Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine.” – Geronimo Piperni, quoted by Antonio Lavedán, Spanish army surgeon,1796
Chocolate is medicine for many people – mender of broken hearts, healer of disappointment, drug of choice. But its universality makes it right for all occasions and situations. Whether it’s a Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut nibbled in front of the telly or a few squares of finest 85% single estate to round off a dinner party, chocolate is the everyman of foodstuffs. Or should that be ‘everywoman’?
It is undoubtedly women who have the closest relationship with chocolate. And the most fraught. For those of us females who enjoy at least the occasional square, or bar, chocolate is a prime source of guilty pleasure. More than the half bottle of red wine on a weekday evening, or the cadged cigarette at a girls’ night out, eating chocolate is something over which many feel at least a modicum of regret. A chap would just stand in the kitchen, peel away the wrapper and start chomping away. And, good for him. But many of us cannot adopt this healthily insouciant attitude. We may run companies, have our own bank accounts, do what we please, but eat an entire Galaxy bar without the slightest twinge? I think not.
When women are under emotional stress many reach for food. It soothes away internal tension and makes us feel safe. And what is the number one comfort food for Western women? Chocolate, of course. American research shows that men, on the other hand, tend to reach for comfort foods when they are happy (?!). So, women eat chocolate when they are upset and men eat it when they are happy. Because men don’t eat nearly as much chocolate as women, does that mean that both sexes are miserable most of the time? There is a flaw in this logic. I think women eat chocolate for both negative (stress) and positive reasons (pleasure), possibly even rebellious reasons, too.
Our twisted relationship with this most pleasurable of substances probably has much to do with the Victorians. I know it is quite a leap from chocolate eating to our famously piano leg-covering antecedents, but bear with me. In the upper echelons of Victorian society women enjoying food was frowned upon. Like their seen and not heard children Victorian women lived in an era of seen, but not eating. Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo writes that, “women eating and demonstrating sensuous surrender to rich, exciting food was taboo”. It was socially unacceptable for any monied woman to show a desire for food or actively indulge in it. I suppose this was the beginning of the dangerous notion that you can never be too rich or too thin – the more you have the less you should be seen to desire it. This notion filtered though the classes and has yet to fade.
According to Bordo, modern females go against this taboo by seeking emotional satisfaction from what they eat. To my mind this clashes head on with the near-innate negativity we feel when we enjoy our food ‘too much’. For many women the line connecting so-called taboo foods with comfort is suffused with self-loathing. With its enjoyably high-fat, high-sugar content chocolate is top of the list of taboo foods, and presumably why it is seen as off-limits or subject to self-restriction. When you deny yourself chocolate you are a ‘good girl’. But ours is a very natural desire: we are hard-wired to seek energy dense foods. It has only come about recently in our species’ history that we don’t actually need such foods to live. Some may argue against this last sentence: Man cannot live by chocolate alone – but women sure can. – Anonymous.
The Science Bit: I don’t understand why so many “so called” chocolate lovers complain about the calories in chocolate, when all true chocoholics know that it is a vegetable. It comes from the cocoa bean, beans are veggies, ’nuff said. – Author Unknown
We now know that chocolate – at least the dark stuff – is actually very good for us. The way it used to be prepared was undoubtedly even more so. The cacao tree was first cultivated by the Mayans at least 3000 years ago although it was around earlier as a wild plant. The Mayans, and their successors the Toltec and the Aztecs, not only drank cocoa as a bitter ‘tea’ but also used the pods as currency and saw it as a gift from their God, Quetzacoatl. Can’t see beetroot getting the same treatment…Xocoatl, as drunk by the ancient peoples of Central America, was made by adding water, pepper and cinnamon to roasted and ground cacao beans. This mixture was heated and the resulting ‘butter’ that rose to the top was whipped up to a foamy liquid, which was drunk cold. In fact, the word chocolate actually refers to the sound made by the whisking: xoco, “noise” and atl, “water”. The conquering Spanish kept this same technique but replaced the aromatic spices with sugar. Through this europeanisation chocolate attained the “divine” taste that we appreciate today, at least in Europe. In 1753, the father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, named the cacao tree Theobromoa cacao, which is Latin for “food of the gods”. Who would argue with that?
Cacao beans themselves are a scary 50+ per cent fat. Although much of it is saturated, a goodly proportion (35%) is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid found namely in olive oil and known to be beneficial to the heart. Saturated stearic acid is only half-heartedly absorbed by the body, where it is partially transformed in the liver into more oleic acid. So, the potential downside is actually not too bad: the oleic acid has a neutralizing effect insofar as cholesterol is concerned. The fact that sugar is almost always added to dark chocolate somewhat dilutes the goodness but it still has a relatively low glycemic index score of 22 (under 50 is okay), compared to 115 for frozen tofu dessert and 88 for boiled potatoes. Hmm, which would you rather eat? And even though dark chocolate is always going to be a better bet than milk chocolate (because of milk fats, added vegetable fats and usually much more sugar per gram) both should only be eaten in moderation.
