Monday, August 30, 2010

Kakaw, Chocolate, the good stuff.

Tomes have been written on chocolate's history, culinary influence and botanical origins. After years cooking, selling and reading about the stuff, I could do little more than a disservice if I tried to condense even a portion of all there is about chocolate here. But there are a few things worth mentioning, and you'll see how I make my own at home.

Anyone subjected to advertising in the last 20 years will have an inkling that chocolate has some sort of relationship with a civilisation of the Americas, one which certainly boasted some very attractive and athletic physiques, and shared a fondness for consuming chocolate bars wrapped in foil and coloured paper. And though advertising–especially when engaging its anthropological prowess– usually gets everything 100% right, there are a few notions astray here.

Our nameless civilisation suffering portrayal was most likely supposed to be Aztecs, who are too often credited with chocolate's initial usage. Due to the fact that the Aztecs had a formidable nation intact when the Spanish arrived, they authored much of Mesoamerica's pre-colonial history simply by being the ones to tell the story. Thus, they managed to attribute quite a few achievements attained by other cultures to themselves. The Aztecs had in fact left their homeland in the north only 4oo years earlier and had ruled Mexico for less than 100 years, thousands of years after chocolate had migrated from it's home in the Amazon basin.

In fact, the Maya were fundamental in cultivating and exploiting the wonderful properties of this fruit. The Popol Wuj (the Mayan book of creation) contains a number of references to chocolate in the form in which it was used in Mesoamerica at the time, as a sacred drink and as currency. It was in fact the Maya who had first shown the Spaniards the bean they knew as kakaw, the name which is the etymological root for our own word today. Further linguistic studies have shown the word kakaw to be Mixe-Zoquean in origin–a group indigenous to the north of Oaxaca–suggesting that if they donated the word they most likely donated the substance it describes.

And so it comes full circle, since Oaxaca is renowned for the quality of it hot chocolate to this day. The city boasts hundreds of molinos from which you can purchase freshly milled chocolate nibs, or as I do, take your own mix for them to grind. Its quite a fragrant process to say the least, and since I got the scoop on the secret ingredients from my sweet abuelitas in Guatemala, it's very much worth making my own.

Cocoa beans, AKA Theobroma Cacao, feremented, dried and ready for toasting.

I start by buying very good beans. To be honest, I find the best way to choose them by looking at the other products being sold and assuming the quality is consistent (i.e. you can easily tell if a chile ancho is plump and shiny, vanilla pod moist or pecans well formed, whereas cocoa looks fairly similar. Unless of course, it looks shabby). Now I have my chocolate lady, that's it. There will be no other.

My toasted and peeled beans, weighed out with their particulars.

I roast the beans on a comal before shelling them, weighing them and taking them to the molino. My mix gets a kilo and a half of sugar to a kilo of cocoa. This is regarded as bitter-sweet in Mexico as most chocolate runs at a mix of two and a half to one. Add 50g almonds and 20g cinnamon quill and run it through the coarse molino, mix the sugar in and then run it through the second molino on a finer setting, and there you have it. It is hot and runny from the friction of the granite plates, so it's poured into a bag, taken home, mixed with the secret ingredients and pressed out into a tray. Just before setting, I run a paring knife through the mix to portion it and let it cool completely.

Willy Wonka's first job at the molino in Oaxaca. This is the chocolate with nuts and spices added, about to be mixed with sugar.

If you want to try it, please book a class with us. If you want to know more about chocolate, check out The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, or wait for our book to come out...


Monday, August 16, 2010

Dark Chocolate Semifreddo

Last month when I didn't post, I was writing new menus for the De La Tierra Cooking School. I played around a little, as one must, to keep it interesting for me whilst accommodating the seasons. One of the new courses is a Chorizo and Chocolate workshop, where in a few short hours we roast beans, grind cocoa, toast chiles and eat very, very well.

Another course boils down to a market tour where we buy whatever we might find in season on the day (yellow-foot mushrooms, baby peaches, wild greens amongst others at the moment) and plan a menu together from scratch. This got me thinking about fail-safe desserts that would carry local seasonal flavours well, while showing off the high quality of Oaxaca's dairy produce.

Enter the Semifreddo (AKA. frozen parfait, AKA no-churn ice-cream) flavoured with my handmade chocolate, studded with roasted crushed cocoa nibs, and served with vanilla bean cajeta. It's quite a thing, and on the night of its testing we had the added kick of a toasted hojaldra for crunch.

This is a very easy and satisfying recipe–you basically make a chocolate anglaise, then fold in an Italian meringue–so don't be fooled by the amount of steps. And really you can make it with any good quality chocolate. In the event that you use couverture chocolate (tempered European-style), grind up some roasted almonds and add them to the cream mix. The hint of texture and nuttiness is most welcome.

Semifreddo de Chocolate Oaxaqueño | Serves 6

160g Mexican hot chocolate (or 54%-70% dark chocolate), chopped
5 eggs, separated
250ml cream
70g sugar
1" cinnamon quill
1/2 vanilla pod
a good pinch of sea salt
20g crushed cocoa nibs (or shaved chocolate if nibs are unavailable)

Stage 1: Chocolate Anglaise
  1. In a small non-reactive sauce pan, heat the cream gently with the cinnamon quill and the seeds of the vanilla pod. At the point of boiling, remove from the heat and reserve.
  2. Whisk the egg yolks, sea salt and 20g of the sugar together in a stainless steel bowl until pale and well aerated. Strain the cream in to the egg mixture, combine then return to the heat in a clean saucepan.
  3. Cook on a low heat stirring all the while until the eggs are cooked (ribbon stage or 80 degrees Celsius , 180 Fahrenheit). Add the chocolate and stir until melted. Leave to cool.

Stage 2: Italian Meringue (start when the anglaise mix is at room temperature)
  1. Place the remaining 50g sugar in a small saucepan with 3oml water. Bring to the boil insuring all the sugar has melted. Remove from the heat but keep warm.
  2. In a large stainless steel bowl, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until at a medium peak. At this point, slowly introduce the hot syrup and continue to whisk until shiny and firm.
  3. Remove the whisk, and using a spoon gently fold in the chocolate anglaise and crushed cocoa nibs.
  4. Pour into a prepared mould (I threw one together from a loaf tin and some baking paper) then place in the freezer. Overnight is best, but a shallow dish will render a firm semifreddo in 4-6 hours. Serve as you see fit.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Los Danzantes

A few shots from a high-end slow food place in Oaxaca. On previous visits mescal and wine from the house label–though we didn't indulge on the day–had proved quite a find, as had the slow braised duck tacos and tlayudas de camarones.

I started with a black bean soup with corn dumplings and aged cheese, Karin with the apple and mustard cress salad. The soup was quick simple yet spectacular, the little floating nuggets of masa quite reminiscent of gnocci. An earthy sour-dough with chunks of mushrooms throughout was set down and soon devoured.

Having full faith in Los Danzantes ability to work wonders with the duck, I had a seared breast on pumpkin-seed pilaf with mole chichilo. Karin had organic local turkey with mole amarillo and neither plate disappointed.

It was the start of a long month in which we visited a mushroom festival, moved house, lost a laptop to a glass of lemonade and had some great friends come and visit. Oh, and we made a fairly outrageous semifreddo with my home-made Oaxacan chocolate. Hence there are a few good posts coming up, to compensate for our absence. See you all soon.