Essential chocolate guide

Espresso walnut brownies. No baking required!

Chocolate has long captured our appetites, hearts and creativity. Its bittersweet, mood-enhancing qualities have inspired many, from the sacred rituals of the Aztecs and Mayans, to the books and films of today (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Like Water for Chocolate). Nowadays vegans can enjoy raw cacao and cocoa powder—from which chocolate is derived—as many grocers are carrying it in organic, unsweetened forms.

You might have heard “cacao” and “cocoa” used interchangeably in the context of chocolate. The pods of a cacao plant contain the cacao beans that are heated at a low temperature before getting processed into a dark powder. Cacao therefore retains more nutrients, vitamins and enzymes than cocoa powder, which is heated at a higher temperature. Cacao loses nutritional value if it is mixed with dairy.

Even so, cacao and cocoa powder are both tasty and good for you. Rich in antioxidants, they can lower blood pressure and cholesterol; reduce the risk of heart disease; help protect the skin from sun damage; and possibly prevent memory loss. If you’re buying vegan dark chocolate bars, look for ones that contain at least 70% cocoa, where the sugar content is lower.

chocolate granola bowl
Double chocolate granola smoothie bowl

Best chocolate combinations

1. chocolate + coffee or tea

Cacao and cocoa powder make coffee and green tea feel like a decadent treat. Try these recipes for spiced cacao cold brew coffee and green tea coconut chocolate latte.

2. chocolate + fruit

In smoothies, blend cocoa powder with berries, cherries, pineapple, oranges, mangoes, even kiwis.

Chocolate was meant to be consumed with banana. Sprinkle some cacao powder over sliced banana, peanut butter and toast. Use a blender to whip banana and cacao into the easiest ice cream you’ll ever make.

3. chocolate + nuts

Make your own granola by toasting almonds, walnuts, cashews, oats and seeds (such as pumpkin, chia and flax) with coconut oil and maple syrup, and mixing with cacao powder.

Hazelnuts and chocolate have made Nutella one of the most popular spreads ever. Once you’ve made it at home, you won’t be craving the store-bought kind. Try this recipe for easy vegan nutella.

4. chocolate + dates

As a natural sweetener, dates can be blended up with cocoa powder and nuts to make truffles and brownies.

Cacao and cocoa work well in recipes that don’t require any baking. The brownies pictured at the top of this post were so easy to make: I threw cocoa powder, dates (pitted and soaked overnight), walnuts and a dash of espresso into my little food chopper. Then I poured the doughy mixture into an airtight container and let it harden in the freezer. The sweetness of the dates balanced perfectly with the bitterness of the cocoa and coffee.

5. chocolate + coconut

Top your granola, oatmeal, toast and desserts with coconut flakes, which come sweetened and unsweetened.

Cacao also comes in the form of nibs—these are the small pieces of cacao beans that have been roasted and separated from their husks. A great addition to smoothies, granola,  yogurt, ice cream and desserts.

Check out the brands Camino, Giddy YoyoNavitas NaturalsOrganic Traditions and Prana. You can also find cocoa powder at bulk food stores.

Check out this video for easy dark chocolate peanut butter balls. (You can substitute honey with maple syrup.) Need any more reason not to indulge?

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