COCOA has always had an image problem.
For years it was considered the poor substitute for chocolate, the pallid powder that needed major help from margarine and still could not produce a decent brownie. Then it became scorned as the low-fat but sad alternative to chocolate used by so many pastry chefs during the recent reign of nutrition terror. It even lost its cachet as a hot drink once it was replaced by melted Callebaut and cream.
But lately cocoa has been turning up on all the best shelves. High-end chocolate producers like Val rhona, Christopher Norman and Fauchon now make cocoa powders that leave Hershey’s in the dust. I first noticed the phenomenon a couple of years ago in France, where every good chocolatier sells bags of cocoa, but lately even supermarkets here carry Ghirardelli alongside the Nestle’s and the house brand. Natural food stores known for carob now offer a choice in cocoa: organic Ah!laska or Green & Black’s Fairtrade Organic Cocoa.
Last week, in a whirlwind of shopping and baking, I was able to buy and try no fewer than 15 varieties. I made shortbread, muffins, two kinds of cookies and many cakes, using powders that cost as little as $2.50 and as much as $16 for about half a pound.
What I found would surprise any baker accustomed to starting a dessert recipe by melting a pound of pricey chocolate with a stick or two of equally extravagant butter. Cocoa, even inexpensive cocoa, has a deep, dark intensity of flavor and an amazing versatility that even the best brands of 77 percent cacao chocolate lack. It cannot replace chocolate. But in recipes designed to make the most of its sharp taste and chemical capabilities, nothing works better than cocoa.
Some brands, particularly La Maison du Chocolat and Fauchon, are so thick and rich that they almost turn into ganache if you do nothing more than blend them with sugar and a little water. They are far too strong just to brew into hot chocolate, but then most of these new cocoas do not seem to be intended for something so common. There are dozens of other, lesser cocoas for that, the kind mixed with sugar, powdered milk and unknown flavorings. The best cocoa for baking is just cocoa.
The explosion in the cocoa category is all the more surprising considering how completely the powder fell out of favor in the age of excess that followed the era of fat fears, as Americans traded Snackwells for molten chocolate cakes. Death by chocolate was not going to come in powdered form. If a pastry chef picked up a container of cocoa at all, it was only to dredge chocolate truffles or sift over tiramisu. Today, cookbooks by pastry wizards like Claudia Fleming do not even mention cocoa in the index.
But in their rush to melt high-quality chocolate in increasingly extravagant quantities, chefs and recipe writers lost touch with a remarkable ingredient. It was as if they had abandoned mushrooms after discovering black truffles. One is not better than the other. They just have to be treated differently.
Maury Rubin, the owner of City Bakery, acknowledges that several versions of his deep, dark, rich cookies are made with cocoa. Combined with chocolate, it creates an intensity neither component can provide on its own. And even at the high-priced end of the spectrum, it is an extremely economical addition to a baker’s bag of tricks. As little as a tablespoon can flavor a dessert.
Chefs brave enough to admit they use cocoa tend to sing its praises in florid terms. Amy Scherber, the owner of Amy’s Breads, said Valrhona in particular adds a special color and depth to baked goods. ”You get a chocolatey chocolate flavor,” she said.
Richard Chirol, a French-trained pastry chef, agreed in explaining why he uses cocoa lavishly in pear tarts and other desserts at Musette, a takeout shop on Third Avenue (19th Street). ”It’s like you get two different flavors,” he said. ”For some reason, cocoa leaves more bitterness in the mouth.” And that’s a good thing.
But in my experience, cocoa does more than intensify flavor and sharpen edges. It also creates a moist, perfect crumb in a cake, a crisp bite in a cookie. Ms. Scherber likens it to ”black flour.” As it blends into dry ingredients, it transforms the results no less than baking powder does.
The big lie of baking is that three tablespoons of cocoa powder combined with one tablespoon of fat can replace an ounce of chocolate. Every basic cookbook repeats it, but I learned at any early age that Betty Crocker was fooling. Nothing replicates the richness of chocolate.
Cocoa works best in recipes that are designed for it. Buttermilk brings out its tanginess, and the two combine to produce a springy texture in a cake. Even something as simple as the classic Amazon, or black-bottom, cake found in so many cookbooks uses no dairy products or eggs, only vegetable oil and vinegar with cold water. The cocoa reacts to the combination to produce the darkest, moistest cake seen outside the photo on a box of mix.
Some cocoas, particularly the dark, strong ones from Fauchon and La Maison du Chocolat, are vital in a recipe like a crisp shortbread or plain cookie in which the chocolate flavor is all important. But you can fudge if the cookie or cake recipe calls for a tiny bit of real chocolate, or chocolate chips, and use a lesser brand. The whole will be greater than the chips.
Until last week, I always thought the type of cocoa made a difference. I had switched to Droste, a Dutch brand, about 18 years ago after discovering how much better it worked in baking than Hershey’s, which has a harshness that no amount of sugar can temper. Now the cocoas on the market are almost evenly divided between Dutch style and natural, like Hershey’s.
