A steaming mug of hot cocoa topped with a billow of whipped cream and stirred with a stick of peppermint has long been a holiday favorite. But the next time you come indoors to escape winter's frosty air, how about a zing of chili pepper in that mug?
Savory surprises are turning up in everything from chocolate bars to chocolate truffles. Deep milk chocolate meets curry powder and coconut flakes. Venezuelan white chocolate mingles with kalamata olives. Dark chocolate joins ginger, wasabi, and black sesame seeds.
These chocolate matchups are no strangers to Vosges Haut-Chocolat's line of exotic candy bars. "Mo's Bacon Bar," introduced this fall, blends milk chocolate, Applewood smoked bacon, and Alder salt.
Many may draw the line at mixing creamy chocolate with bacon bits, but using untraditional ingredients such as chili peppers, savory herbs, and lively spices has become the trend in the world of chocolatemaking. And consumers are paying top dollar for these "luxury chocolates," sending yearly industry sales beyond $2 billion, according to Mintel, a market research firm in Chicago.
While large companies such as Vosges and small, local chocolatiers are busy pushing the limits, at-home candymakers with a curious streak can, too. Start with quality chocolate, and aim for balance.
"Fine chocolate has the potential for myriad flavors – savory pairings every bit as appropriate as sweet," says Brendan Gannon, owner of La Tene Chocolate, a shop in Boston.
Mr. Gannon makes all of his chocolates by hand including the "Dazu," a truffle with lemon zest and Sichuan peppercorns topped with candied ginger. In addition to his line of extraordinary truffles, he recently released what he calls the "World's Best Peanut Butter Cup," an oversized candy cup of dark chocolate filled with crunchy, roasted peanut butter and fleur de sel (sea salt).
Citrus, pepper, salt, or other spices may play a role in a truffle, but chocolate should still be the star. In an e-mail, Gannon emphasizes that chocolate is not a blank slate; it has its own complex catalog of flavors and tones.
So the appearance of bacon in a list of ingredients may be more of a marketing gimmick to draw the curious than an exceptional new taste. Candymakers advise quality and balance when making such unusual pairings. In "Making Artisan Chocolates," author Andrew Garrison Shotts, owner of Garrison Confections in Providence, R.I., says to use small amounts of spices and savory flavors, as chocolate will accentuate the power of a spice or seasoning. Mr. Shotts concedes in his book that even he, a professional chocolatier, must use trial and error to find the right combination and proportions.
Now that high-end domestic and imported chocolates are more readily available at speciality stores, curious and courageous home cooks can try these daring chocolate pairings in their own kitchens. Where to begin?
"If you happen to be a spicy-food lover, start with chili peppers," says Paula Keung of MarieBelle Chocolates in New York. "Regardless of what's trendy, you'll enjoy chocolate that has flavors you already like."
While MarieBelle has been making a chocolate bar with cinnamon and cayenne for years, this fall the company introduced a buckwheat tea truffle.
Ms. Keung suggests experimenting with chocolate drinks first.
On a chilly autumn evening, I decide to give it a go. Scanning my spice rack, I spot dried cumin. Grabbing the canister, I catch sight of a neglected orange on the counter. I heat milk in a saucepan, keeping the temperature on medium so as not to scald the milk. Next, I add cumin, barely a pinch since I'm making one serving. Then I grate just a bit of orange zest. I let the flavors infuse the milk for about two minutes before adding some Ghirardelli cocoa powder and stirring to mix.
At first sip, I taste the creaminess of the cocoa. Subtly the warm spice of the cumin tingles through, followed by the bright taste of citrus. I sip some more, trying to decide whether I like it or if I am just intrigued by the new flavors. Either way, it isn't long before I see my lips reflected in the ceramic bottom of the empty mug.
Satisfied with my first attempt, my eyes drift back to the pantry. Curry, coriander, chipotle, tarragon, even garlic. Garlic? Maybe. Then, I remember the bacon in my refrigerator. Why not?
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, unsifted
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 cups low-fat milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small bowl, whisk together the cocoa powder and sugar.
Heat the milk in a medium saucepan on medium-low heat until hot but not boiling, about 6 to 8 minutes.
Little by little add the cocoa and sugar mixture using the whisk to stir constantly. Add the vanilla, stirring to mix. Yield: Four servings.
Variations you may enjoy:
Peppermint Swirl: Replace vanilla extract with 1 teaspoon peppermint extract. Add 1 teaspoon of crushed peppermint stick to cocoa powder and sugar mix. Garnish with peppermint stick.
Mayan Spice: Add 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper to cocoa powder and sugar mixture. Serve with cinnamon sticks.
Citrus Twist: Using a microplane or grater, lightly scrape the outer flesh of an orange, to create 1/4 teaspoon of zest. (Be careful not to scratch too deep; the white part underneath is bitter.) Before adding the cocoa powder mixture, add 1/4 teaspoon of ground cumin and the zest. Allow to seep for 2 to 3 minutes.
Thrice Spice: Replace granulated sugar with 1/4 cup light brown sugar. Add 1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and a pinch of ground clove to cocoa powder and sugar mixture.
Source: "Enlightened Chocolate: More Than 200 Decadently Light, Lowfat, and Inspired Recipes Using Dark Chocolate and Unsweetened Cocoa Powder," by Camilla V. Saulsbury