If you, like me, love the deep, dark, complex flavor of chocolate, you might think that semisweet or bittersweet chocolates are always best for desserts. It’s true they are fabulous, and the best offer an incredible depth of flavor to whatever you are baking…but they aren’t your only options. Cocoa powder, which is basically the dark solids that give chocolate its flavor, has a lot to offer the baker. Without any sugar, vanilla or cocoa butter added, cocoa powder is chocolate stripped to its bare essence. You already probably know what it does for hot cocoa on a cold morning, old-fashioned brownies and devil’s food cake – and if you love those, why not take it further? A bit of cocoa powder added to your favorite cake, cookie, muffin, scone, or tart dough batter, can turn it into a rich-tasting chocolate version.
The trick to working with cocoa powder is twofold – first, understand the type of cocoa you have, and second, be aware of the adjustments you may need to make when adding it to recipes. There are two types of cocoa powder available for purchase – natural (or non-alkalized) and Dutch-process (or alkalized). Natural cocoa powder is the one we all grew up with, a fawn-colored cocoa with big chocolate flavor. It is made by grinding the cocoa nibs (the meat of the cocoa bean), removing nearly all of the cocoa butter (the natural fat in cocoa beans) in a hydraulic press, and then continuing to grind and sift until a fine powder is formed.
Natural cocoa powder has been readily available in the baking aisle of the supermarket for generations. And while it has not been the best quality, it can certainly be quite delicious when paired with plenty of sugar. Today, fine chocolate companies like Scharffen Berger are using the best cocoa beans to make very high quality natural cocoa powder that is available in many supermarkets. Natural cocoa powder is quite acidic, so when it is added to recipes with chemical leaveners, it is almost always paired with baking soda, which neutralizes much of the acidity.
Dutch-process cocoa powder is made the same way except for one important change – an alkali (similar to baking soda) is added to the powder. This addition does several things to the cocoa – it changes the color to a deep, dark brown that is often tinged with red; it softens the flavor, which makes it a good choice for coating chocolate truffles; and it neutralizes the natural acidity in the cocoa. Because its acidity has already been neutralized by the alakli, it is nearly always paired with baking powder in recipes. The most commonly available brand in the supermarket is Droste, and many fine European chocolate companies offer Dutch-process cocoa. If you are unsure which kind of cocoa powder you have, just check the ingredients on the label. Natural cocoa powder will simply state “cocoa powder.” Dutch-process cocoa powder will say “cocoa powder processed with alkali,” or something similar.
Many recipes do not specify which type of cocoa powder to use. The ingredient list simply states “cocoa powder.” If it is an American book, you can safely assume the writer means natural cocoa owder. Recipes that require Dutch-process cocoa will always mention it by name. If it is a European book, you can safely assume the cocoa called for is Dutch-process. If you are still unsure, you can look at the leavener in the recipe for a clue as to which type of cocoa powder would be best.
When modifying a recipe to add cocoa powder, start by removing a couple of tablespoons of flour and replacing it with cocoa powder. This may not seem like much, but cocoa is intense chocolate flavor. You can always add another tablespoon or two if you like, but keep in mind that you want the chocolate flavor to balance the sugar in the recipe, and the more cocoa you add, the more sugar and moisture you’ll need as well. Cocoa powder is like a sponge, sucking up moisture, and if you don’t adjust for its presence, you’ll end up with a dry pastry. If adding more than a couple of tablespoons, you’ll want to add a couple additional tablespoons of liquid, as well. You’ll also need to keep in mind the type of cocoa powder you are using, and match it to the chemical leavener (if any) in your recipe. If you are adding cocoa powder to a cake, muffin or scone batter, be sure to follow the guidelines above for matching the type of cocoa to the leavener you have in your recipe. If there is no chemical leavener in the recipe, such as the Chocolate Earl Grey Shortbread Coins below, you can use whatever type of cocoa you like. This applies to hot cocoa, chocolate pudding, and chocolate tart dough as well. For a double dose of pure chocolate flavor, try the Chocolate Cocoa Nib Shortbread Cookies variation in the recipe below.
More Crazy for Cocoa ideas and recipes follow after the jump