03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Chocolate: Truly The Food Of The Gods

The great Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus christened the cacao tree the food of the gods, and boy, was he right!

We'll never know what nirvana is - well, most of us won't anyway, maybe the Dalai Lama (but I hear he loves chocolate, too) - but chocolate is about as close to ambrosia as we mortals will ever experience.

For most of us, a mere taste of chocolate on our tongue can trigger a flood of fond memories: our first Hershey Kiss, licking chocolate ice cream off our wrist during the summer, dipping our fingers into rich chocolate frosting meant for a birthday cake. But hardly any of us think of chocolate as good for us. Sinful, surely. Decadent, definitely. But healthy? Never. But just this once, you'll love being wrong.

A little history: the origin of cacao is a subject mired in some controversy, but modern science has shown that it first grew in South America, specifically in the Amazon basin and in what is modern Venezuela. Historians have not established how, when or why cacao was carried out of these regions, but the plant's first migration in its world travels lands it in Mexico and Central America. And this is not some obscure historical footnote in culinary history. This is where someone looked past the delicious gooey white interior of the cacao fruits to the almond-sized seeds enclosed in each pod.

The first Mesoamerican discoverers of chocolate were pioneers in many ways. From cultivating and growing the plant in an ecologically sound way, they arrived at very sophisticated culinary possibilities. By combining chocolate with herbs, flowers, honey, chilies, and sapote pits, they created flavors and effects that made even our modern uses for chocolate pale in comparison.

As time carried on and cacao was transported and traded all over the world, each culture that got its hands on this magnificent food added its own unique twist. Some say that the Swiss have a lock on the art form known as chocolate, but there are those who swear by French confections. And then there's me, enchanted by all chocolate, but particularly Mexican, South American and Italian. They have discovered ways to keep the bitter characteristics of chocolate right alongside the sweet additions.

But does chocolate have a place in a healthy diet? Isn't it loaded with fat, sugar, dairy, additives, preservatives and caffeine? Won't the mere mention of the word 'chocolate' cause us to fall over, dead by some subversive energy lurking in this humble pod? Well, if your idea of chocolate is the cellophane wrapped junk you pick up while standing in the checkout line at the supermarket or convenience store, you just might keel over.

The chocolate I am talking about is not only the food of the gods, but can actually be good for your health. Recent studies show that dark chocolate can actually do everything from protecting our hearts to alleviating depression and symptoms of both PMS and menopause. A rich source of antioxidants and other trace minerals, chocolate is one of the richest sources of magnesium in the plant kingdom (which is why it's so great at relieving PMS). On top of that, chocolate has compounds that release serotonin in the brain - our 'feel-good' hormone - the hormone that makes us feel contented and relaxed.

But the energy of chocolate is what I love the best. Tropical in nature, chocolate brings a warm and dry energy to our bodies. With its astringent character, chocolate is the perfect catalyst for digesting fat and protein (which is why it makes the perfect mole sauce: a traditional bitter chocolate sauce served with fatty meats like pork or fowl, even with vegetarian 'fatty' foods). This warm and dry energy aids our bodies in moving stagnant energy, alleviating sluggishness, but relaxing the body at the same time.

But what about the caffeine? Trace amounts only, my friends, so unless you are supremely sensitive to the effects of this natural stimulant, you won't be kept up at night from the chocolate you had at lunch.

So how did chocolate get such a bad rap? Well, it's not the chocolate. In its pure state, chocolate is bitter. Originally consumed as a hot liquid, either thick or thin, laced through with hot spice and cinnamon, chocolate tasted nothing like the cloyingly sweet candy we call chocolate today. This version of chocolate, however, had little appeal for European taste, so sugar was added. Then butter, and frankly... it was downhill from there. As chocolate became a common food, the quality of it was compromised, artificial flavorings added to 'create' a depth of flavor and chocolate became the enemies of our health.

All that aside, there is a way to enjoy chocolate without compromising your health. First and foremost, try to remember that something this rich and delicious is calorically dense, and calorically dense foods will make us fat if we eat them in excess... period. Next, if the chocolate you are eating is loaded with refined sugar, dairy fat and other additives, it has crossed the line from good quality chocolate to junk food, deadly for our health. Oh, sure the occasional treat at a restaurant won't kill you or your dietary patterns, but just remember that 'occasional' means now and then, not 'since the last occasion.'

Choose a chocolate that is dark and bitter, either unsweetened (you can sweeten it yourself with grain sweeteners or honey) or grain sweetened. Choose a chocolate free of dairy products...there is no good news about dairy or saturated fats. And of course, choose a chocolate free of additives or preservatives.

And you can go one step further. Choose certified organic chocolate to ensure that you are treating yourself to a pesticide-free indulgence. And if you are feeling particularly conscientious, look for chocolate that also carries the label 'fair trade.' This relatively new practice was spawned by the unfortunate circumstances that the people who grew and processed chocolate were unable to grow anything else, resulting in starvation. Fair trade allows for these farming communities to become self-sustaining. Great, huh? You get to enjoy and do some good in the world.

