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The Chocolate Experiments

At some point growing up I heard about how the Aztecs used to make a drink from cacao beans, the source of chocolate. Since I knew that coffee also comes from beans, I figured the two processes must be similar. I used to imagine grinding up some cacao beans, dumping them into a coffee filter, and pouring hot water over it, and Voilà! A chocolate drink no one had ever thought of before. Hey, maybe I could even market it.

From a typical set of search results, I judge that other people have had this idea from time to time. Anyway, I recently had the opportunity to try it out. Scharffen-Berger is now selling cacao nibs — the roasted, fermented, broken up bits of cacao beans that form the last stage before it all becomes chocolate proper. I figured this was a good place to start, and bought some. Then I looked up how the Aztecs actually did what they did: apparently, they ground up the beans into a paste with a pestle over a warm mortar, then formed the paste into cakes, then broke up the cakes again before adding hot water and spices. They didn’t use sugar, so the drink was very bitter.

On the first try, I put the nibs in a double boiler, and tried to find something like a pestle to grind them up. I know my mom has a pestle, but my current landlord apparently doesn’t. I ground up the nibs as best I could with a metal mallet I found in the kitchen, then added hot water. I ended up with a sort of translucent brown fluid with little dark brown flakes floating in it. Yuck.

After that I decided it would be better to use a coffee grinder. Sure enough, when ground properly the cacao nibs made a paste, albeit a chunky one. This paste turned out to be pretty solid, and not as hard to get out of the grinder as I originally feared. The first time, I warmed it in the microwave a little, but soon I realized the grinder was warming it up just enough already. Plus, it was sticking together so well that I figured the “form into cakes” stage was also taken care of. All that remained was to break it up and add hot water and sugar. Per The Joy of Cooking, I also added some vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

The resulting concoction was surprisingly drinkable. It had a creamy texture, I assume from the cocoa butter which is released by the heated and ground nibs. I tested it on another person, who said it was “really good.” So I decided this was a reasonable modernized approximation of the ancient Aztec drink, as well as a reasonable non-dairy subsititute for cocoa and hot chocolate. It worked even better when I added the sugar to the grinding stage, thereby mixing it into the paste.

The only problem is that I couldn’t grind up the nibs finely enough, and the little flakes still remained. What’s more, they float, so it’s not like you can just let them sink to the bottom as dregs. The next few experiments were devoted to straining those pesky flakes out of the mixture. Unfortunately, this proved an elusive goal. I tried a large-holed all-purpose strainer, a tea strainer, and, yes, a coffee filter, all with horrible results. The all-purpose strainer hardly did anything, since most of the pieces were small enough to get through its holes. About half the nibs were wasted. The coffee filter was even worse: barely anything got through at all, liquid or otherwise.

This highlighted a problem that hadn’t occurred to me before. The cocoa butter was so rich that it was binding the solid fragments together and making a gooey mess of the liquid part. It was making the whole thing so thick it couldn’t get through the filter. Okay then, why not leave the nibs whole, and just pour hot water over them? But no, cacao nibs float, remember? I tried straining them out, and what was left was so thin it was hardly worth the effort.

I should note at this point that I tried using stevia to sweeten a lot of these experiments. That never came out very well; the result is generally not easily recognizable as something related to chocolate. This must have something to do with stevia’s slight licorice flavor.

Meanwhile, I read up on the later stages of the chocolate-making process. I finally realized that the paste that’s supposed to result from grinding cacao nibs isn’t an intermediate stage, but chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor, according to different sources, is either the same thing as baking chocolate or the substance to which cocoa butter is added to produce baking chocolate. It can be separated into cocoa solids (cocoa powder) and cocoa butter, and cocoa butter is the basis of white chocolate. This knowledge in hand, I tried to make a water-based hot chocolate.

This seems like it should be simple enough, because The Joy of Cooking’s recipe for hot chocolate calls for baking chocolate to be mixed first with water, and only later with milk. I tried following the first part of the recipe, then just adding more hot water in place of milk. I got another drinkable result, but the oily chocolate didn’t want to stay mixed with the water, and started to congeal into little floating drops at the surface. Apparently some of them sank, because I found a mass of them at the bottom of the mug when I finished.

I tried to tone down the proportion of cocoa butter by adding some cocoa powder, but this had no noticeable effect. I even tried preparing it with just cocoa powder. I’m guessing that milk is fatty enough to mix with chocolate, and water just won’t do it. This might be why Europeans added milk to chocolate in the first place.

In any case, none of these experiments ended in unmitigated success; but there were two partial successes. If you don’t mind graininess in your drink, you can grind a third of a cup of cacao nibs with the same amount of sugar, then add a cup of boiling or near-boiling water, and get a pretty tasty drink; but bear in mind that the taste is pretty different from traditional cocoa, and may catch you off guard. If you don’t mind lumps, you can make hot chocolate with water instead of milk; I found that using one cup of water instead of three cups of milk preserved the level of flavor I like, but then I like my chocolate drinks very strong. If there is any better way to make a water-based chocolate drink, I for one have not found it.

Addendum, 2008: I have now. The baking-chocolate-and-water strategy works perfectly if you just add cornstarch. I think that’s what I was missing from the old Aztec method. The difficulty here is in getting the proportion right, because if you use too much cornstarch you’re having chocolate pudding, not hot chocolate. About one teaspoon per cup of water and square of baking chocolate should be plenty. Another thing to bear in mind is that it’s much easier to mix the cornstarch in if you’ve mixed it with a little water first, just enough to make a good thin fluid.

Be aware that the result thickens as it cools, like pudding, and a skin will almost certainly form on the top before even one cup is down the hatch. The skin mixes back in pretty well, so just keep your spoon (or fork) handy. The flavor with the added cornstarch is a little different, but if you give it a chance it can be really tasty.