As winter warmer-uppers go, there’s nothing more comforting than a steaming mug of hot cocoa. But consider this the next time you indulge in the chocolaty elixir: Cocoa powder was nothing short of revolutionary when it was invented—without it, chocolate as we know it wouldn’t exist.
Although chocolate has been a delicacy for thousands of years—cocoa plants were cultivated in Central America as early as 500 BC—it was palatable only when dissolved in water or milk or used in baking. Moreover, chocolate was expensive, a luxury reserved for royalty and the rich.
But in 1828, when Dutch chocolate maker Conrad J. van Houten was looking for a way to make chocolate dissolve more easily in liquid, he came up with the cocoa-making process that paved the way for every cookie, truffle and Valentine’s treat today.
By squeezing the cocoa butter out of the roasted cocoa beans with a hydraulic press, van Houten made a dry cocoa “cake” that could be finely ground. Not only was the resulting cocoa powder much cheaper, but it could also be sweetened with sugar and then remixed with cocoa butter to make smooth, solid chocolate.
While you may not be able to turn a box of cocoa powder into a candy bar yourself—making chocolate is a complicated process—there are still lots of luscious reasons to keep unsweetened cocoa on hand. Marcel Desaulniers, author of Death by Chocolate: The Last Word on a Consuming Passion, uses it to give his chocolate desserts extra oomph.
“Cocoa powder adds deeper color and intensifies the chocolate flavor of baked goods that call for melted chocolate,” Desaulniers explains. Try replacing two tablespoons of the flour in your favorite brownie or chocolate cake recipe with unsweetened cocoa powder, and you’ll instantly see—and taste— the difference.
Reach for cocoa to dust cakes with delicate designs: Place a doily or a paper cut-out of a heart on top of a cake, and sift the cocoa powder over it. Or whip up a quick dessert sauce by dissolving equal parts cocoa and sugar in warm milk or cream, then adding a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg. In a recipe pinch, cocoa powder can also be substituted for unsweetened chocolate—just mix together three tablespoons of cocoa powder with one tablespoon melted butter or vegetable oil for every ounce of unsweetened chocolate in a recipe.
But cocoa’s uses aren’t limited to sweet confections. Latin American cooks have long blended cocoa into spicy south-of-the-border chilis and stews, which taste richer and heartier with a teaspoon or two of their “secret” ingredient. For a modern version of traditional Mexican mole sauce, cocoa can’t be beat because it’s easy to use (no messy chocolate-melting).
Or you can imitate the chefs at the Hershey Company, who treat cocoa like any other spice, adding it to savory dishes such as soups and casseroles. Or try adding a dash of it to everyday items such as salad dressings, herb-laced roasted vegetables—even grilled cheese sandwiches—for an exotic, almost smoky flavor that’s not overpowering.
Still, the best thing to do with cocoa may just be to . . . make cocoa.
Simply dissolve two teaspoons cocoa powder and one tablespoon sugar in one tablespoon hot water, then stir in one cup hot milk. The rich, chocolaty flavor of this easy concoctionwill win you over for good—and warm you up for the rest of the winter.
CHEESE ENCHILADAS WITH EASY MOLE SAUCE
Cocoa powder and peanut butter make this traditional Mexican sauce a snap. If you can’t find ancho chile powder, use 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper instead.
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 medium-sized onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tsp.)
1/4 cup chili powder
2 Tbs. light brown sugar
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ancho chile powder
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1 15.5-oz. can diced tomatoes
3 Tbs. cocoa powder
3 Tbs. peanut butter
12 oz. light Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (about 3 cups)
16 8-inch flour tortillas
To make Mole Sauce: Heat oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onions, and cook 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until browned. Stir in garlic, chili powder, brown sugar, cinnamon, ancho chile powder and ground cloves, and cook 1 minute, or until fragrant, stirring constantly.
Add tomatoes, cocoa, peanut butter and 2 cups water. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
To make Enchiladas: Preheat oven to 350F. Ladle 3/4 cup Mole Sauce into bottoms of 2 12x8-inch ovenproof baking dishes. Place about 21/2 Tbs. cheese in center of each tortilla. Roll tortilla around cheese, and set seam side down on top of mole sauce, placing 8 filled tortillas in each pan. Top each dish with 11/4 cups mole, and sprinkle each with 1/3 cup cheese. Bake 20 minutes, or until sauce bubbles and cheese melts.
PER SERVING: 462 CAL; 24G PROT; 22.5G TOTAL FAT (8.5G SAT. FAT); 47G CARB; 30MG CHOL; 629MG SOD; 7G FIBER; 8G SUGARS