Chocolate is so great to work with: richly flavored, sensuously textured and beautifully enhanced by strong flavors. Some wonderful chocolate partners include cinnamon and hot chili peppers. These two stimulating flavors lift the flavor of the chocolate onto the tongue with a delicious sparkle. Orange zest balances the fatty nature of chocolate with a touch of astringent, sour taste to create a yummy zing on the tongue. Some chocolatiers are hearkening back to ancient culinary triumphs and are adding lavender, jasmine and other flowers and herbs to chocolate to add a touch of perfume to the decadence. Intoxicating, truly.

And now, some of my personal favorites, chocolate through and through:

Hazelnut Cake

I can't imagine why Mother Nature created any other nut after the hazelnut. Rich, delicately flavored and moist, hazelnuts add depth of flavor and tenderness to any recipe. In this cake, they help to create a tender, moist crumb and nutty flavor without compare.

2 1/2 (one half) cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
generous pinch sea salt
1/4 (one quarter) teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure hazelnut or vanilla extract
1/3 (one third) cup avocado or light olive oil
1/2 (one half) cup brown rice syrup
1/2 (one half)-1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1/2 (one half) cup finely ground, lightly toasted hazelnuts

mocha glaze:
1 cup non-dairy, grain sweetened chocolate chips
1/4 (one quarter) cup unsweetened almond milk
1 tablespoon brown rice syrup
1 tablespoon grain coffee

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and lightly oil and flour a standard bundt pan.

Combine flour, baking powder, soda, salt and cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Whisk briskly to impart air into the batter. Stir in extract, oil and rice syrup. Slowly add milk, stirring constantly, to create a smooth, pourable batter. Fold in hazelnuts.

Spoon batter evenly into the pan and bake until the top of the cake springs back to the touch, 35-45 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before inverting onto a plate and onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Make the mocha glaze. Place chocolate chips in a heat-resistant bowl. Combine milk, rice syrup and grain coffee in a small saucepan and whisk briskly to dissolve grain coffee. Cook over medium heat until it reaches a high foam. Pour over chocolate and whisk to create a smooth, satiny glaze.

Slip a piece of parchment under the wire rack holding the cake. Spoon glaze over cake, allowing it to run down the sides. Wait a few minutes and repeat, coating the cake with several layers of mocha glaze. Makes 8-10 servings.

Note: To grind hazelnuts, simply place in a food processor and pulse until ground into a fine meal.

Nipples of Venus

Chocolate and vanilla are like love and marriage. They just go together, and in these little bites, they are the perfect match. Rich, moist vanilla cookies with just a dab of decadent chocolate. Yum...

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
generous pinch sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
scant pinch ground cinnamon
1/2 (one half) cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 (one quarter) cup avocado or light olive oil
1/3 (one third) cup brown rice syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Unsweetened almond milk

chocolate glaze
1/4 (one quarter) cup unsweetened almond milk
1 teaspoon brown rice syrup
2/3 (two thirds) cup non-dairy, grain-sweetened chocolate chips
18-24 non-dairy, grain sweetened chocolate chips, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, soda and cinnamon. Mix in coconut, oil, rice syrup and vanilla. Slowly add milk, mixing to create a soft, moldable dough. Do not over mix.

With moist hands, roll the dough into 1-inch spheres and arrange on the lined baking sheet about an inch apart. Bake until firm, but still tender, 15-18 minutes. Remove from oven and immediately transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Prepare the glaze by placing milk and rice syrup in a small sauce pan and bringing to a high boil. Pour over chocolate chips and whisk to create a smooth, shiny glaze.

Using a small spoon, dab a small bit of glaze on the center top of each cookie and press a chocolate chip into the center of the glaze, creating the nipple. Makes 18-24 cookies.

Note: You will have more chocolate glaze than you will need, but it will keep, refrigerated for a couple of weeks. You'll just need to loosen it before re-use.

Orange Coffee Cake with Chocolate-Pecan Streusel

Absolutely decadent, but not so rich that you can't enjoy a healthy slice. The hint of orange sooooo enhances the chocolate that it's intoxicating. The pecans are just the right level of rich to create the perfect marriage. And don't forget the omega-3 essential fatty acid in the hempseeds. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

1 1/2 (one half) cups granulated sweetener, like maple granules
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons avocado or light olive oil
1 1/2 (one half) cups coarsely chopped lightly toasted pecan pieces
1/2 (one half) teaspoon shelled hempseeds
1 cup non-dairy, grain-sweetened chocolate chips

3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
generous pinch sea salt
3/4 (three quarters) cup avocado or light olive oil
2/3 (two thirds) cup brown rice syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 orange
1 1/2 (one half) cups whipped silken tofu
1/4 (one quarter) cup fresh orange juice
1/2 (one half)-1 cup unsweetened almond milk

Prepare the streusel topping by whisking granulated sweetener and cinnamon together to blend. Add oil and mix with a fork to create small, moist clumps. Mix in pecans, hempseeds and chocolate chips. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly oil and flour a 13 x 9-inch baking pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, soda and salt, whisking briskly to impart air into the batter. Mix in oil, rice syrup, vanilla, orange zest, tofu and orange juice. Slowly add milk, stirring, to create a smooth, spoonable batter. Spoon half the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Sprinkle one half the streusel over the batter. Spoon remaining batter over streusel and carefully spread evenly. Sprinkle with remaining streusel.

