Where would we be without chocolate? The thought runs shivers up my spine.
In the scheme of culinary history, however, that creamy smooth chocolate that graces our palates with childhood delight and for just a moment melts away the adult stresses of modern living…yeah…THAT chocolate…is a fairly new addiction.
Oh sure, archaeology suggests that the Mayans and Aztecs had a monopoly on this food of the gods for centuries, if not millennia, before it crossed the ocean and the lips of any privileged European; but their meso-version wasn’t the familiar mmmelting mmmorsel of mmmellowness, but rather a brash and bitter liquid concoction, often fermented, and drunk for the vigor and virility it promised. I’m guessing it wasn’t savored. It has been said that when Cortés finally laid hands on the magical bean, Montezuma was slammin’ back 50 cups a day — a true original chocoholic. But it was the Europeans who paved the way for chocolate as we know it today.
Chocolate is a curious thing. The heart of the cacao bean, called the nib, has a fat content of over 50%. The Europeans, in their virile enthusiasm, learned that if some of that fat is extracted, chocolate can be pressed into blocks. This process was refined over time. Sugar and other seasonings, such as cinnamon and vanilla, were also added to counterbalance chocolate’s natural bitterness.
By the end of 18th century, chocolate was well-known throughout Europe and Colonial America, but it remained reserved primarily as a court delicacy, often enjoyed as a drink, but also finding its way into a few tarts, cookies, and other fine desserts.
The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, however, changed EVERYTHING. More chocolate discoveries were made, and manufacturing processes were improved. By the 1840’s, chocolate had melted its way into the mouths and hearts of virtually every strata of western society.
The recipe I’m including in this post is a fairly early one for chocolate biscuits. It comes from Mr. Borella’s 1770 cookbook, The Court and Country Confectioner.
Here is my take on this recipe:
Mr. Borella’s Chocolate Biscuits
2 Egg Whites
3 to 4 T. Sugar (or to taste)
If you wish to do this strictly by Mr. Borella’s book, start working out those biceps right now. Making almond paste by hand with a mortar and pestle is hard work. Because of this, I’m offering three alternative methods:
1. The Die-Hard Historically Correct Method:
Start by blanching your almonds in boiling water for about a minute. You will notice the skins will begin to loosen. Drain them in a colander, rinse them in cold water to stop the blanching process, and allow them to cool. Now call the kids into the kitchen to help you remove the skins. It’s actually kind of fun. Pinch the almond between your thumb and forefinger, and the blanched almond meat will squirt out, leaving the brown skin behind. Spread the almonds out on a cloth and allow them to dry completely.
Next, using a large heavy mortar, and working in smaller batches (as opposed to the entire 1/2-pound batch all at once like we did in the video), combine your blanched almonds with a total of about 1/2 a medium egg white. By the way, if you watch the video, don’t believe the suggestion about using a heavy bowl and spoon. Nope, it ain’t gonna happen. It’s not Jon’s fault, I wrote the script. If you want to make almond paste using this method, but you don’t have a mortar and pestle, borrow one from your neighbor. If your neighbor doesn’t have one, skip to method 2., below.
With your mortar and pestle, start grinding and pulverizing the almonds…and while you do that, I’ll go find something fun to do. See you in an hour or so. Be sure to have your almond paste in a large mixing bowl by the time I get back.
2. The Wholesomely Homemade Modern Method:
Blanch your almonds and squirt them as above. You can also start with blanched almonds purchased from the store. Mix them in your sturdy food processor fitted with a steel blade along with half an egg white. Pulse the mixture for about 5 to 10 minutes, stopping periodically to scrape the sides clean. Only the highest powered industrial processors will accomplish a really smooth paste. Unless you have an industrial processor, try to avoid overdoing it. The oil in your almonds will begin to separate and you’ll end up with almond butter instead.
Your almond paste should have a fine, fairly consistent texture, and it will take every minute of pulsing it to get it there. With only the slightest tinge of guilt, turn out your fresh homemade almond paste into a large mixing bowl and proceed in your historically correct fashion.
3. The Cheater’s Method:
Secretly reach into your utensil drawer and pull out a can opener. Can you tell where I’m going with this? Most modern store-bought almond pastes are processed with sugar. Sugar is added for the same reason the egg whites are in our recipe: to retard the oil extraction as the almonds are processed. If you use store-purchased almond paste, you may wish to cut back on the sugar you add in subsequent steps. Scoop a half-pound of almond paste out of the can and into a large mixing bowl.
Next, preheat your oven to 350-degrees.
**Next, melt your chocolate. Now here is where it gets a little tricky.
The Mars Corporation has introduced a great product called American Heritage Chocolate. I doubt, however, that you will find it in your local grocery store — that is, unless you live in Williamsburg or the like. Check out Mars’s website for more information on this product. Mars claims that it’s made using an authentic 18th century recipe. It’s a very nice semi-sweet hard chocolate that has a hint of cinnamon and other spices. It comes in three forms: a 6-oz. block, a 12.72-oz. canister (pre-grated), and individually wrapped snack nips (a great reward for the kiddies for helping you squirt the almonds).
If this chocolate is just a bit too pricey, Jas Townsend & Son also offers a cinnamon-and-almond-laced chocolate called El Popular. This is a hard-block Mexican chocolate similar in ways to that one would have found in the period. It has a lower fat content and higher sugar content than that found in the American Heritage Chocolate, therefore, it will require that you add about a Tablespoon of water to the 2-oz. of grated chocolate before it will melt.
Whether you use either of the chocolates I’ve mentioned, or you use your own chocolate, be gentle with how you melt it. It helps to grate it first. Many modern recipes would insist on a double boiler. I’ve always found that very low heat and constant stirring works fine. Just take your time and keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t scorch. Once it’s melted, add it to your almond paste along with the sugar (if it’s still necessary, you cheater), and the egg white. Mix it all together and then roll it out into a neat log, about 2″ in diameter.
Next, cut the log into thin wafers, about 1/4″ thick. You can do this very effectively by crossing the blades of two sharp knives like a pair of scissors and giving them a quick zip through the log. Be sure to wipe your blades clean after every couple of zips.
You can place these pretty closely together on a baking sheet. I suggest lining the sheet with parchment or even a decent writing paper. The baking time can vary pretty dramatically. If you want them to be a little soft, bake them for 15 minutes. If you want to them to be hard and crispy, which is likely how they were stored and served, you can turn the heat down a bit and bake them for a half hour or so.
The sugar in the dough will cause these biscuits to stick to the paper. Once the cookies are cooled, however, they should peel right off. If you find that they are sticking too badly, other period recipes tell us that you can dampen the back of the paper and then peel it off.
These definitely are not as decadent as the death-by-triple-chocolate creations made famous by such fine eating establishments such as Sweetwater’s or Voodoo donut shops. They are, instead, a bit more…reserved…frugal, if you like. After all, chocolate was a precious thing in the 18th century. If you like the combination of almonds and chocolate, you should find these to be quite delightful and very appropriate for your next court engagement.