When chocolate embraces herbs and spices, prepare yourself for flavor-filled bliss.
Few foods inspire as much passion as chocolate. Plant taxonomist Linnaeus gave chocolate the name Theobroma — meaning “food of the gods” — cacao, and who could argue with that description? An uncanny feeling of well-being often accompanies the consumption of chocolate and, as a result, it has been considered an aphrodisiac since the days when the Aztecs introduced it to early explorers.
Combining herbs and spices known for their aphrodisiac properties with chocolate is apt to excite your taste buds and increase your sensory pleasure. When combining spices with chocolate, grind them finely before adding them to the chocolate. Spices carry so much flavor that they should be used in small amounts — more of a hint or suggestion — as you don’t want them to dominate the chocolate. Whole or crushed seeds, sticks of cinnamon, gingerroot, mace blades and vanilla beans can be used in cream or milk infusions and syrups, and then strained out.
Some herbs make bold statements and can stand up to the strong flavor of chocolate. Others tend to lend a subtlety just before the chocolate takes over. Either way, you’re often left with a nuance of herb flavor lingering on your tongue. Herb leaves or flowers pulverized with sugar or chopped herbs can be added to recipes, but when I want a smooth texture, I prefer to capture the essence of the herb in an infusion. This can be done quite simply in milk, cream or sugar syrup and is a wonderful way to get the maximum flavor and aroma from fresh herbs and flowers.
The following recipes use unsweetened, semisweet and bittersweet chocolate as well as unsweetened cocoa. Chocolate manufacturers differ enormously, so always taste and compare brands. Beware of lesser-grade chocolates, which may be made with vegetable oil, may have synthetic substances added or may be cut with lecithin to add a smooth texture.
This seductive beverage was inspired by the one prepared in the movie Chocolat (a must-see movie if ever there were one). Rich, dark and smooth, this hot chocolate is subtly uplifted with a hint of vanilla and the spice of ground chile. (Do not use chili powder — a mix of spices with cumin and oregano. Use pure ground red chile pepper like the rich pasilla, chile negro or ancho.) The word chocolate comes from the Aztec and Mayan “xocolatl”, which translates as “bitter drink.” The Central American natives who believed it gave them power and sexual energy drank it unsweetened and mixed it with vanilla, chiles and other spices.
In the cafés in Europe, hot chocolate is usually prepared with cream and melted chocolate rather than milk and cocoa, and served with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Here, experience the best of both worlds — this recipe is very rich, although it can be made with just milk and is quite delicious. If you use bittersweet chocolate, you will need the larger amount of sugar; with semisweet, use the lesser amount and then taste. Try just a few pinches of chile, or about 1/8 teaspoon and then taste and add more if desired. I like this recipe with about 1/4 teaspoon to warm the tongue. For those who don’t care for the heat of chiles, cinnamon can be substituted.
2 cups half-and-half cream or 1 cup half-and-half cream + 1 cup milk
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine cream, sugar, chocolate pieces and cocoa powder. Place over medium heat and stir with a whisk. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and the chocolate is melted; do not allow the hot chocolate to boil.
Turn the heat to low and whip until frothy on top. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and 1/8 teaspoon ground chile pepper. Let sit a minute or two, stir and taste for seasoning. Adjust with a little more chile if necessary and serve hot with whipped cream, if desired.
The chocolate can be cooled, refrigerated and reheated the next day. I keep it in the fridge and reheat it — I like to drink it in small amounts in little demitasse cups.
Whole Tapioca with Chocolate and Mace
Mace is the outer membrane that covers the shell of nutmeg. It is actually an exotic, gorgeous spice and when fresh, the mace is deep scarlet red. When it dries, it turns golden orange. Both mace and nutmeg have historically been considered aphrodisiacs in many cultures. While nutmeg is more common, mace is subtler. This recipe can be made with ground mace (added along with the cocoa), however you will experience a more delicate flavor and a lovely aroma if you infuse the whole mace blades. (If you can’t find mace blades in your area, you may need to order them online. See Page 38 for resources.)
