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Cocoa (Pasta) Nibs

Paul and I went Christmas shopping at the weekend to our local shopping “mall”. We figured it would be sensible to go early and avoid large crowds but we forgot that there’s one thing that malls attract at any time of the year and that’s large crowds.  No matter. We had lunch at Yo! Sushi, a rather overrated fast food Sushi Bar that promises far more than it can offer, particularly on a Sunday lunchtime.  Our fast sushi was followed rather curiously by some Krispy Kreme donuts which do not taste the same over here as they do in the US. Why is that?

Anyway, to cut a long, tedious story slightly shorter, we popped into Hotel Chocolat. I am already a member of their tasting club and often spend many a lustful lunch hour drooling over their expensive looking chocolates, which are actually quite reasonably priced, considering their admirable ethical policies, which can often price other chocolate brands out of the “normal” buyers market.

After 10 minutes spent running around like a child in a candy store (that would be an oversized grown up in a posh chocolate store then), we purchased a gift for one of Paul’s employees, an advent calendar for me and several of their mini slabs of chocolate. At this point, Paul is trying frantically to usher me over to the cashier when I spot a selection of rather unusual cooking ingredients. Chocolate Balsamic Vinegar? Cocoa Pasta? Cocoa Bean and Chilli Olive oil? These guys really are putting their neck out selling this kind of artisinal (read: slow selling) ingredient.pasta-11Never did this seem truer than when the cashier asked me to let him know how the pasta tastes as they “don’t seem to sell a lot of it”.

So, I picked up a packet of the cocoa pasta, intruiged by its rich colour and £5.00 price tag (possibly what puts other customers off). Would it really taste of cocoa or just dye all my other food brown? I couldn’t wait to try it and find out.

I was tempted with a savoury sauce but Paul wanted Macaroni Cheese for tea. OK, so we’ll have Macaroni Cheese followed by Cocoa Pasta Pudding for dessert.

He set to work on the Mac and Cheese and I pondered the Chocolate Pasta sitting in front of me. I have always had a soft spot for my mum’s baked Macaroni Pudding which is a derivition of Rice Pudding, which is to say, rice (or pasta) baked in milk with sugar in the oven over a low heat. Sounds plain and I suppose it is, but it’s good plain. Comforting, nursery food.

So, to keep things simple (and dodge the flying pans and flecks of grated cheese as Paul prepared his meal), I simply poured the dried Cocoa Pasta into a baking dish and covered it with a mixture of cream and milk, then sprinkled it with some soft brown sugar. I cooked it in the oven at a low temperature (150c) and checked after 30 minutes to see if it needed any more milk. It did.

The Finished Dish - Barely Redeemed by the Choc Chips

After a little while in the oven, the kitchen was filled with a rich aroma of chocolate. Imagine if you were baking a chocolate cake – this is exactly how the pasta smells. Intruiged at how deeply chocolately it promised to be, I managed to eat a large plateful of Mac N Cheese and then wondered at how I could possibly eat yet another pasta dish that night.

But in the spirit of the experiment, I managed to dish some up and try it. As you can see from the picture below, it looks a little gruesome, a little gungy and a lot unappetising (and this was one of the better shots of it), and I felt that it needed an extra chocolatey hit to make it “pop!” flavourwise, so I added a sprinkling of choco-caramel chips and these melted quite delectably over the pasta, adding a further dimension to the dish.

My opinion of the pasta served as a pudding is somewhat mixed. The pasta didn’t taste strongly enough of the cocoa to flavour the dish discernably and this was my reasoning behind using a fairly bland, creamy sauce. I wanted to taste the pasta and to be knocked out by it. Unfortunately this didn’t happen. However, I suspect that it may work better with a spicy tomato sauce, something that the cocoa can enhance rather than be the main ingredient.

So, stay tuned for Part 2 of our Cocoa Pasta Experiment – The Savoury Course and, if you’ve tried Cocoa Pasta, I’d love to know what you thought of it and how you prepared it!

Cocoa Pasta is available via Mail Order or instore from Hotel Chocolat.

