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Food and drink

Here’s to the choco-chili cha-cha

Maybe your first taste was a rich and fragrant mole poblano in a backwater café in Mexico that made you think you'd died and gone to heaven, or at least a zone in Mesoamerican cosmology.

Or maybe it was a silky square from one of those delightful Lindt chili and dark chocolate bars that are popping up everywhere. Either way, once you've been indoctrinated at the chili/chocolate altar, my friend, there will be no turning back, for the thrill of dark chocolate spiked with the buzz of capsicum annuum is deadly addicting and just what the doctor ordered for a quick winter pick-me-up-and-put-me-down-gently-again.

While we have the colonial Spanish to thank for at least having influenced the creation of mole poblano, it was the original Mesoamerican peoples - not just the Aztecs and Maya, although these are the ones it is most famously attributed to - who first mined genius and added dried, ground chili to chocolate, in this case a drink.

Temperature-wise, the Aztecs drank it cool while the Maya drank it hot. Spice-wise or, more technically, on the Scoville scale, which measures the pungencies of chili, it ranged anywhere from mildly to excruciatingly hot. Vanilla pods from locally grown orchids along with various flowers, including magnolia and string flowers, were also popular flavourings. But from all early reports, it was chili that was tops.

Mercifully, this original chocolate drink was nothing as crazy-sweet as our contemporary versions of hot chocolate; honey was used occasionally as a flavouring agent but it was not a universal sweetener. As for creaminess, it was reported to be delightfully so, but not through the use of dairy products, but rather the careful and elaborate concocting methods.

We have this description of a chocolate drink maker in the Aztec world from Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe's book, True History of Chocolate: "She grinds cacao (beans); she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes foam; she removes the head, makes it thicken..." And on it goes.

This, it should be noted, was the making of a "high-end" chocolate drink called tlaquetzalli ("precious thing"). I picture it as thick as a Turkish coffee. Or thicker. Some colonial accounts describe another version that was nothing but foam, served in a funnel-like contraption the drinker held above his or her upturned mouth, which was opened very wide, as wide as possible, to accept the foamy delight that would slowly ooze down one's throat. A lower-end version of the drink was also made by adding a thin porridge-like gruel of maize. But we digress.

As for the chili part of this chili/chocolate extravaganza, we have very good reason, scientific reason, for believing that it's just the right thing to enhance the goodness of chocolate.

The eminent food authority on food chemistry and cooking, Harold McGee, tells us that, at last check, chili's health credentials were excellent. The effects of capsaicin, the pungent chemical secreted by cells on the surface of the placenta - the pithy, whitish membrane that holds the seeds on the inside of the chili - are "many and complex."

For instance, it changes the temperature regulation of our bodies, so it makes us feel hotter than we actually are, ergo the cooling mechanisms of sweating and increased blood flow kicking in. And here you thought your friend was turning red and sweaty just because she was choking on those habaneros.

Capsaicin also boosts our metabolic rate, so we burn more energy and therefore store less as fat. Also, it may - and the key word here is "may" - trigger brain signals that make us feel less hungry and more satisfied. In short, concludes Gee, it may encourage us to eat less of the meal it is present in and to burn more of the calories that we do eat. See, I told you it was a perfect companion for chocolate!

To that end I have drummed up my own recipe for a perennial favourite, pumpkin bread. And I don't see why an adventuresome cook such as yourself couldn't apply the same principles to your next chocolate cake or homemade cocoa, adding a dash of cayenne here, a pinch of chili powder there.

Besides using the best of the best chocolate, the trick is to use quality chilis and nothing is finer than smashing a few pods grown by a local farmer. The ones around Lillooet and Keremeos in the interior have exceptionally fine products that will add to the making of your own "precious thing".

Glenda's Chili-Choco Pumpkin Bread
Beat 2 eggs, then stir in:
2/3 c. sugar - I like the organic raw stuff
1/2 c. oil - I use organic safflower
2 c. cooked, mashed fresh pumpkin or 1 c. of the canned stuff. If you cook and mash your own pumpkin, the final result will be moister and lighter.

In a separate bowl mix the following together and add it to the egg/pumpkin mixture:
1 3/4 c. whole-wheat or any flour; 1 1/2 c. if you use tinned pumpkin
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. Mexican chili powder or any chili powder
Dash of cayenne, or as much as you dare

When it's all mixed, add 1/4 c. chopped walnuts, 1/2 c. seedless raisins and 1/4 c. really good dark chocolate chips, like Callebaut's. If you don't have chips, chop up some good dark chocolate, or, alternatively, add 1 tsp. of cocoa powder to the mix. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan and bake at 325 degrees 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. This pumpkin bread takes 15 minutes to make and won't be as sweet and oily as most recipes. But it's way more satisfying - must be that darn capsaicin.

Holy mole, you might say. Or, guacamole! "Mole" comes from the Nahuatl word "milli", meaning "sauce", much as "curry" comes from the Tamil word "kari", which also simply means "sauce" or "relish" for rice.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who just downed another slice of chili-choco pumpkin bread.