Could Cocoa be the Sweetheart Spice?

Homemade Hot Cocoa

Homemade hot chocolate with cocoa.

Attar Herbs & Spices

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Where does cocoa come from? What’s the difference between cocoa and chocolate? Is chocolate healthy? Enjoy this delightful post about cocoa—plus, a delicious recipe.


It’s that time of the year when cupid takes flight and the love of one’s sweetheart is met with sweets for one’s love. Chocolate is purchased and consumed in huge amounts.  Well, I certainly don’t need a special time of the year to appreciate the flavor and nuances of the divine cocao bean but it did get me to thinking. Since a spice is considered a plant substance used to flavor or preserve food and comes from the root, bark or seed of a plant and cocoa comes from the cocoa bean which is the seed of the cocoa pod, couldn’t it be considered a spice?

Where Does Cocoa Come From?

Cocoa comes from the the fruit of the cacoa tree, Theobroma cacao. Carl Linnaeus, the scientist famous for devising the system of taxonomy and scientific nomenclature, named the tree theobroma which translates to “food of the gods” since it was used in religious ceremonies and offerings in the Mayan and Aztec culture. The Cacao tree grows in regions close to the equator and produces a fruit called cacoa pods which contain seeds, or more commonly, cacoa beans. The beans consist of cocoa solids and cocoa butter and once processed become the essential ingredient of our beloved chocolate. Now these beans are not considered legumes, as you might think with that ‘bean’ nomenclature. The cacoa beans are botanically speaking the seed of the tree. That is where my hypothesis that cocoa could be considered a spice, or the sweetheart spice, comes from. 

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The Difference between Cocoa and Chocolate

Though the words are sometimes used interchangeably, cocoa and chocolate are different. Cocoa refers to the plant and its fruit (pod) and seed (cacoa bean). Chocolate refers to the popular product that dates back to the sixteenth century whose main ingredient is cocoa combined with a few other key ingredients. They both remain wildly popular.  Americans consumed 8.6 pounds of chocolate per person in 2015, according to data from Euromonitor, but that only places us around the 20th percentile worldwide for chocolate consumption with, as you may have guessed, Switzerland taking top rank. Within the United States, chocolate sales generated nearly $11.2 billion in the last 52 weeks, according to Nielsen Company April, 2016 report. Now that takes a lot of cocoa, for sure. 

Can Eating Cocoa Be Healthy?

There have been many wild claims about the health benefits of cocoa as well as some practical ones. What is certain about cocoa is that is contains flavanols which are plant phytonutrients known to have antioxidant properties and considered to be good for you.  According to numerous studies these flavanols can have a positive effect on cardiovascular health, cognitive function and blood pressure. One study from the University of San Francisco has shown “the findings indicate that foods rich in flavanols – such as cocoa products, tea, wine, and various fruits and vegetables – have a cardio-protective benefit for heart disease patients”.  Its unusual for us to eat a cocoa product like chocolate with the goal of health however isn’t it a bonus to really enjoy something and feel good about it’s effects on the body. We have to consider that the cocoa rich flavanols that are available in a chocolate bar can be negated by a bar high in sugar and other fillers that minimize the cocoa content. In general, dark chocolate around 70% or higher tends to be considered the best source if you want to take advantage of it’s nutritive benefits.  And for the love of health and the love of love, let us not forget the romantic side of chocolate.

“I bring to you a special drink from far across the West,

Although it’s nearest loves on whom it’s said to work the best.

Good cheer it always brings, and your full years renews.

First take a sip, my dear, and I shall presently;

And know I serve it to you with all the warmth that’s due:

For we must take good care to leave descendants for posterity.”

–a chocolate love poem, late 1700’s

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Chocolate, Coconut, Cherry Bites

In my home we often use cocoa for baking, general flavoring and homemade hot cocoa. The recipe below is a very adaptable, quick, go-to when you have a hankering for something sweet and still want to keep it as healthy as possible. While cocoa might not make the cut to be classified as a spice it does share many of those qualities of a spice. It grows in warm temperate climates, it is nutritive and flavorful and has some shown some medicinal value. However you classify it, cocoa has a permanent place in my pantry and will continue to be treated as the flavoring of the gods in my home, as it rightly deserves. May your sweets enjoy the sweets of the season. 

1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1 cup dried tart cherries
1/2 cup almonds
1/4 cup chia seeds
2 Tbs natural cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. grd cardamom
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup coconut oil
1 Tbs dark chocolate chips or bar cut into pieces

1.) Start by grinding the hard textured items first. In the above recipe that means grinding up the almonds, chia seeds and then chocolate chunks. 
2.) Next add in the dry ingredients such as the cocoa powder, coconut and cardamom. 
3.) After that is all ground together add in the cherries to the mixture. This will cause it to start to stick together. 
4.) Next add in the coconut oil and maple syrup and grind until it starts to clump together in the food processor. The clumping together is a good clue that your ratios are going to work and it will easily roll into balls. 
5.) When all ground and sticky, take small amounts and roll into balls between your hands. If you like, you can roll the balls in more coconut, cocoa powder or chopped nuts. Use your imagination and your taste buds! 
6.) Store these in the fridge to solidify for at least 1/2 hour and then enjoy. 

Customize Your Treats! 
The basic idea here is that you grind up all of your dry ingredients and then add in the sticky or wet ones to bind it all together. Then simply form into tasty, bite-sized balls of deliciousness. If you make substitutions you may need to adjust the ratios just a touch to get all to stick together and hold it’s form. Its really as easy as that so have fun with making these as sweet or salty or spicy as you’d like. 

Instead of Shredded coconut and/or almonds use:
Rolled Oats
Cashews, Almonds, Pecans, Hazelnuts, etc.
Protein Powder

Instead of Chia Seeds use:
Flax
Hemp
Sesame
Poppy

Instead of dried cherries use:
Dates
Cranberries
Dried fruit of any kind

Instead of maple syrup use:
Honey
Agave Syrup
Molasses

Instead of coconut oil try:
Peanut butter
Almond butter
Butter- straight up decadent!

You could also choose to omit the chocolate chunks, add more, or use milk or white chocolate. Other add ins include crumbled cookies, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cayenne, sea salt, matcha powder or vanilla extract.

 

For more Chocolate and Valentine’s Recipes visit here.

About This Blog

Melissa Spencer has long had a fascination with plants and doesn’t discriminate between wild, weed or cultivated. She owns Attar Herbs & Spices located in the beautiful Monadnock Region of NH and is celebrating 50 years of service. She actively writes, speaks, and shares ways to infuse herbs and spices into everyday life.

Herbs and Spices really are little bundles of aromatic seeds, barks, berries and leaves. They can enliven the family meal turning the ordinary into the extraordinary and into a fragrant delight of the senses. They can open up a world of exotic cuisines connecting us with faraway cultures and they provide us with amazing health benefits. Follow her blog for endless ways to spice up life for the taste of it, the joy of it, and the health of it.

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