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To make chocolate healthy pretty much means to  lose what we love most about it: cream, full fat milk, sugar.  What this loosely translates as is chocolate in its most natural form: pods, nibs, cocoa butter, unprocessed cocoa. However, I am always up for a challenge, and having sourced some Cacao Nibs on an unnamed online auction site,  I set to work.

Raw. Like Cacao.

Raw. Like Cacao.

It is no secret that I am a major chocolate fan (you have been reading this blog right?) so I was incredibly excited about trying the nibs. I had read such wonderful things about their health properties but more importantly (to me anyway), their taste!
When they did turn up, I opened the packaging and deeply inhaled the rich, earthy smell, more redolent of purest cocoa powder than chocolate bars. The nibs themselves resemble tiny wood chips and their texture is not far off wood either (not that I am a secret wood nibbler though). Taste wise they are much like a very high cocoa content chocolate: the flavour doesn’t come through straight away, but gets stronger as it melts and the taste lingers on your tongue. There is a slight smokiness to the nibs and they leave a not too unpleasant bitter taste in the mouth.
In this most purest of form, they are apparently a great aphrodisiac, one of the greatest sources of anti-oxidants and are supposedly good for boosting your mood. I can’t vouch too much for any of these claims but what I can wholeheartedly confirm is their intensely delicious taste when cooked or mixed with a natural sweetener.
In preparation for the experiment, I bought a book called Naked Chocolate written by superfood junkies, David Woolfe and Shazzie (no surname), who take every opportunity to extole the virtues of cacao nibs, blue sea algae and all manner of revolting sounding ‘foods’. Whilst I don’t buy into their hippy ethos of pure living through the consumption of raw foods, I am, if nothing else, always up for trying new and unusual ingredients. Generally I would not use the recipes listed in their book; for one, most of the ingredients are not your usual store cupboard staples (Optimum Source Chlorella, anyone?) and therefore they are extremely limiting, but I also enjoy trying to utilise unusual ingredients into ‘normal’ recipes such as cookies, or even chilli. I think it’s important as a cook to familiarise yourself with recherche ingredients, and to use them in everyday recipes is the best way of achieving this familiarity.
The truffles are an adaptation of a recipe taken from the Naked Chocolate book. In fact, an amalgamation of two recipes: their truffle recipe and their chocolate sauce recipe which forms the base of many other recipes.
I made the sauce several nights ago, being not entirely sure what I was going to do with it. I was planning on making a tart or maybe some muffins but eschewed those in favour of truffles. Also, truffles exude an air of luxury, something we could do with during these lean times!
As I mentioned, they are made using a simple combination of nibs, vanilla, dates (which add natural sweetness and moistness) and sesame seeds (which add texture and give longevity to the truffles) and take no longer than five minutes from start to finish, unlike dairy truffles, which are made with fresh cream and have to chill in the fridge before you can form them. Therefore, it is feasible that you can be sitting down, bowl of truffles on your lap, watching reruns of Millennium before the craving has barely kicked in. I like this kind of cooking!
I admit that I felt a pang of dubiousness when I read the ingredients; would these taste like some mealy-mouthed, flavourless vegan substitute for rich, dairy truffles? Far from it. Whilst the texture is unlike that of creamy truffles, these have a grainy bite that is not at all unpleasant. They feel and taste substantial, and the pure caffeine in the nibs gives you a great sense of well-being. They are an instant good mood hit. The sesame seeds add a nutty flavour that is particularly tasty, and, when rolled in some deep, dark cocoa powder, they really taste sensational.
Remember though that I still had some of the chocolate sauce leftover in the fridge (we scooped some of it out with our fingers every time we visited the fridge) and because I had deep concerns about the dry texture of the truffles, I added what was left of the sauce to the final mixture. I am not certain that the final recipe required this so I am just going to give you the basic four ingredient recipe. However, if you find that the truffle mixture is a little too dry, or not sweet enough, I would suggest adding a drizzle of Agave Syrup or honey and a few drops of unflavoured vegetable oil. Remember that the nibs have no additives so may well need some lubricant.
CACAO NIB TRUFFLESmakes 12-14 depending on size
Ingredients:
Half Cup Cacao Nibs
Half Cup Sesame Seeds
Half Cup Dates
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
Some Agave Syrup or Honey to taste
Few drops of Vegetable Oil
Cocoa Powder, Sesame seeds, icing sugar for rolling
METHOD:
In a coffee grinder, blend the nibs and sesame seeds until they form a dry, crumbly mixture. It will not be smooth, rather it will be quite pleasantly textured.
In a blender, whizz up the dates until finely processed. Depending on the age of the dates (mine were old and dried out that they resembled boot leather), they may take longer to process.
Add the nib/sesame seed mixture and process until combined.
Taste for sweetness and add some agave or honey. Process and taste again. If the mixture is still very dry (which it shouldn’t be at this point), you can add a little of the vegetable oil.
Pour the mixture out into a dish and press down with the back of a wooden spoon to form a firm block.
You can now form the mixture into small balls, the size of walnuts, and roll them into some cocoa powder or sesame seeds, depending on your preference.
Options: You could add some rum or kirsch to mixture, omitting the Vanilla Extract, or swap the dates for dried figs or perhaps glace cherries. You could also add some chopped preserved ginger or roll the truffles in some chopped pistachios or hazelnuts.
This recipe comes with a warning: these truffles are seriously delicious!

