A few months ago, I was able to obtain a fresh cacao fruit online. If you know me personally, you know I'm completely obsessed with fresh fruit.
Growing up I'd say over half of what I would eat on a daily basis consisted of fresh fruit, and absolutely nothing has changed. I frequently wonder what the staff at my local grocery store think when they see me every week with my cart loaded with an entire mountain of fresh fruit, and sometimes not much else, only to come back not more than a week later for another haul.
I don't have a particular reason for eating the vast amounts of fruit I do. It doesn't help, or harm, any health condition I struggle with. I simply really, really like fruit.
Tropical fruits are a favorite, but many are challenging to find in the United States, and often very expensive. I remember how shocked I was when I went to buy mangosteen in the US for the first time to find out that a bag of fruit I had in Singapore for 80c was over $30, with half the fruit being rotten inside and inedible.
My love of fruit is largely why I started learning about gardening, permaculture, and food forest systems. I thought, how cool would it be to grow my own berries to make jams I can utilize in my bakery? Or even growing my own vanilla orchids and cacao fruit? The idea of knowing where my food comes from and what it took to grow and prepare it appeals to me. I don't have any grand expectations that certain things I do, or don't do, to food I consume will have the magical ability to heal my chronic illness. As I learn, I am just trying to keep my mind open, be observant and aware, and remain curious about the process of it all. If something I do happens to help my health in any capacity, cool! I will take it as an added bonus rather than my sole driving force. Mostly, the motivation has simply been the excitement I've felt to learn what it takes to create food that I've largely been able to take for granted. I mean, who knew the neatly wrapped bars of chocolate at the supermarket came from such an amazing fruit, growing on a gorgeous tree to boot?
I am also painfully aware of the unethical means it has historically taken to keep chocolate an affordable and accessible treat. I do what I can to mitigate where I can, fully understanding that one person alone can't change the world, but if I can increase my awareness of what it takes to create something, the process and labor involved, why not?
And boy, what a process!
To begin my attempt at turning a fresh fruit into something that at least resembles chocolate, I had to open up the fruit first. I hacked the cacao pod in half. The outer “shell” was thick, with an almost leathery feel to it. When i pried the two halves of the cacao fruit apart, it revealed segments of white pulp that encased the seeds, or cacao “beans”, inside. And of course, as a fruit lover, I was the most excited about trying what the fresh cacao fruit would taste like. It had a familiar, fruity smell to it, and when I pulled out a slippery segment and popped it into my mouth, I was delighted to find that it did indeed taste remarkably like my beloved mangosteen. For those who haven't had cacao, or mangosteen, it is a strong but balanced mix of sweet and tart, with an almost floral note. I was amazed to find that as I sucked the pulp and my teeth scraped against the seeds, there was a powerful, aromatic cocoa flavor. It honestly surprised me how intense that chocolate taste was! I suppose I didn't expect to be able to taste something so familiar in something that seems so different from the chocolate we are used to eating.
After I had consumed the fresh pulp, I rinsed the seeds off. I read that it was actually important to -not- clean off all the pulp from the seeds. The seeds needed to ferment before proceeding, and leaving on some of the remaining fruit pulp was vital for this process. I put the fleshy beans into a mason jar, and put in a pinch of yeast into the jar to help kickstart the fermentation. In retrospect, I would definitely omit the yeast next time, as it would alter the flavor later, and I didn't find the extra security in successful fermentation worth it. Next time, I'll trust the process!
I let the beans ferment in the jar for around a week, checking on the jar each day to give it a shake. I left the jar in a warm part of the kitchen, much like I do my sourdough. When I opened the jar to smell it, it had an acidic, alcoholic smell (also a bit like sourdough!).
The next step is to dry the beans. Traditionally this is often done outdoors in the sun, but the weather was still a bit cool, so I turned my oven on to the “bread proof” setting, which usually is just for keeping bread dough warm enough to improve yeast activity and aid in the rise. I laid the cacao beans onto a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet, and let it hang out in the toasty oven for a few more days, making sure to stir them occasionally so they dried evenly.
After the cacao beans were completely dry to the touch, I heated up a clay pot over the stove. I had the temperature too high and ended up scorching the beans a little, but it didn't seem to be enough to affect their final flavor. Toasting the beans in the clay pot was a lovely sensory experience. As the beans toasted, you could hear a soft crackling sound, like popcorn but quieter. This was the outer skin on the beans popping as they warmed.
After the beans toasted (and my kitchen was filled with the rich, comforting smell of cocoa), I painstakingly peeled the beans by hand. The skins were papery and the toasted seeds became more brittle and crumbly, and it could be difficult to sift out the skins from the cacao bean crumbs, so I opted to carefully hand peel them to try and reduce the amount the cacao beans crumbled. It was a very small amount so it didn't take too much time and effort.
I now had what was usually sold in the US as “cacao nibs”. You could actually eat these as is! They have an intense bitter chocolate taste and a pleasant crunch. I've had them in cereal and sprinkled on baked goods, and love them as they are, but I wanted to try and make something more akin to chocolate.
I didn't have any sort of proper grinder, which is usually needed to grind the nibs into a very fine paste, much like a nut butter would be made. I used a food processor which was much too large for the amount I was making, so it took an obnoxious amount of time opening the food processor and scraping the paste back down onto the blades. I slowly added cream and sugar to try to make something ganache-like, as I didn't have what was needed to make proper solid bars.
The result was…interesting! The fermented cacao paste, lightly sweetened, had a complex bittersweet, fruity flavor.
Unfortunately, I found the yeast that I had used to first ferment the cacao too powerful! The taste of the yeast didn't fade like I wanted it to, and the flavor was strong enough that it overpowered the chocolate flavors I was going for. However, I made myself a mug with hot water, a spoonful of the cacao paste, a little cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, and a few drops of vanilla extract, and it still made a delicious warm drink! I also attempted to bake with it, making some sweet spiced rolls, and I couldn't taste the yeast that way.
Overall, even though it didn't come out perfect, it was a fun experience and I'm glad I got a small taste of what it takes to make chocolate! It is something I'd love to repeat if I ever have the opportunity to get fresh cacao again. Getting to taste cacao fruit in its raw form was really the part that was worth it to me. It is such a unique fruit, and I feel like I got to know a side of chocolate most people don't think about or get to experience.