By Cheryl Forberg, RD
While I love to bake and make desserts, most of the recipes I develop fall into the savory category. But once in a while, I have an urge to satisfy my sweet tooth by developing a dessert recipe. And most of the time, chocolate is the star ingredient.
I’ve always believed the end result of a well-written recipe is a function of the quality of the ingredients used. Buy the best ingredients you can afford – it’s always worth it.
In terms of chocolate, many of us have dutifully added Dutch-processed (sometimes called European or Dutched) chocolate and cocoa powders to our favorite fudge and cookie recipes, simply because the recipe said to. Think again before you mindlessly choose Dutch-processed chocolate. You might be losing out on some deliciously complex chocolate flavors.
To be clear, it's important to understand the process that brings cocoa into our kitchens. The cacao tree grows in lush rain forests in locales such as Africa, Malaysia, and Central and South America. The beans of the tree are shucked from large pods, then hulled to remove their outer shell or husk. Before leaving their country of origin, the "nibs" as they are now called, undergo a fermentation process, coaxing flavors to emerge. At this point, many manufacturers choose to add an alkali such as potassium carbonate to the nibs. (This Dutch-processed cocoa was named for its Dutch inventor, Coenraad Johannes van Houten.)
Why add the alkali? It changes some of the physical characteristics of cocoa powder. Though the texture isn't changed, the dispersability is. For some, this processed powder makes a superior hot cocoa, since it dissolves easily in liquid. Some bakers like the way it blends with other ingredients in more complicated projects such as cakes or brownies. Alkali darkens cocoa powder, too. So cooks favor it when they are looking for deep, dark color to appeal to the chocoholics in the house. The darkness is further enhanced by the fat component of the powder: very dark cocoa powder likely has more fat.
Dutch processing also causes chemical changes. Adding alkali (which is a "base" and the counterpoint to an acid) lowers the acidity of cocoa powder, making it either neutral or slightly alkaline. This means that the cocoa powder will elicit different reactions during baking, particularly with acidic ingredients such as leaveners.
Baking powder, which contains acid and alkali, is usually used in baked goods with Dutch-processed cocoa. Baking soda, on the other hand, is alkaline and works best in recipes with alkaline-free cocoa powders -- what we call natural cocoa powder. So, it can be critical to pay attention to the type of cocoa that a recipe specifies; if you substitute, the recipe may not work.
Additionally, the healthy antioxidant polyphenols in cocoa are acidic, which means their numbers are reduced when cocoa powder is alkalized. (Fermentation and roasting can lessen these numbers as well.) So, some of the potential health benefits of cocoa may be lost after alkalization.
But the most intriguing change resulting from a boost of alkali is subjective -- the flavor. Some people think that Dutch-processed powders are more mellow. But others find that the chemical addition leaves a sharp aftertaste and masks the cocoa's true flavors.
Many chefs (myself included) think that natural cocoa powder tastes better. The alkali-free cocoa (and chocolate) has a good chocolate aftertaste, a real chocolate aftertaste. It's a little more expensive than some cocoa powders, but the quality is different – I believe it's better.
This recipe was inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi, a renowned Israeli-British chef, restaurant owner, and food writer. One of Chef Ottolenghi’s scrumptious brownie recipes is made with graham crackers and white chocolate. I wanted something gluten free and much prefer cocoa nibs to white chocolate, so my adaptation speaks to that. Half brownie, half fudge, these are indescribably rich and chocolatey. One bite goes a long way – it’s so loaded with texture and flavor. This recipe is a prime example of using the best quality ingredients you can.
Makes 25 brownies
8 ounces dark chocolate*, chopped
2/3 cup unsalted butter, cut in cubes
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
¼ cup superfine sugar
1 (6.5 ounce) Package Melissa’s Peeled and Steamed Chestnuts, chopped
¾ cup chopped Melissa’s Medjool Dates
1 (3 ounce) package Melissa’s Organic Cocoa Nibs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line an 8 x 8 baking pan with parchment paper.
Slowly melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler over simmering water. Remove from heat.
Whisk the eggs, yolk and sugar until thick and light. Gently fold in the melted chocolate. Stir in chestnuts, dates, nibs and vanilla. Spread batter into prepared pan and bake for approximately 15 – 20 minutes. Do not overbake. There should be a few moist crumbs stuck on a toothpick.
Cool completely. Transfer from pan to cutting board, removing parchment paper. Cut into small bars.
Makes approximately 25 brownies.
* I used Valrhona 66% Alpaco dark chocolate.
Nutritional Analysis for 1 brownie
Calories from fat 100
Total fat 11 g
Sat fat 6 g
Trans fat 0 g
Cholesterol 40 mg
Sodium 5 mg
Carb 15 g
Fiber 2 g
Sugars 9 g
Protein 2 g
Vit A 4%RDA
Vit C 0% RDA
Calcium 2% RDA
Iron 6% RDA