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So I’m cooking lunch for my mum and, at 10.30am the same morning she asks me what we’re having:

Mum: “Meat?”

Me: “No.”

Mum: {pleading voice} “Not vegetarian?!”

Me: “No.”

Mum: “So…it must be fish?”

Me: “Yes, yes it’s fish”

Mum: “Oh. So have you made a big dessert then?”

Me: “No. Did you want dessert?”

Mum: “Well, fish isn’t very filling and if it’s a fish dish I haven’t had before, I probably won’t like it.” Me: “So you want dessert so fill up on. Just in case?”

Mum: “Well, you do write for this chocolate blog now so it might make sense to give yourself something to write about. Pleeeeease?”

End of telephone conversation.

I suppose I should be offended really but I’m used to my family’s complete and utter fear of what they see as my maverick style of cooking. And all because I’ve cooked maybe 3 or 4 really dud dishes over the last 10 years. And I think that’s pretty good odds myself.

But, I like a challenge so I start rustling around my cookbooks. Paul suggests the 30 minutes chocolate puddings but I don’t want any extemporaneous faff when I get to my mums so I find this perfect recipe, ironically in a cookbook that my mother bought me for my birthday, called Good Food 101 Chocolate Treats: Chocolate Brownie Cake.

Yes, it’s a Brownie baked in a cake tin but it’s more than that. It is fast. All the sugars, chocolate and butter and melted together in a saucepan and then your flour, cocoa and baking powders are stirred in. Almost like your American Dump Cake. Not only is it fast and easy, it is incredibly rich and delicious. I think this could be alluded to the additions of Golden Syrup and cocoa powder, not generally used in traditional brownies.

Anyway, I baked the Chocolate Brownie Cake and was thrilled to see it had the traditional ooey, gooey middle and rich, deep flavour.

We served it with some single cream and raspberries (Paul had vanilla ice cream but then, he is American). Mother was pleased. Oh, and she said the fish dish was filling too…

CHOCOLATE BROWNIE CAKE – serves 6-8

Ingredients:

100g Butter

175g Caster Sugar

75g Muscovado Sugar (light)

125g Good Quality Dark Chocolate, chopped

1 Tbsp Golden Syrup

2 Large Eggs, beaten

1 Tsp Vanilla Extract

100g Plain Flour

½ Tsp Baking Powder

2 Tbsp Cocoa Powder

METHOD:

Preheat oven to 180c.

Line an 8” Cake tin.

In a large saucepan, gently melt together the chocolate, butter, golden syrup and sugars until the mixture is amalgamated and quite smooth.

Remove from heat, beat in the eggs and vanilla and sift in the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder. Stir thoroughly and pour into your prepared cake tin.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (mine took 28 minutes).

Leave to cool in the tin for at least 15 minutes, then cut into slices and serve with cream, ice cream or crème fraiche and some fresh fruit.

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