I am wanting to get on with sharing my recipe but the nutrition facts for chocolate are too interesting and important to ignore. I know I am not having to convince anyone to eat chocolate as I might a cauliflower or some lentils, but it is still reassuring to know that good quality chocolate doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. Far from it.
The health benefits of this bitter pod boil down to their polyphenol content. Unbelievably a small square of dark chocolate has twice the amount of heart-protecting and cancer fighting polyphenols as a glass of finest cabernet sauvignon, and about as much as in a mug of properly brewed leaf green tea. Even well-made milk chocolate, derided as a poor relation, has some. Although there are numerous polyphenols in chocolate it is the catechins that are of most interest. This makes them actually quite similar to the very virtuous green tea. In fact, as recounted in the book Foods To Fight Cancer, the antioxidant activity of a cup of quality hot chocolate is five times greater than in black tea, three times that of green and twice as much as a glass of red wine.
What does all of this antioxidant activity do for us? Well, it helps to prevent cardiovascular disease by relaxing blood vessels, lowering blood cholesterol and blocking the formation of arterial plaques. And, to which many can attest, it is confirmed that chocolate actively reduces stress – by lowering cortisol levels. Interestingly, high levels of cortisol are linked with abdominal weight gain. Dark chocolate is good for your waistline: go figure.
Chocolate’s cancer-fighting credentials are only just being studied but are almost universally positive. What is known, at least in test tube and animal studies, is that the proanthocyanadins in cocoa can slow the development of certain cancers by cutting off tumour blood supply. It is also likely that these and other compounds may contribute on numerous levels to preventing cancer initiation – the stage when cells are exposed to a carcinogenic substance, triggering irreversible damage to cell DNA that is then copied. How amazing is it that there are foods such as chocolate that contribute not only to helping slow a tumour’s growth, but may actively nip it in the bud before it has an opportunity to grow. The power of food never ceases to amaze me.
Now to the recipe, also starring the potent cancer fighter, beetroot. See my “Beetroot Zinger” post for everything you wanted to know about beetroot but were afraid to ask.
Chocolate Beetroot Cake with Chocolate Icing
Probably the favourite food that I bring into the Maggie’s Centre on my Nutrition Workshop days is this, chocolate beetroot cake. Everyone seems to like it, and I guess get a weird kick out of finding out there is a heck of a lot of beetroot in something that tastes very much of chocolate. I usually make the participants try and guess the mystery ingredient: they never do. The beetroot makes the cake so incredibly moist and deepens the colour, but doesn’t add any particular flavour, just some extra nutrients and phytochemicals. Provoke a furious debate by trying this at home.
100g/3.5 oz cocoa powder
200g/7 oz refined spelt flour OR unbleached plain flour (or a combination)
2 tsps baking powder
150g/5 oz muscovado sugar
300g/11 oz home-cooked beetroot* (or use vacuum-sealed)
150 ml/5 oz rapeseed oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp dairy or soya milk
50g/1.8 oz dark chocolate, chopped (OR quality chocolate chips OR cocoa nibs)
Icing: 150g/5 oz dark chocolate and a few drops rosewater (optional, but makes it like a Turkish Delight!)
*If using raw beetroot: In a large pan of boiling water, boil the beetroots in their skins until tender when pierced with a knife, 40 minutes usually but older, larger beets may take longer. Let cool and rub away the skins with your fingers or the back of a teaspoon.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Butter and base-line a medium (20cm) cake tin. Sift the cocoa powder, flour and baking powder into a bowl; add the sugar and set aside. Puree or finely grate the beetroot (whether vacuum-sealed or cooked at home). The picture shows raw grated beetroot, but I usually use whizzed up cooked beetroot. In a large bowl, whisk together the beetroot, eggs, vanilla and oil. Fold in the remaining cake ingredients to just combine. You can do all of this in a food processor but it might not be as light. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool 20 minutes in the pan, then remove to a wire rack. To make the icing, heat the chocolate gently in a double boiler or microwave, mix and cool until spreadable. It makes enough to thinly cover the cake to within a centimetre or so from the edge: use more chocolate if you want a thicker or wider spread of chocolate. I often sprinkle over sugared rose petals (bought) if using the rosewater, otherwise I shave chocolate over the top and serve with berries.
Note 1.You can use grated raw beetroot if you like (it tastes very good), but add about 50 ml of milk.
Note 2. I usually make this as muffins, in which case oil muffin tin holes, and fill ¾ with batter (see bottom photo). Bake for 20 minutes until well-risen and starting to pull away from the tin. Makes 16 muffins (which freeze well without the icing).