My bean-to-bar chocolate obsession has expanded to not just unwrapping gorgeously presented single origin chocolate bars from Enna Chocolate in Exeter, New Hampshire, or SRSLY chocolate in Austin, Texas, but unscrewing the top of my little jar of cacao nibs and using them in just about everything I can think of. It’s only fitting that I’m telling you about what I do with them while in Belize, one of the countries that grows, harvests and ferments cacao to supply those bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Cacao trees grow only in areas 20 degrees north and south of the equator, so we get cacao from places like Belize, Honduras, Peru, Indonesia and the Ivory Coast, for example. Although it’s believed that the consumption of chocolate began in Central America (some say in what is now Belize), the Ivory Coast is the largest producer.
Cacao nibs are fermented, dried, roasted cacao beans, which are cracked and “winnowed” after roasting to remove the shells and other stray elements like stones and sticks. They’re then crushed to make these nibs – little crunchy bits of unsweetened, intense flavor bombs. It’s what you have before grinding and conching for hours to make the smooth chocolate. You can find jars full of nibs made by Enna Chocolate online at www.ennachocolate.com. Also put Portsmouth Cacao on your radar (www.portsmouthcacao.com) as their website will soon allow online orders.
I use them for both savory and sweet purposes. For sweet, you can use them as an ice cream or chocolate mousse topping which adds a slightly bitter flavor against the sweet and that crunch against the smooth and creamy texture. You can also coat them in maple syrup, honey or sugar syrup and allow to dry for a sweet snack. They’re great in pancakes, cookies and oatmeal, too. For savory, I use them liberally as a crunchy topping for salads and further crush them and mix with sea salt as a crust for meats to grill on the firepit. Here are a few recipes to get you started.
Candied Cacao Nibs
Experiment with the liquid by adding flavor elements like orange water or extract, lavender, sage and other herbs and fruit essences. This is basically a brittle, so you can also top it with herbs or sprinkles or coconut – anything you like – before it sets.
1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 T. water
1 T. honey
1 c. cacao nibs
1 T. unsalted butter
Line a baking sheet with foil and spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray. Combine the sugar, water, and honey in a saucepan. Stir well.
Place the pan over medium heat, and continue to stir as the sugar dissolves.When the sugar syrup comes to a boil, insert a candy thermometer, then cook the candy without stirring, until it is a medium amber color, around 330 degrees F. It’s basically a caramel at this point.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cacao nibs. Coat with the caramel, then add the butter and stir.
Scrape the candy out onto the prepared baking sheet and spread it into a thin, even layer. Sprinkle on toppings if desired. Allow it to cool completely at room temperature until cool and hard.
Break into small pieces to eat, or chop it up to sprinkle it on top of candies or baked goods. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two weeks.
Cacao Nib Pesto
I use this tossed with pasta or spread on toasted Italian bread rounds as with bruschetta.
1/2 c. cacao nibs
5 T. olive oil
12 Nicoise or 8 Kalamata olives
5 fresh herb leaves like basil or sage
Crush the nibs in your food processor until pulverized. Add 3 T. olive oil, the pitted olives and the herbs, and grind more. Add the rest of the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Spread on toasted bread or toss with pasta.
Cacao Nib and Spiced Lamb Pizza
I adapted this recipe I found on David Lebovitz great blog about living in Paris. (www.davidlebovitz.com). I’ve also tried it using coarsely chopped chickpeas instead of lamb for the vegetarian in my life, who is actually pescetarian so it also worked well with shrimp.
2 9-inch pizza dough “shells” or one large rectangular (11” inch by 17”)
2 T. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 T. olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 lb. ground lamb
1/2 c. peeled, seeded, and chopped canned plum tomatoes
1 T. tomato paste
1/4 c. chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 T. toasted pine nuts
Large pinch each of cinnamon, allspice and cloves
1/8 t. red pepper or chili flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh lemon juice
1/4 c. roasted cacao nibs
4 oz. fontina cheese, grated
2 oz. mozzarella cheese, grated
In a small bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons olive oil and the minced garlic. Set aside.
Heat remaining olive oil in a skillet and cook the onions until soft and translucent. Add the lamb or other protein, tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, pine nuts, spices and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook slowly for 10 minutes (uncovered).
Remove from heat and add a squeeze or two of fresh lemon juice and let cool to room temperature. Once cooled, stir in the cacao nibs.
To make the pizzas: Brush top of pizza dough with garlic-infused olive oil. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the dough then spread the sausage over the cheeses. Top with the remaining cheese and bake the pizza in a very hot oven until the cheese is bubbling and deep-golden brown.
— Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Exeter, New Hampshire (and Austin, Texas). She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of her Dining Out reviews online.