Bake for 20 minutes. Loosely cover with foil, so the topping doesn't brown too quickly and bake for another 20 minutes. Remove cover and bake until the cake springs back to the touch, 15-20 minutes more. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before slicing. Makes 10-12 servings.

Note: For whipped silken tofu, simply puree in a food processor or blender until smooth.

Chocolate and Coconut Pecan Tart

Chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate...oh, and if that's not enough to tempt you with this special occasion dessert, we added coconut and pecans for some (ha-ha) richness. This decadently yummy treat is one of life's great pleasures.

1 1/2 (one half) cups whole wheat pastry flour
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 (one quarter) cup granulated sweetener, like maple granules
pinch sea salt
1/3 (one third) cup avocado or light olive oil
Unsweetened almond milk

2 cups unsweetened almond milk
1/2 (one half) cup plain amasake
1/4 (one quarter) cup brown rice syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
scant pinch cinnamon
pinch sea salt
1-2 tablespoons arrowroot, dissolved in small amount cold water
1 1/4 (one quarter) cups non-dairy, grain-sweetened chocolate chips, plus some extra for garnish
3/4 (three quarter) cup unsweetened, shredded coconut
1 1/2 (one half) cups pecan halves, lightly toasted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly oil an 11-inch tart pan, with a removable bottom.

Prepare the crust by whisking together flour, cocoa powder, sweetener and salt. Cut in oil, with a fork, to create the texture of wet sand. Slowly add milk, while mixing, just until mixture gathers into a ball of dough. Knead 2-3 times just to gather dough. Roll out between two sheets of parchment to create a round that is about an inch larger than the pan. Fit dough into prepared tart pan, pressing into crevices, without stretching and pierce in several places with a fork. Trim excess crust flush with the top of the rim. Bake until firm to the touch, 12-15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Prepare the filling by combining milk, amasake, rice syrup, vanilla, cinnamon and salt in a saucepan over low heat. Heat through. Stir in dissolved arrowroot, stirring until mixture thickens, about 3 minutes. Stir in chocolate chips and whisk briskly until they melt and the mixture becomes silky smooth. Remove from heat and fold in coconut.

Remove cooled pie shell from pan and place on a serving platter. Spoon filling evenly into pie shell and smooth with a spoon. Arrange a ring of chocolate chips around the rim and pecan pieces over the filling in a decorative pattern. Chill tart for about an hour before serving. Makes 10-12 servings.

Note: This tart is delicious served on a pool of raspberry coulis or sauce, as the tartness of the raspberries enhances the richness of the tart and yet prevents cloying sweetness.

Sheila's Lacy Wafers

My dear friend, Sheila Davidson, is famous for her exquisitely beautiful holiday cookies. A tin of her jewel-like treats is simply the best gift you can get. On occasion, she grants me the great privilege of working with her on a baking day. This yummy cookie is the result. You'll love it and won't reserve it for special occasions. It'll be a regular.

1/4 (one quarter) cup avocado or light olive oil
1/2 (one half) cup brown rice syrup
1/3 (one third) cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 (one half) cup uncooked quick rolled oats
1/4 (one quarter) cup very finely chopped almonds or walnut pieces
1/4 (one quarter) teaspoon pure vanilla or almond extract

chocolate filling
1 cup non-dairy, grain-sweetened chocolate chips
2 teaspoons brown rice syrup
1/2 (one quarter) cup unsweetened almond milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Place oil and rice syrup in a small saucepan over low heat and cook, stirring, until loose. Remove from heat and transfer to a mixing bowl. Stir in flour until smooth. Fold in oats, nuts and extract, mixing well.

Drop batter, by 1/4-teaspoonfuls onto lined sheet, allowing 2 inches in between to allow for spreading. Bake until golden brown, 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on sheet for 1 minute. Carefully peel cookies from parchment and set aside to cool.

Prepare the filling by placing chocolate chips in a heat-resistant bowl. Bring rice syrup and milk to a rolling boil over high heat. Pour over chocolate and whisk until shiny and smooth.

Pair similar sized cookies to make wafers. Spread the flat side of one cookie with chocolate and press its partner, flat side to chocolate, making a sandwich. Place on parchment to allow chocolate to set. Repeat with remaining cookies and chocolate. Makes 30-40 filled cookies.