(and the cake)
I may never have known what chocolate really is, if we never went to Granada or if I never bopped into the chocolate museum on the main road. As a rule, we avoided places that advertised their prices in U$D rather than in Cordobas (in a – possibly misguided – attempt to primarily support local industries), but the smell was intoxicating and chocolate doesn’t care about anybody’s principles. In any way, handmade chocolate is expensive no matter where you are simply because it is a very long and labour-intensive process to extract the dark gold from what basically is, or looks like, a papaya. It is not like the growing of these fruits is simple either, particularly if you want it done responsibly and in a way that benefits the local people and the environment – then even the raw product costs a pretty penny.
What I had never realised is how very different cacao from different regions taste and how much of the soil and the sun and the place lingers in the taste, and quite frankly, how could I? I thought good chocolate meant expensive Belgian or Swiss chocolate. It was the most classy option I ever encountered whilst growing up, and for the most part after. Even with the advent of slow food and smaller producers in more recent years, I still had never encountered anything remotely similar to that first dark knob of chocolate bought in the dust of Calle Atravesada.
Done properly, every step of the chocolate-making process, from the fermentation of the beans to the selection of the final mould, resembles something out of an alchemical handbook. It looks magical and intuitive in a way that you can tell comes from many years of experience or from proper instruction from somebody with a lot of wrinkles and very few teeth.
Commercial chocolate producers dance to a different tune. They have to manufacture a consistent product across enormous outputs so they necessarily over-roast the beans to get it to taste uniform. In the process they sacrifice all the subtle flavours – all the florals, all the caramels, all the fruity notes are scorched away until only a roughly monotone bitter note remains.
Ah, but a lovingly tempered, respectfully treated, wild chocolate… How do I describe it? This particular version was dark – like rich, crumbly soil. They hadn’t really refined it to a silky smoothness, it was still a bit crumbly-crystally in the best possible way. It was sticky and rich with oils and unadulterated flavours. It tasted like burnt apricots and crushed frangipani, like ostrich feathers and sun, like ash and honey, like grape musk and things I didn’t even know I had been missing. It had a heady note like something alcoholic and very very old… We ate it slowly in little crumbs and raved about it for days.
I started scouring the market stalls and shops for the best local cacao available, but it was surprisingly difficult to find. I got the impression that a lot of the cacao left the country as a raw export and that the actual culture of real chocolate, made in Nicaragua was still underdeveloped. In the big supermarkets, the only cacao powder available was Hershey’s, disappointingly. One could easily find the powder to mix Pinolillo, a popular local drink made with cacao, but that also contained other ingredients (including cornmeal) that I didn’t want.
I did eventually find a bag of cacao in a little stall on the main square and I also bought a bag from the Choco Museo. The Choco Museo’s was very rough, almost like coffee grounds, and completely raw. The one from the market was a bit finer and gently roasted, but both were quite light in colour and not really brown like we’re used to in the west, but a little more grey-brown in colour. The flavour is out of this world though, all the gorgeous subtle notes right in there, ready to harness.
From the moment I tasted the chocolate, I wanted to bake something that celebrated the beauty of Nicaraguan cacao. In order to mimic the richness and moist darkness that is both the soil where it grows and the taste and the texture of that first bite of chocolate, I looked for a recipe for a very rich and moist chocolate cake to adapt to my requirements (in this I succeeded almost too well, the final product could ultimately only be consumed in very tiny portions). I did consider making brownies, but I wanted to apply only the slightest bit of heat possible to still cook a cake. It would be crazy to destroy the subtle complex flavours so lovingly preserved in the process thus far by banging it in a scorching oven. So I decided to steam the cake. I had discovered steamed cheesecakes around the same time and had had huge success making the fluffy and delicate Japanese cloud-cakes.
I tried to approach the making of the cake like the composition of a symphony. I wanted every ingredient to have a chance to sing in harmony, supporting and playing with the flavours of the Nicaraguan chocolate.
To the flour, I added the sugar in the form of panela, an unrefined whole cane sugar, sold in rounds. This sugar has a deep caramel colour and it tastes malty and rich (If you’re familiar with Wilson’s toffees, it tastes exactly like the black ones). The cacao I sieved from half roasted and half raw Nicaraguan cacao.
I wanted a variety of textures inside the cake, a bit of chocolate luxuriousness to bite into, so I added a very dark “El Castillo del Cacao” Chocolate from Matagalpa in the north of Nicaragua, in chopped bits.
I also wanted to support the fruity notes of the cacao and add something a bit tart to vary the sweetness and I had a few dried cranberries left over from another recipe, so in they went.
The oil component offered another chance to intensify the flavour and add depth – I chose a good virgin olive oil to sing about soil and fruit and umami notes with the rest of the ingredients.
There were two more exceptional jungle plants that are grown in Nicaragua that I wanted to include to complete the themes in the composition – vanilla and coffee. Both are contentious ingredients when it comes to baking with chocolate, but I wanted to embrace as much spicy complexity as possible. Luckily we had taken time to try all the locally grown coffees and we already had our favourite brew, but the vanilla was even more difficult to find than cacao. I eventually tracked some down in an exclusive deli at a breathtaking (dollar) price. Wet and extremely fragrant like something that was still in the jungle that morning, it was almost worth breaking the bank for.
The final result was a dark dream along a long-forgotten spice route. An absolute riot of flavour. Super rich, not only in oils and chocolate but also in dark exotica. We tried, but it was impossible to eat more than a few tablespoons at a time.
This cake will be delicious even with regular cacao, but do yourself a kindness and find the best possible quality. Buy a very good dark chocolate too, because you will definitely be able to taste the difference. I would also recommend getting raw cacao from a health store and using it half and half with the regular cacao. You will be glad you did.
If you want to lighten the serving I suggest garnishing it with mint and berries and maybe a dollop of crème fraîche or a few blobs of citrus curd (ruby grapefruit would be a perfect pairing). Or if you want to indulge in the richness of this exceptional delicacy around the fire in the middle of winter – serve it with a shot of cognac or an aged whiskey. Dusted with confectioner’s sugar it tastes a little like a spicy German Kuchen.
I ended up whipping a tablespoon of cacao and a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar with 2 large tablespoons of cream cheese (you might want to adjust these ratios for more sweetness or bitterness), to decorate the plate. It tasted like a slightly tart chocolate mousse and waltzed beautifully to the cake’s tune.
- 1 cup of cake flour
- 3/4 cup of raw sugar
- 1/3 cup of good unsweetened cacao
- 1/3 cup of raw cacao
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 100g chocolate, of 70% (or more) cacao solids, chopped
- 60g of dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup of full cream plain or Greek yoghurt
- 1/4 cup of virgin olive oil
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or a vanilla pod (scraped out)
- 1/2 cup of good quality hot black coffee
- Confectioner’s sugar to dust and other garnishes (see above)
- Mix all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl
- Add the cranberries & chopped chocolate & mix in
- Mix all the wet ingredients separately (add the hot coffee to the mixture last)
- Add wet to dry ingredients and mix until completely incorporated
- Butter a 9 inch/22cm cake tin or a heat & waterproof a bowl of similar size (that fits in your pot for steaming) and dust with cacao
- Add batter to the cake tin or your bowl and cover tightly with foil
- Submerge in a pot/oven tray of hot water to come halfway up the sides of your bowl/baking tin
- Steam for 45 min on the stovetop on medium heat or bake in a water bath for 45 mins at 320º F (160º C)
- Remove from heat and cool for 10min before removing the cake from the container
- Cool completely before decorating and serving