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Layers of mystery

Invite Mexican chocolate for dessert and its beguiling flavor will keep everyone guessing.

November 09, 2005|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

SO rare and precious was chocolate centuries ago that the Aztec emperor Montezuma sipped it from a golden cup. Never would he have imagined that his elixir's prized ingredient would become an everyday luxury as it is today.

In modern Mexico, chocolate is still primarily something to drink, whipped to a froth with a wooden beater called a molinillo. Its other common use is in moles, adding depth and color to these rich, savory sauces.

Oddly enough, though, Mexican chocolate rarely, if ever, appears in desserts. But if you think about it, Mexican chocolate is a natural for the baker's pantry. Not only is it already sweetened, but it's also often made with vanilla, cinnamon or almonds.

Given these nuances of flavor, a dessert made with Mexican chocolate is irresistibly intriguing. It's chocolate, but with a subtle, mysterious difference.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Cake recipe -- A recipe in Wednesday's Food section for Mexican chocolate layer cake left out a step in the instructions. The melted chocolates should be added after beating in the egg yolks and vanilla. The corrected recipe is available at latimes.com/mexicanchocolatecake.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 16, 2005 Home Edition Food Part F Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexican chocolate cake -- The recipe last Wednesday for Mexican chocolate layer cake left out a step in the instructions. The melted chocolates should be added after beating in the egg yolks and vanilla. For a complete version of the corrected recipe, go to www.latimes.com/mexicanchocolatecake.

In the old days, Mexican women ground cacao beans on a metate, or grinding stone, warmed over a fire to extract the oil, then adding different seasonings. Today, the chocolate is produced in modern factories, but remains faithful to the old traditions.

The Mexican chocolate you're likely to find in supermarkets is formed into round tablets that have been scored so they can easily be broken into smaller pieces. Two of the most common brands are Ibarra and Abuelita; they're packaged in distinctive hexagonal boxes. Both work equally well in desserts; Abuelita has a stronger cinnamon flavor for when you want to play up the spice flavor.

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Distinctive taste

MEXICAN chocolate's unique composition and texture mean you can't substitute it freely for other chocolate when baking. Because it's very sweet, the sugar in a recipe may have to be reduced. And unlike other chocolates, which are smooth and shiny, Mexican chocolate is dry and granular.

So if a cake recipe calls for regular baking chocolate, don't swap it out entirely for Mexican chocolate. You'll need to use a little regular chocolate to keep the cake moist.

This trick works well in a Mexican chocolate layer cake, with that little bit of regular chocolate boosting the intensity of chocolate flavor. This velvety cake is frosted with a rich ganache frosting made mostly with Mexican chocolate too.

Just as luxurious is the ganache dipping sauce that's served with churros at Cobras & Matadors. It's made simply with Mexican chocolate and cream and comes together in minutes. For the churros, instead of a traditional churro recipe, we pulled together a quick pate a choux (cream puff dough) and piped it into hot oil. It worked beautifully.

Probably the most common dessert in Mexico is flan, but chocolate versions are rare. We reworked a traditional recipe with Mexican chocolate and came out with a dessert so rich that a sliver is enough.

This silky flan, the moist layer cake and the luxurious churro dip are just the beginning. There's a whole range of possibilities for Mexican chocolate.

Perhaps this once rare ingredient is even more precious than Montezuma thought.

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Churros and chocolate dip

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: Makes about 18 to 20 (4-inch) churros

Note: The chocolate dip recipe is from Cobras & Matadors. The restaurant uses Ibarra brand Mexican chocolate. The churros are made with a pate a choux (cream puff paste) recipe adapted from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.

Chocolate dip

5 (3.1-ounce) disks Mexican chocolate, finely chopped

1 cup heavy whipping cream

Place the chocolate and cream in the top of a double boiler or in a metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until the chocolate is melted, about 15 to 20 minutes. Makes 2 cups.

Churros

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) butter, cut into pieces

1 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Pinch of nutmeg

1 cup flour

2 eggs

Oil for frying

1. Bring 1 cup water to boil in a saucepan with the butter, sugar, salt and nutmeg. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the butter has melted. Meanwhile, measure out the flour.

2. Remove the butter mixture from the heat and immediately pour all the flour into the pan. Beat vigorously with a wooden spatula or spoon for several seconds to blend thoroughly, then return the pan to the stovetop.

3. Beat over moderately high heat for 1 to 2 minutes until mixture leaves the sides of the pan and the spoon, forms a mass and begins to film the bottom of the pan.

4. Remove the pan from the heat, and make a well in the center of the paste with the spoon. Immediately break an egg into the center of the well. Beat it into the paste for several seconds until it has been absorbed. Repeat with the second egg, beating it in until absorbed. Beat for an additional 1 to 2 minutes to be sure the mixture is well blended and smooth.

5. Spoon the paste into a pastry bag fitted with a three-fourths-inch star tip.

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