Monday, December 17, 2012

Chocolate from scratch... almost

Chocolate is everywhere at Christmastime!  And while pure cacao most definitely has health benefits, it is easy to be led astray with the simplified notion that 'chocolate is good for you'.  What is important to understand is that while consuming pure dark chocolate (minimum 70% cacao) confers many health benefits, there are also many sugar and fat-laden chocolate treats on the market that do not have the same effect.

Dark, milk and white chocolate all contain differing amounts of key ingredients 
to achieve the desired flavour and consistency.

Let's begin by understanding the art of chocolate-making.  Chocolate is made from cacao beans, which are crushed and mixed with other ingredients such as cacao butter, sugar, milk and vanilla to improve the texture and taste.  Varying amounts of these ingredients is what results in different percentages of cacao in the finished product.  Milk chocolate is typically a lower percentage of cacao and contains more sugar and milk, while dark chocolate traditionally contains less sugar and no milk at all.  On the other hand, white chocolate contains none of the cacao solids, only the cacao butter.  The higher the percentage of cacao, the richer and less sweet chocolate tends to be.

A cacao pod was one of our interesting findings 
while hiking up Volcán Maderas in Ometepe, Nicaragua

As you can probably imagine, the health benefits of chocolate do not come from the added milk or sugar, but rather the cacao solids, the amount of which is represented by the percentage of cacao in the finished product.  Cacao is best known for its beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, due to the antioxidant flavonoids it contains.  Flavonoids are compounds present in plant foods, and have been linked to reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke and coronary heart disease.  In terms of cardiovascular health, favourable actions include:

  • Increase in HDL 'good' cholesterol
  • Decrease in LDL 'bad' cholesterol
  • Inhibition of oxidation of LDL cholesterol by free radicals, thereby prevention of atherosclerosis (plaque formation inside arteries)
  • Regulation of inflammatory and immune processes in blood vessel walls
  • Regulation of vascular tone (blood vessel constriction), a factor in high blood pressure

Approximately 30-40 cacao beans are found inside each cacao pod, 
and are each approximately the size and shape of an almond.

If you are looking for a healthy homemade chocolate recipe this Christmas, my Chocolate Bliss Wedges have been a hit with everyone I've sampled them on so far.  You can put your own twist on them by using any combination of dried fruit & nuts that strikes your fancy.  Be  creative and have fun with it!

Chocolate Bliss Wedges

¼ cup coconut oil, melted (see my earlier post on the health benefits of coconuts)
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup cocoa powder
Crushed walnuts
Unsweetened coconut, if desired
Vanilla bean (scraped from inside of vanilla bean; not liquid extract)

Mix all ingredients together, adding the desired amounts of walnuts and raisins to hold the mixture together.  Freeze for 15 minutes, then cut into wedges and enjoy!  Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Arranged like this, these chocolate wedges look more like chocolate pizza! 

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