Oh How We Love Chocolate

Would it be cruel to extol the virtues of chocolate these dark, cold days of January and February, months traditionally reserved for dietary resolutions and abstention from such temptations? I say now is when we need it the most.

For instance, consider that a cup of Mexican hot chocolate—with its frothy milk foam and fragrant cinnamon—warms stiff limbs much faster in the morning than the ponderous wood stove. (Best of all would be the hot chocolate and the wood stove together!)

Hazelnut-chocolate spread frosted bite by bite onto a banana makes a great breakfast. Coffee break? Brownies, or devil's-food cake, or mocha chip cookies, of course. At the noon meal, you can pop a few chocolate morsels like so many vitamins, for dessert. Supper could be an exotic Mexican dish: chicken, turkey, beans, or a protein-rich grain smothered in molé poblano—a piquant blend of chilis, chicken stock, sesame tahini, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, tamarind, or dried apricots...and chocolate. Scrumptious.

Thumbing through my file of newspaper recipe clips, I find (predictably) many that feature chocolate in some form: handmade truffles, mocha pecan pie, warm and gooey individual chocolate cakes, homemade English toffee, chocolate silk pie, espresso baked custard with bitter chocolate glaze, chunky caramel squares, devil's-food cake cockaigne, chocolate walnut fudge.

In this fondness for chocolate, it seems I am not alone. About 50 studies of food cravings have been published over the past five years, and they all list chocolate as one of the major munchies of choice in the United States, especially among women. The reasons why have a lot to do with hormones and brain chemicals.

Chocolate is a complex food, with some 400 components. Among them are the stimulants caffeine and theobromine, as well as phenylethylamine (the chemical that being in love releases in the brain). The book Why Women Need Chocolate proposes that females crave sweets when their serotonin and endorphin levels are low just before menstruation. Sugar and fat stimulate their release in the brain.

Rich in carbohydrates, vegetable oils, proteins, calcium, iron, and phosphorus, chocolate's quick energy has been valued by runners, mountaineers, bicyclists, skiers, soldiers, astronauts, and scouts.

CHOCOLATE CAME TO the rest of the world from Central and South America (although most of the globe's cocoa beans now are grown in Central Africa). Cocoa was used in Mayan and Aztec cultures for religious rites and as a form of currency. Spanish conquerors of the New World returned home with a taste for chocolate drinks, and jealously guarded their recipes for the next 100 years.

Word gradually spread, however, and by the mid-1600s "chocolate houses" were all the rage in much of Europe. In 1828, a Dutch firm began extracting cocoa butter from the beans, leaving powdered cocoa, a process that soon led to eating chocolate. In all of its forms, chocolate was an expensive luxury until the Industrial Revolution, when machines were invented for grinding the beans, and chocolate-making moved into factories.

A history of chocolate in the church would note that early clergy in Europe frowned on the consumption of chocolate because of its reputed aphrodisiac qualities. A century later, Quakers thought chocolate would be a good alternative to alcohol; companies such as Cadbury's were founded by wealthy Quaker families to process large amounts of cocoa.

A luxury, yes. High calorie, yes. But I'm glad for this particular culinary gift from all our various forebears.

My favorite dessert is the following mousse. However, it means eating raw eggs, which carries a risk of exposure to salmonella bacteria. If that's a concern, you may want to try the second recipe, rich quick brownies.

Chocolate Mousse

  • 2 Tbsp. instant coffee
  • 2 Tbsp. boiling water
  • 8 oz. semisweet chocolate (chips are fine)
  • 4 eggs plus 2 egg whites
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 Tbsp. brandy

Dissolve coffee in boiling water. Add chocolate and melt slowly over very low heat. Let cool. Separate eggs and beat the six whites until stiff.

In another bowl but with the same beaters, beat the four egg yolks until thick. Add sugar and beat until well dissolved. Pour cooled chocolate-coffee mixture and brandy into egg yolks. Stir until well mixed. Fold mixture carefully into beaten egg whites. Fill six small dessert dishes and chill for four hours before serving.

Rich Quick Brownies

  1. Take any box brownie mix, cheapest is fine.
  2. Substitute strong coffee for the water, and real butter for the vegetable oil, using same amounts as listed on box.
  3. Press whole pecans into the top if desired.
  4. Do not overbake. Serve warm or cooled, with milk.

As good or better than from scratch!

CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.

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