Written: 26th Jun 2004 | Last Updated: 27th Jun 2004
Just say the word chocolate and minds melt. Why is that? What dark demon resides within cocoa beans that makes us fall - again and again - to its irresistible lure? We victims simply look, smell and taste one of its luscious confections, and we’re immediately ready to sin again.
Humans have been passionate about chocolate for something like 2000 years. South America’s secret culinary ingredient, cacao, grew in the vast, virgin rainforests of Mesoamerica - usually within ten degrees or so of the equator. The Mayans harvested entire trees which they carried back to their villages to cultivate for personal, social and religious use. They enjoyed spicy, bitter, chocolate beverages made from ground cacao seeds mixed with such ingredients as chilli, cornmeal and water.
When the Aztecs traded with the Mayans, they, too, became infatuated with the mysterious taste of cacao. The seeds even became an early form of Aztec currency and were often used as religious offerings to the gods. The Aztec chocolate drink, chocolatl, was particularly favoured by royalty - Emperor Montezuma preferred his flavoured with vanilla.
In the early 16th century, when Spanish conquistadores led by Hernán Cortés returned to Europe after their many conquests in the New World, they carried cacao seeds back with them. Chocolatl quickly became a favourite at court, where the method of producing it was kept a closely guarded secret for a century.
When the recipe finally found its way beyond Spain, the fad for chocolate drinks spread throughout Europe. However, it remained a very expensive luxury, because cacao trees only thrived in equatorial regions, and each tree only produced a few pods – enough to make about one pound of cocoa.
The first known chocolate drinking house opened in London in 1657, and the wealthy and privileged flocked to enjoy the rich concoction. It wasn’t until the 19th century that arrowroot was added to counteract the high fat content of cocoa butter. In this more refined state, it could be made into blocks which could be easily stored, then scraped when needed into drinking cups or cooking pots.
The Dutchman, van Houten, introduced a new way of pressing the butter out of the cocoa beans in 1828, around the same time John Cadbury began experimenting with and selling both cocoa and chocolate. The rest, as they say, is history.
Following are two sensational, personal, handed down, family recipes for those of you who, like me, are addicted to chocolate. Please use high quality dark chocolate (not milk chocolate) and real vanilla essence...then enjoy them in moderation!
In a double boiler set over hot water, melt 7 ounces (220 grams) of dark cooking chocolate* then allow it to cool until lukewarm.
In a large bowl, beat the whites of 4 large eggs with ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar until they hold in stiff peaks.
In another bowl, beat 1½ cups (375 ml) of well-chilled whipping cream with 1 teaspoon vanilla essence until it holds in stiff peaks.
Fold chocolate carefully into egg whites, then gently fold in the cream.
Fill 4-6 attractive stemmed glasses with dollops of mousse, garnish with a few chocolate shavings then refrigerate for at least five hours. It can be made a day in advance.
* I use Nestlé Plaistowe rich dark cooking chocolate
Aunt Liz Hudnutt’s Crème au Chocolat – WARNING: This is RICH! For serious chocoholics only!
Carefully melt 8 ounces (250 grams) German chocolate* with 1½ Tablespoons water.
Remove from stove.
Beat 1 egg yolk and blend into the chocolate.
Add 2 Tablespoons powdered (icing) sugar.
Beat the whites of 4 large eggs until very stiff. Fold them into the chocolate mixture, then add vanilla essence to taste (½ –1 teaspoon).
Pour into 4-6 individual little pots – or demitasse cups – and chill for several hours.
Garnish at serving time as you like – but less is more!
* Try Schokinag bittersweet chocolate