It is worth seeking out whole tapioca (rather than minute tapioca) to prepare this recipe. The feel of the whole pearls in the creamy custard is an added sensual texture. These pearls need to be soaked overnight to soften. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
2/3 cup whole tapioca pearls
Heat milk with mace in a nonreactive pan until it barely begins to a simmer. Remove from heat and let cool until warm to the touch (about 100 degrees). If using mace blades, strain them from the milk.
In a double boiler, combine the warm infused milk with cocoa, salt and tapioca. When the water under the double boiler comes to a simmer, reduce heat to low and cook for at least 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. The tapioca should not simmer or boil. It can take up to an hour to cook, depending on how long you soaked it and the temperature at which it is cooking. Test it by cooling and tasting a pearl for tenderness: it should be soft and the mixture should begin to thicken.
In a bowl, beat egg yolks and sugar together until fluffy and pale yellow in color. Add a small amount of the hot tapioca mixture to the eggs, stir and then mix it into the tapioca in the pan. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, stirring constantly. The mixture should get thick like pudding. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate until it melts.
Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold a large spoonful of the hot tapioca into the egg whites, then fold the egg white mixture into the pan of tapioca. Once blended, spoon the tapioca into 6-ounce ramekins or custard cups and let cool. Keep refrigerated and remove about 20 minutes before serving.
Fudgey Mint Brownies with Cocoa and Mint Whipped Cream
Mint is an age-old chocolate companion. Both spearmint and peppermint have long been considered aphrodisiacs, and Shakespeare recommended mint as a stimulant for middle-aged gentlemen. The cocoa whipped cream (see recipe below) is a decadent accompaniment and elevates this dessert to more than the average brownie.
If you don’t have fresh mint and must use dried, use about 3 tablespoons of leaves in the brownies, crushed, and 1 tablespoon in the cream, crushed (which you can strain). Dried mint will not impart the fresh aroma, so consider adding a few drops of peppermint extract, but be very cautious and don’t overdo it.
8 ounces unsweetened chocolate
Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan and line with foil. Generously butter and lightly flour the foil.
Stir flour with salt until just mixed. Fold into chocolate mixture until smooth. Transfer the brownie mixture into the prepared pan and smooth it out evenly in the pan.
Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. The edges should be drawing away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted about an inch from the edge should come out clean. If inserted in the center it will still be a little sticky, which results in a fudgier brownie — bake a little longer if you like them a little more done. Let cool completely before removing the brownies from the pan by loosening the foil and lifting them out. Once cool, cut them with a sharp knife and store them in a tightly sealed container.
Cocoa Whipped Cream with Mint
1 pint heavy whipping cream
Remove the mint sprigs, squeezing them to remove excess liquid. Whip cream vigorously for a few minutes until it starts to thicken. Add sugar. Continue whipping until soft peaks form. Serve a dollop on top of each brownie. This can be made in advance and kept in the fridge (if it gets a little thin, simply whip it a bit before serving).
Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Cocoa Cinnamon Swirl
The flavor and fragrance of cinnamon are erotically stimulating and warming. This moist cake has a swirl of cinnamon and cocoa accompanied by a hint of ginger. The cake can be served with coffee or tea for brunch, tea time or dessert.
Sift the flour, baking powder, soda, salt, cinnamon and ginger together in a bowl. With a mixer, beat the butter with the sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well. Add the vanilla extract. With the mixer running, begin adding the flour in three parts, alternating with the sour cream in two parts, and ending with the flour. Do not overmix.
Spoon half of the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle half of the swirl mixture evenly over top. With a knife or spatula, carefully fold the mixture about halfway down into the batter. Add the rest of the batter and sprinkle with the remaining swirl mixture. Repeat, folding in the swirl mixture. Smooth the top so that batter covers all.
Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until the cake is golden brown and starting to pull away from the sides of the pan. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. Let cool on a baking rack for about 10 minutes. Carefully run a spatula or knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake. Turn the cake out on a baking rack to cool completely and store at cool room temperature. The cake is actually better the next day as the flavors and aromas develop. Covered, it will keep at room temperature for about 5 days.
