The cacao tree has been around for a long time; but chocolate, derived from cacao beans, is another story. The credit for finding chocolate goes to the Mayas, but their discovery was limited to a liquid -- the Old World’s “energy drink.” The Aztecs dubbed the thick, cold, unsweetened drink xocoatl (“bitter water”), and they flavored it with spices and hot chili peppers. It was a drink only for royalty, believed to impart wisdom and health.
About 1,000 years later, Columbus found the New World and discovered that cocoa beans were being used as currency and to make an exotic drink, but failed to see the potential that had fallen into his lap. A later explorer, Hernando Cortez, was underwhelmed with the bitter, spicy beverage, but enthused about converting cocoa beans to golden doubloons. On a return trip to Spain, Cortez established a cocoa plantation, thinking he would be cultivating money. He also started mixing the brew, then called “chocolatl,” with sugar, vanilla, and spices, starting a new culinary trend in Spain for the nobility.
Eventually, chocolate swept through Europe, becoming the prize of European aristocracy for centuries, while cocoa beans continued to be used as currency till the 17th century. It wasn’t until the 18th century, after the steam engine was invented, that chocolate became affordable for the masses. But it was still used mostly as a drink, until the 19th century when the chocolate bar was created.
The Mayans would be amazed at how far the cocoa bean has come. Chocolate is a worldwide industry; one of the most affluent. And now we’ve come full circle, right back to the Mayan/Aztec belief that it’s healthful -- dark chocolate, that is. But don’t get carried away yet; there are some downside risks. While dark chocolate acts as an antioxidant, reduces blood pressure, increases circulation and energy and enhances mood, it also contains theobromine, an energy lifter that can overstimulate some people, especially diabetics and the chemically sensitive. Ever eat a chocolate dessert only to stay awake all night? Blame it on theobromine. There’s also a question about how much lead is in chocolate, and how much of it can be absorbed into the human system. So, no matter how good you think it is for you, exercise temperance. And listen up: if you have a family pet, please don’t share the love – chocolate is known to be toxic to many animals. (excerpted from my current Greenbrier Gazette food column)
Below are some recipes to make your National Chocolate Day, aka Valentine’s Day, a little sweeter.
1. Chocolate Guinness Cake (my favorite chocolate cake)
2. Double Chocolate Kahlua Cake (made with a cake mix)
3. Rocky Road Squares (made with a cake mix)
4. Chocolate Chai Latte Cake (made with a cake mix)
5. Dark Chocolate Dreams Cake (made with a cake mix)
6. Black Forest Cheesecake (made with fresh bing cherries)
7. Chocolate Turtle Cheesecake (the ultimate in decadence)
8.Peanut Butter Mousse Brownies (these are incredibly delicious)
9. Special Dark Chocolate Cupcakes (made with Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa; light & moist)
10. Zucchini Brownie Cupcakes (almost a brownie, almost a cupcake, moist and delicious)
11. Mock Mocha Mousse (made with instant pudding mix)
12. Chocolate Zucchini Muffins (top-notch muffins, moist with deep chocolate flavor)
13. Chocolate Lovers Muffins (so good, these are almost a dessert)
14. Lava Rocks (chewy, chocolatey, easy meringue cookies)