It’s been well documented that guilt is a word often associated with food in American culture. In his book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” New York Times best-selling author Michael Pollan writes, “We showed the words ‘chocolate cake’ to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. ‘Guilt’ was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: ‘celebration.’ ”
As a chef serving primarily American customers, I can second that sentiment. My customers generally alternate between “I love you” and “I hate you” in response to a dessert I bring out, and when they indulge too frequently, of course, who do they blame for their weight gain? Because I work in an American embassy, security clearance is a barrier to entry for customers who aren’t employed by the U.S. government. Therefore, as much as I jokingly tell diners not to blame me if their bathroom scales don’t tip in a favorable direction, I’m still acutely aware that I need to balance the apple fritter doughnuts and triple-chocolate mousse cakes with healthier options.
I do this by providing plenty of fresh vegetable dishes, the Mediterranean fare of my Israeli upbringing and composed salads on the menu, but I also have a secret-weapon dessert that is so virtuous yet so seemingly decadent that I’ve been called a liar on more than one occasion. As a chef, this is when you know you’ve hit the culinary jackpot with a recipe: When the feedback alternates between “this cannot be made of X” and “I like this better than a real Y,” that’s when you know you have a keeper.
Although I don’t obsess over chocolate, I know it’s the common denominator for “swoon factor” on a restaurant or café menu. There could be a biological cause for that. People crave chocolate for several reasons, some of which are cultural, but chocolate contains some healthful properties including flavonoids, antioxidants and solid doses of magnesium, iron and calcium.
The health benefits of chocolate are usually outweighed by the addition of sugar — a substance that wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels and is associated with premature aging and chronic inflammation. But cacao in its natural form is considered by many to be a superfood.
Cacao beans, which come from the cacao pod, the fruit of a tree cultivated by the ancient Mayans in Mexico over 1,500 years ago, have been used medicinally for centuries. In Africa, where over 70% of the world’s cacao is grown, chocolate bars and sweets are rarely eaten; farmers use the fruit as a cash crop to be exported to the West to make into a variety of confections ranging from M&Ms to high-end, hand-crafted boutique bonbons.
The cacao beans are removed from the pod, dried and fermented, and then roasted and cracked. These cracked pieces of cacao are referred to as cacao nibs and are ground into a paste called a chocolate liquor. This liquor is then processed and transformed into chocolate bars or cocoa powder, but the nibs can also be eaten roasted or raw and are considered a powerhouse of nutrients.
Incredibly, cacao nibs contain more iron than beef, making them a great source of iron for vegetarians. Further, the bioactive compound known as epicatechin can boost blood flow and oxygen to the brain, making cacao nibs a powerful antioxidant that can protect skin health as well as cognitive function. They are also full of calcium, fiber and micronutrients that may reduce risk of diabetes, inflammation and even improve memory function.
Cacao nibs contain more iron than beef, making them a great source of iron for vegetarians.
Before you cover yourself head to toe in Hershey’s kisses and call yourself a health nut, remember that Hershey’s and most milk chocolate brands contain only about 11% cacao. The level of cacao content of chocolate (above 70% is good, 80% to 100% is better) determines the health benefits to your body. Although portion control is crucial, the good news is that one small square of pleasantly bitter dark chocolate will satisfy most sweet cravings.
These brownies are hands down my most requested dessert recipe and, although I didn’t come up with the concept of brownies made from black beans, I’ve added seemingly incongruous ingredients such as balsamic vinegar and coffee grounds to fine tune what I think is a healthy adaptation of a favorite.
Don’t expect it to be chewy; it has more of a cake-like texture. You can omit the walnuts and the cacao nibs or even the ganache icing, but be aware that not only do these ingredients add texture, they may be the key to better heart health, lower cholesterol and improved blood sugar levels. At roughly only a tablespoon of sugar per brownie — less if you use a sugar substitute — I think you’ll be very excited about this guilt-free delicacy. But only if you don’t mind being called a liar every time you serve them. You might not even believe it yourself.
YAMIT’S GLUTEN-FREE BLACK BEAN BROWNIES
14 ounces cooked black beans (canned is fine but weigh out 14 ounces)
3/4 cup sugar (or a sugar substitute like erythritol or xylitol)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup dark Dutch process cocoa powder
1 teaspoon olive oil (or any vegetable oil)
1 tablespoon milk (or almond milk for dairy free)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coffee grounds
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup roasted walnuts, crushed (optional)
3 tablespoons roasted cacao nibs (optional)
2 cups dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
1/2 cup boiling water
Preheat oven to 350 F degrees.
Line an 8-by-8-inch brownie pan with 2 sheets of baking paper so that they overlap, leaving extra paper on the sides for pulling out the brownies easily. Carefully weigh out 14 ounces of drained black beans and put in a high-speed blender with sugar. Blend well until beans are completely mashed.
Add the remaining ingredients, except walnuts and cacao nibs, and blend until thoroughly mixed. Batter will be thick. Stir in walnuts if using, and spoon mixture into prepared pan.
Bake for approximately 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick stuck into the center of the brownies comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature in the pan. Transfer to the freezer while you make the ganache.
For the ganache, chop chocolate, place in a glass bowl and melt in microwave at 30- second increments, stirring between heating until chocolate is melted.
Whisk in half the boiling water. Chocolate will seize at first but keep stirring and it will come together. Whisk in remaining water and stir until ganache is shiny and all lumps have melted. Ganache will thicken upon cooling, so cool to desired consistency.
Remove brownies from freezer and, lifting the exposed parchment paper on the side of the pan, place onto flat surface or plate. Using a knife or an offset spatula, ice the brownies and sprinkle on the cacao nibs.
Keep in freezer or fridge until ready to serve. Cut with a sharp knife into 16 equal squares.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.