Step 1 of producing any cocoa powder is always the same: after cocoa butter is extracted from cacao, the pods are pressed again to make a cake with no fat, just flavor. What happens next separates the sharp from the mellow. If the cake is just converted into a powder, it is considered natural and has a more aggressive, unadulterated chocolate taste. If it is first Dutched, or treated with an alkali like potassium carbonate (similar to sodium bicarbonate), the color and flavor are enhanced. Alkalization makes a mellow cocoa, but it can also be a way of camouflaging inferior cocoa beans.
Not all labels disclose the processing, but you can guess a brand is natural if the box says ”100 percent cocoa.” Many either say Dutch process or list alkali as an ingredient.
Some of the newly available cocoas have a powerful chocolate taste even though no alkali is involved. But the Dutched varieties are almost uniformly exceptional. In particular, I could discern no difference in texture, taste or color between a cake baked with Valrhona natural and one made with Master Choice alkalized cocoa, a house brand from Food Emporium for less than half the price.
Chefs tend to use Valrhona. Amy Scherber adds it to her dough for chocolate bread for Valentine’s Day because it contributes chocolate flavor without any sweetness; the contrast is that much sharper when she kneads chocolate chunks in.
At Payard on the Upper East Side, FranÃ§ois Payard uses cocoa as a flavoring agent in the crisp phyllo dough that forms the foundation for napoleons and mille-feuilles layered with chocolate mousse. He said he liked the ”crunch and bitterness” the cocoa added. It’s like the dusting of cocoa powder seen on so many dessert plates, but it lets a diner savor the flavor as much as the effect.
Wayne Harley Brachman, who is famous for pulling dessert ideas out of a 50’s oven, simply likes how cocoa performs in his respectfully retro creations. As consulting pastry chef at the new Lawrence Scott Restaurant on the Upper East Side, he uses it as the foundation of the chocolate pudding that is in turn the base of his banana cream pie. He also mixes it into the mocha filling for his mocha icebox cake. But he said his biggest revelation came when he tried it in ice cream, after finally reading the label on HÃ¤agen-Dazs chocolate and realizing that it was cocoa, not chocolate, that contributed the singularly intense taste and texture.
Mr. Brachman also pointed out that cocoa has a huge advantage over chocolate for a home cook because it is simply so easy to work with. No melting is required, only a little sifting at most. It will never seize up or turn bitter as chocolate can.
Those are no small virtues, but to me there’s one more advantage. Cocoa is tidier. Chocolate leaves a kitchen looking like a crime scene. After working with cocoa, you only need to dust.
Adapted from ”Got Milk? The Cookie Book” by Peggy Cullen (Chronicle Books, 2000)
Time: 30 minutes, plus 1 hour’s chilling
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons cocoa, preferably Dutch process
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup finely ground pecans or almonds
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
About 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar.
1. In a medium bowl using an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar, egg and vanilla on low speed until pale yellow in color and thickened, about 1 minute. Sift the cocoa, flour, baking powder and salt into the bowl, and mix on low speed until incorporated. Fold in the nuts and chocolate chips.
2. Cover, and chill until dough is firm enough to handle, about 1 hour.
3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Place confectioners’ sugar in a medium bowl.
3. Form the chilled dough into 1-inch balls. Place in confectioners’ sugar, and roll to coat completely. Place on a baking sheet, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between each cookie. Bake 12 minutes, or until the cookies are puffed and the sugared surfaces have cracked apart. The centers will appear underdone. Remove from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Yield: About 2 dozen.
CHOCOLATE BANANA CREAM PIE
Adapted from Wayne Harley Brachman
Time: 30 minutes, plus about 2 hours for cooling and refrigerating the pie filling
For the filling:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups milk
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks.
For the pie:
1 prebaked 9-inch pie shell or 9 1/2-inch tart shell
2 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups heavy cream.
1. Prepare the filling: Using a microwave oven or double boiler, melt together the chocolate and the butter. In a medium bowl, combine the cornstarch, cocoa and 1/4 cup of sugar. Add 1/4 cup of the milk, and stir to blend. Add the eggs and yolks, and whisk until smooth.
2. In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining 2 1/4 cups milk and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Place over medium heat until scalded. Slowly drizzle the milk into the cocoa mixture, stirring gently with a whisk to blend the mixture without aerating it.
3. Return the mixture to the saucepan, and cook over medium heat until tiny bubbles boil up for 3 seconds. Remove from the heat, and strain into a clean bowl. Add the melted chocolate mixture, and stir until thoroughly blended. Place wax paper directly on the surface of the pudding and let cool at room temperature 1 hour, then refrigerate until completely chilled.
4. To assemble, spoon half the pudding into the baked pie shell (reserve the remainder for another use, or eat it plain). Arrange the banana slices evenly and decoratively over the top. Sift the confectioners’ sugar and cocoa together into a bowl, and add the heavy cream; mix well. Whip until the cream is the consistency of shaving cream. Spoon over the bananas in the pie shell, and serve.
Yield: One 9-inch pie (8 servings).
Adapted from ”Cafe Beaujolais” by Margaret Fox and John S. Bear (Ten Speed Press, 1984)
Time: 40 minutes
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons corn oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, sugar and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, vanilla and vinegar with 1 cup cold water. Whisk in the dry ingredients, blending until completely lump-free. Pour into a greased 9-inch round cake pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the top springs back when pressed gently. Cool before removing from the pan and dusting with confectioners’ sugar, or frosting if desired.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.