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Cocoa pronto: Late-night sweet tooth leads to chocolate hack

Ari LeVaux, Flash in the Pan
Cocoa pronto: Late-night sweet tooth leads to chocolate hack
Chocolate paste is simple, cheap and immediate, and will hit the chocolate button squarely in your mouth and heart. You can eat it with a spoon or smear it on bread. (Photo: Photo: Ari LeVaux)

This is the time of year when we eat more chocolate than usual. The winter season sets the tone for hot cocoa consumption, and Americans consume 58 million pounds of bittersweet darkness on and around Valentine’s Day — about 5 percent of U.S. annual chocolate consumption.

Today, many enthusiasts consider eating chocolates a superior form of chocolate to drinkable cocoa. Chocolatier Jason Willenbrock of Posh Chocolat in Missoula, Montana, is one.

Eating chocolate (especially his), is the highest known use of the cacao bean, in his unbiased estimation. Willenbrock’s artisan truffles are, admittedly, magnificent, with flavors ranging from traditional, like dark or mocha, to the whimsical, like coconut curry, lavender honeycomb, aged balsamic and strawberry. I’m normally the kind of guy who doesn’t want nuts in my chocolate, much less fruit or spices. But Willenbrock’s combinations certainly work, and he obviously has talent, which is why I sought him out.

I was exploring the creation of homemade chocolate paste, the easier, cheaper and less fancy the better. And I sought to do this with cocoa powder, no less. I was aiming more toward the lowest possible use of the cacao bean, rather than the highest, because if the ingredients are good, even the simplest of recipes can be very satisfying. Especially if they contain chocolate.

Immediate chocolate

My journey of chocolate hacking discovery began with a late-night need for edible chocolate. Having neither Kisses, bars, ice cream nor candy made of chocolate, I invented smearable chocolate paste, a magical substance that turns things into chocolate.

This paste is made of three ingredients: cocoa powder, sweetener and heavy cream. First, mix the cocoa and sweetener at three units to one chocolate to sweet, which ideally would be sugar syrup or agave syrup, or brown or powdered sugar. Table sugar will stay crunchy and not dissolve.

If you dump a bunch of cream on top of the cocoa, or vice-versa, it will result in a lumpy mess that will not be stirred together. So pour in the cream a little at a time, stirring until it becomes a smooth, glistening brown paste that’s almost as stiff as creamy peanut butter. If it isn’t sweet enough, add more sweet. If it isn’t creamy enough or too stiff, add more cream (but not so much that it gets soggy). If you want more chocolate, add it.

Chocolate paste is simple, cheap and immediate, and will hit the chocolate button squarely in your mouth and heart. You can eat it with a spoon or smear it on bread. And it’s infinitely customizable. A few drops of vanilla, a teaspoon of powdered milk or coconut flour, a substitution of coconut cream for heavy cream.

Secret ingredient

“It isn’t chocolate without cocoa butter,” Willenbrock proclaimed, with mellow defiance, as we munched on crispy sheets of byproduct from the rendering of bacon grease for his popular bacon caramel.

I begged to differ with his assessment, and made some paste.

“It tastes like extra-thick drinking chocolate,” he said with a shrug.

Whether or not I had his respect, I knew that Willenbrock would have some pointers in my pursuit of chocolate hackiness. He did not disappoint.

After thinking for a moment, he uttered three words:

Sweetened. Condensed. Milk.

Beyond using it for my paste, Willenbrock mused there might be opportunity to use that trick where you boil or pressure-cook a can of sweetened condensed milk until it turns into the caramel-like dulce de leche.

He also suggested playing around with baking chocolate in my hacks. It would have cocoa butter, which would by definition make it better. And he encouraged even more creativity than I’d advocated. Some garam masala spice mix, perhaps, or the tiniest drop of lavender oil.

But really, he had me at sweetened condensed milk. I brought a few cans home, took out my Instant Pot electric pressure cooker and continued my research, invigorated. The path wasn’t straight. There were dead ends. But I ended up in a very good place. Here is how to get there.

  • Take one can of sweetened condensed milk. Pour it into two Mason-style 8-ounce jars.
  • For the cocoa version, stir in two heaping tablespoons of powder until it’s basically a two-ingredient paste. Fill the jar the rest of the way with (drinkable) coffee. Secure lids.
  • Or, if you want to take a more Willenbrock-esque path, mince two squares of baking chocolate. Stir in the pieces, and fill the jar the rest of the way with coffee.
  • Pressure-cook jars for 30 minutes, or simmer them for 2 to 3 hours. Put a rag on the bottom of the pot so the glass jars don’t rattle and break.

The version with cocoa powder, coffee and condensed milk turned into something of a two-layered pot-de-crème. The top layer was cheesecake brownie, thick and moist. Below, dulce de leche.

When I removed the jar with baking chocolate from the hot water, I noticed that it had failed to stay mixed. So, using oven pads on the still-hot jar, I unscrewed the lid and gave it a good stir. The result: dulce de leche, with floating confetti-sized bits of un-mixed chocolate that you can’t in the least bit tell are not sweetened.

Both versions: mind-bogglingly awesome, and extra decadent.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 25 states. Ari lives can be reached at flash@flashinthepan.net.