Bitter and Semisweet Chocolate with Salted Pistachios and Chipotle
I find this confection particularly titillating and consider it the perfect candy. The combination of good quality, bitter chocolate, the salted pistachio nuts and a hint of ground, smoky chile is my idea of a perfect bite. I have made this with unsalted pistachios and it tastes flat to me. This recipe is ideal when made with a chocolate that contains about 60 percent to 75 percent cocoa.
Tempering chocolate is the process of melting and cooling chocolate to give it a shiny luster and snap when it breaks. It isn’t difficult — just precise and a bit fussy, requiring a little patience. Chocolate only needs to be tempered when it is going to be used on its own — for example, to make candy, molded or used as a coating. There are many methods for doing this (even in the microwave); here’s my method.
1 pound bitter or semisweet chocolate or a combination, broken into pieces or chopped coarse
Put 3/4 pound of the chocolate in the top of a double boiler and reserve the rest. Place the double boiler over medium heat and bring the water to a simmer, then reduce heat so that it is hot, but not simmering. Stir the chocolate as it melts. Do not allow any steam or water to get in the chocolate or it will clump up and harden.
Using a candy thermometer, bring the temperature to 100 degrees, but not more than 120 degrees. When the chocolate is melted, remove from the water pan of the double boiler (set the pot on a towel — careful not to get any water in the chocolate) and stir.
Stir the chocolate and let it begin to cool. Drop a handful of the reserved chocolate into the melted chocolate and stir until it melts. The idea is to cool the melted chocolate and reintroduce the stable cocoa butter crystals as you stir in the reserved chocolate. Repeat with the rest of the chocolate, a handful at a time; the temperature should reduce to 90 degrees or below. Add the ground chipotle after the last bit of reserved chocolate is added, taste for pungency and add more if desired. The chocolate should not feel warm to the touch, and if you dip the tip of a clean knife in it, the chocolate on the knife should start to set up in 1 1/2 to 3 minutes Chocolate begins to set quickly, so be prepared to pour it.
Pour the chocolate evenly back and forth across the pistachios, just covering them. If there is any chocolate left, fill in the holes or thin spots. There should be enough to just cover the 1 1/2 cups of pistachios. Gently tap the pan on a hard surface to spread the chocolate evenly. Put in a cool place and allow to harden.
Once hardened, turn the chocolate bar over on the parchment paper (hands and fingers will leave dull prints so handle as little as possible) and whack with the heavy handle of a kitchen knife to break into pieces. It is best to wrap chocolate in foil for storage (or pack into tins) and store at cool room temperature.
Mocha Chocolata Cordial
This assertive liqueur is for those who love the flavor of coffee and chocolate. Five of the six ingredients in this cordial are considered aphrodisiacs. While this is delicious served in small cordial glasses for sipping, it also is good to use in other preparations. This cordial elevates a cup of hot cocoa, makes a great addition to an after-dinner coffee drink served with whipped cream and is quite lovely drizzled over ice cream and/or pound cake. Combined with eggnog and vanilla ice cream in the blender and served in a martini glass with a dash of nutmeg, it becomes a frosty cocktail that is a cross between traditional holiday eggnog and a Brandy Alexander. (I like to drink this as a dessert or when trimming the tree and baking for the holidays.)
The coffee flavor dominates this cordial, so cut back the coffee to 1/4 cup if you want equal chocolate flavor. You can also substitute decaffeinated coffee beans for regular coffee and rum for the brandy.
1/2 cup ground coffee beans
Combine coffee with brandy and let stand for 30 minutes. Strain through dampened cheesecloth to remove grounds. Pour brandy into a clean bottle or jar. Add honey, cocoa, vanilla bean pieces and nutmeg. Put the lid on the bottle and shake well.
Shake once or twice a day for 1 week. Remove vanilla bean lengths if desired, or leave them. Pour into a nice bottle, label and store in a cool dark place.
Susan Belsinger is a culinary herbalist who loves playing with food. She delights in kitchen alchemy — the blending of harmonious foods, herbs and spices — to create real, delicious food that nourishes our bodies and spirits and titillates our senses.
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