Ahead of her upcoming demo, cookbook author and journalist Sue Quinn expounds the many uses of chocolate
Like many people, I find it hard to say no to a wodge of dark and decadent chocolate cake or warm-from-the-oven cookies studded with gooey chocolate chunks. But divine as these treats are, chocolate can be used in many other delicious ways—something I learned while researching my new book, Cocoa.
When I set out on my cocoa-scented journey (I know, a tough project) I thought that chocolate embodied just one flavour—chocolate!—and was most deliciously deployed in sweet things. But as I delved deeper into my research and explored the use of chocolate in the cuisines of Mexico, Italy, Spain and beyond, I realised it’s a much more versatile ingredient than many home cooks and chefs realise.
After all, chocolate is only sweet because manufacturers add sugar—lots of it, in the case of mass-produced confectionary. Cacao beans in their natural state, and fine dark chocolate that hasn’t been filled with sugar and additives, deliver a deliciously complex array of flavour notes. These vary according to the genetic strain or variety of the cacao beans, the ‘terroir’ or environment in which they grew in and the care (or not) that went into harvesting and fermenting them. Chocolate’s flavour is also determined by the maker and reflects the way they roast and process the beans.
Fruity, earthy and caramel
Scientifically speaking, cacao beans contain more than 600 aroma compounds that can deliver everything from fruity, earthy and caramel notes right through to spicy, toasted and nutty flavours. This means that chocolate—the good quality stuff without too much sugar—can enhance both sweet and savoury dishes and pair with an array of flavours and ingredients, from fruits and vegetables to cheese and meat. Chocolate can also be used in different forms. Cacao nibs (broken up, roasted beans) are wonderful used as a spice just like black peppercorns to brighten a dish and add a little soft crunch, and a square of dark chocolate melted into a hearty braise or stew can deliver extra richness and depth of flavour.
As far back as 3,500BC, the ancient people of the Upper Amazon—and later, civilisations in the Americas—recognised that cacao beans pair beautifully with other flavours and ingredients. They combined finely ground cacao beans with things like chillies, flowers, vanilla and herbs, and mixed the resulting paste with water to make drinks that were highly revered, consumed on ceremonial occasions by the elite.
Italian chefs in the 17th century also understood its versatility, and sweet and savoury recipes containing chocolate started to appear in recipe books as early as the 18th century. Chefs in the grandest houses and palaces were keen to demonstrate their culinary showmanship by using what was then an exotic, rare and hugely expensive ingredient that only the uber-wealthy could afford. They utilised chocolate in innovate ways, adding it to meat and polenta dishes, pasta, sauces and even—sound the alarm bells—pan-fried liver.
You’ll be gratified to learn I won’t be going quite that far in my cookery demonstration at Borough Market on 12th April, but I will be showing you just how versatile an ingredient chocolate is. I’ve shopped at the Market since I arrived in the UK from Australia in the late 1990s, when I first discovered it was a food-lover’s dream. I was delighted to explore the chocolate on offer at Borough Market in a feature article in the lead up to Christmas. Now I’m excited to demonstrate recipes from my new book, Cocoa, that pair chocolate with a range of delicious Market produce—fruit and vegetables, cheese, charcuterie and pasta—to show you its true potential in the kitchen.
Join Sue for tips, tastings and recipes Friday 12th April in the Market Hall, 1-2.30pm
Cocoa by Sue Quinn