolate is made from cocoa butter flavored with sugar and vanilla. Cocoa powder contains only a little cocoa butter and is usually sweetened. Chocolate is also often combined with vanilla, cinnamon or coffee and is sometimes added to chili powders and pumpernickel bread. Chocolate contains more than 300 compounds including theobromine and caffeine and dark chocolate and cocoa powder are rich in antioxidants as well as Vitamins A and E plus numerous minerals. Health practitioners, however, recommend eating raw, unprocessed cacao beans and nibs for health benefits rather than processed chocolate, although it is a mild mood elevator in any form. Cocoa can even be mixed with honey and spread on the body to act as a diuretic which helps release toxins from the skin and reduce the appearance of cellulite!
Melt chocolate carefully as it burns easily
becoming bitter, hard and granular.
The addition of butter or oil adds richness without
altering the melting process
August is National Brownies At Brunch Month – try these brownies made with tea!
DOUBLE DECADENT BROWNIES: Brew 1 heaping Tbs KEEMUN black tea in 1/2c boiling water for 5 mins, then strain and cool. Melt 4-1oz squares unsweetened chocolate with 1c butter and beat into 2c sugar and 4 egg combination. Add 2c flour, 1tsp baking powder, 1tsp salt and cooled tea. Stir in 1/2c walnuts and 1c chocolate chips. Spoon into greased mini-muffin tins and bake at 350 degrees for 15 mins or until slight imprint remains when touched lightly with a finger. Cool slightly, then remove from tins.
VARIATION: Combine 1c heavy cream and 2Tbs honey and bring to simmer. Remove from heat and add 1Tbs EARL GREY tea leaves and steep covered for 5 mins. Strain and bring the cream to a boil and pour over 1 1/2c chopped bittersweet chocolate and mix thoroughly. Spread on brownies and top with walnuts