Herbal flavors enhance the romance in sinfully rich desserts for...
Ask anyone, “When you think of romance or love, what food comes to mind?” Most everyone gives the same answer: chocolate.
Chocolate has been called an aphrodisiac, a stimulant, and an addiction. I agree with all of these descriptions. Botanists must have concurred; they gave the cocoa bean tree the name Theobroma cacao — “food of the gods.” The word chocolate comes from the Aztec and Mayan xocoatl, which translates as “bitter drink.” In the early sixteenth century, Hernán Cortés recorded how the Aztecs ground cocoa beans to make a paste that they used to prepare a beverage they believed gave them power and energy. They mixed the paste with chiles, vanilla, and spices. The Aztec ruler Montezuma and his court were purported to have consumed copious amounts of it daily, especially when the sovereign visited his harem. When Cortés returned to Spain and introduced this hot chocolate drink, the Europeans added sugar to it. The sweetened chocolate eventually took Europe by storm.
The following recipes use unsweetened, semisweet, and bittersweet chocolate as well as unsweetened cocoa solids. Chocolate manufacturers differ enormously, so you need to taste and compare brands. Lesser-grade chocolates may be made with vegetable oil rather than cocoa butter, may have synthetic substances added, and may be cut with lecithin for a smooth texture.
Many people crave chocolate, especially during times of emotional duress, because it gives them not only an energy boost but also a sense of well-being. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA). Because PEA is a brain chemical that circulates during periods of euphoria such as being in love, biochemists theorize that chocolate provides the same mood boost. Although this theory has not been proven, chocolate is still regarded as a restorative for the human spirit. It just makes people happy.
Chocolate is also a diuretic and has been used to enhance alertness and treat indigestion. It contains nutrients, amino acids, antioxidants, caffeine, and a caffeine-like relative, theobromine. Because chocolate is a carbohydrate, it causes the pancreas to produce insulin, which results in an increase in serotonin, a brain chemical that has a calming effect on the body. How can chocolate both soothe and stimulate? Do people crave chocolate for the feeling it gives them or for the taste it imparts as it melts in their mouths? The researchers haven’t quite figured it out, but I’m sure each chocolate lover has his or her own answer.
When I buy chocolate for eating out-of-hand, I go for the best quality I can find. I tend to choose bittersweet chocolate, because I like the intensity of flavor and the play of bitter and sweet on my palate. I also use top-quality chocolate if I’m making a recipe such as truffles, where chocolate is the dominant ingredient and taste.
Good, fresh chocolate should be shiny and glossy and make a clean snapping sound when you break it. When you hold it in your mouth, it should melt smoothly and have a rich creamy feel, rather than a waxy or oily one. It should have a rich chocolate flavor and aftertaste.
Want to double the enticement of chocolate? Flowers and herbs are also symbols of love. By combining them with chocolate, you’ll enter a whole new realm of flavors. Adding other tastes to chocolate has a long tradition that began with the Aztecs. Fruits such as oranges, bananas, and raspberries have often been teamed with chocolate. Mint has been the herbal flavor most frequently used, but there are many other herbs that work surprisingly well.
While playing with herbs and chocolate, I’ve found a number of harmonious combinations. Some herbs, such as mint, rose geranium, lavender, tarragon, and rosemary with its resinous scent, make bold statements and can stand up to chocolate’s strong flavor. Anise hyssop, basil, bay, and orange mint lend subtle, quiet undertones to a dominant chocolate flavor. The taste of these subtler herbs lingers on the tongue as the last taste of chocolate disappears.
In some desserts, little flecks of herb leaves or herb flowers pulverized with sugar add appeal. However, in dishes such as pudding or truffles, smooth texture is important, so I capture the essence of the herb in an infusion rather than adding whole or chopped herbs. This can be done quite simply in milk, cream, or a sugar syrup. It’s a wonderful way to get the maximum flavor and aroma from fresh herbs and flowers.
Cream infusions yield a stronger flavor than milk; low-fat milk infusions yield less than whole milk. If you’re making a sauce, pie filling, pudding, or cake and want to substitute milk for cream or low-fat milk for whole milk, you may need to increase the amount of the herbs.
Try experimenting with your favorite herbs and feel free to substitute one for another in any of these recipes. Create something divine for your valentine to show your love. Say it with chocolate and herbs!
Susan Belsinger is a freelance writer residing in Brookeville, Maryland. She enjoys growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers and using them to create good-tasting dishes, as well as sharing her research by writing and teaching about these experiences with others. Three foods from the vegetable kingdom that Susan can’t live without are garlic, chiles, and chocolate.