Thursday, March 30, 2006

Mexican Chocolate and Simplicity

Last week's chocolate tasting was intended to pay homage to chocolate's Mesoamerican heritage. I first had in mind to make mole poblano. The centuries-old dish, which is a point of pride for Mexican cooks and a signature dish of many non-Tex-Mex south-of-the-border kitchens, is a slow-cooked stew whose ingredient list includes at least three types of chile and numerous items (such as almonds, raisins, cinnamon, and of course chocolate) that seem more likely to appear in granola than in a savory dish. (Take a look at this authentic example from the Food Network.) At the last minute, I realized I'd be better off making something less time-consuming. Our friends Sam and Fiona (and their baby Archer) happened to be the featured guests of two chocolate tastings in a row, and that day I decided on a recipe for seafood stew from the April issue of Bon Appetit magazine that made a point of being both quick and festive. Initially, I was amazed at how much cheaper it is to cook mussels, clams and prawns at home (which I hardly ever do) than it is to order them in restaurants (which I do often). However, the amount of time and care required to clean up the shells after dinner rather negated the simplicity and ease of preparing the dish in the first place, and I've concluded that the emotional energy one must invest in ridding the house of the ocean-gone-off smell after a dinner like this entirely cancels out any financial savings associated with eating the meal at home--but this is all beside the point.

To bring back the Mexican theme, I turned to a recipe for "Mexican chocolate pots." The instructions for this sweet, cinnamony pudding came once again from the Australian Gourmet Traveller: Chocolate book (probably its last appearance here, because it's due back at the library). The authentic Mexican flavor is instantly identifiable, and this dessert is truly simple to prepare.

Mexican chocolate pots*
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup pouring cream
2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa
200g Mexican-style chocolate, chopped
6 egg yolks

Combine milk and pouring cream in a heavy-based saucepan and bring almost to [a] boil. Add cocoa and chopped chocolate and whisk until chocolate melts and mixture in smooth.

Place egg yolks in a bowl and gradually whisk in 1 cup chocolate mixture, then whisk in remaining chocolate mixture until combined and strain through a fine sieve into a jug. Divide mixture among six 150ml ramekins or small dishes. Place ramekins in a roasting pan and add enough boiling water to come halfway up sides of ramekins, then cover loosely with foil, pierce foil to allow steam to escape and bake at 150C for 40-45 minutes or until just set. Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight before serving.

Serves 6

Active Ingredients:

The recipe calls for "Mexican-style chocolate," a sugary, gritty substance generally formed into blocks that can be easily melted down into chocolate drinks. The distinctive taste and texture of Mexican chocolate are instantly identifiable to anyone who has spent time drinking chocolate con leche in Mexico or Central America. For that reason, these Mexican chocolate pots are very strong on nostalgia. However, this recipe also brings an important culinary question to the forefront: Is Mexican chocolate any good?

The grittiness of the stuff is due to the fact that this type of chocolate in not "conched." Conching is a technique to reduce the size of individual chocolate particles that was introduced in Europe long after the first batch of European-style chocolate (with the novelty of added sugar) had made its way back across the Atlantic to Latin America. But unlike other New World affectations (such the Spanish language's sibilant "s" ), the European process of conching chocolate is not simply a matter of taste that Latin America might just as well live without. When Rudolphe Lindt introduced the conching technique in the late 19th century, the monumentally improved result was (and still is) almost universally accepted as the perfect chocolate candy since one experiences an uninterrupted sensation of smoothness when eating it. Of course, the whole matter of conching is less important in drinking chocolate (which Mexican chocolate is mainly used as) since the process of dissolving the stuff into water breaks down the coarse particles anyway. The Mexican chocolate pots call for melting the chocolate into hot liquid in a fashion very similar to making hot chocolate (or chocolate con leche), so the rough texture of the Mexican chocolate is mostly cooked away.

But what about the taste? The product that I used was Ibarra, an affordable chocolate that's manufactured in Mexico but exported to Australia by an American company. The result of this complex modern geopolitical arrangement is that the Ibarra chocolate is labeled according to US chocolate guidelines, and it's marked as "sweet chocolate." This is really a sub-par classification used for products that don't contain enough cacao solids to qualify as "bittersweet" (and while high cacao-content chocolates are all the rage right now, any product with at least 35% is a contender) and none of the milk that defines the creamier, oft-enjoyed "milk chocolate." Mexican chocolate in mostly sugar and cinnamon (or, in the case of Ibarra, "cinnamon flavor") with a bit of cacao paste thrown in for good measure. The very addition of cocoa powder in this recipe is an indication of how little chocolate content there is in the main ingredient. My Mexican chocolate pots were successful in transporting me back to the chocolaterias of Oaxaca and Antigua on my first tasting. But when I came back for seconds, I found the custard to be cloyingly sweet and the taste of cinnamon to be naggingly strong. If nostalgia is not your aim here, I suggest you substitute a European-style bittersweet chocolate for the Mexican variety, omit the cocoa powder, and enhance the recipe's New World flavors by adding a dash each of cinnamon, cardamom, chile, and Mexican vanilla to the milk and cream when bringing the mixture to a boil.

*Australian Gourmet Traveller, Chocolate (Sydney: APC Publishing Pty Ltd, 2003), 15.


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