The past few years, my favourite chocolate bars have been those that contain both a high percentage of cocoa solids and cocoa nibs. I had a few brands I favoured in Italy, but back here in England I mostly eat Lordy Lord, from local Sussex chocolate company Montezuma’s. It’s “min cocoa solids 79%” and it contains nibs. I love the nutty crunch the nibs provide. Yet it’s taken me ages to get round to trying using nibs as a baking ingredient.
What are nibs?
Before I go any further, let’s clarify what cocoa nibs are. Chocolate is produced from the cocoa beans, the seeds of the tree Theobroma cacao, the first bit of which suitably means “food of the gods”. The pods containing the seeds are harvested then cracked open. The pulp and beans are piled up and left to ferment, to reduce the innate bitterness of the beans. They’re then dried, before being roasted and cracked – the resulting fragments are the nibs.
Cocoa vs cacao
Now reading about this online, I’m coming across the usual internet disagreement and misinformation about the difference between cocoa nibs and cacao nibs. Some sites insist the latter are the version where the beans bypass the roasting process; some health food sites say this results in a product that’s higher in antioxidants. This may well be true, but I can’t find any scientific reports. Plus, the words cocoa and cacao are often used as synonyms. Both words are translations, transliterations or fluid (mis)spellings of the word in the languages of the Mesoamericans (Mayans etc) who first cultivated the tree and added the term to European languages via the Spanish.
Indeed, in most Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French etc), the English “cocoa” is simply translated as cacao.
I’m using Organic cocoa nibs from Naturya, and they describe the product as “simply unprocessed cocoa beans, broken into little bits. Nothing more, nothing less.” With no mention of roasting. Or cacao.
Sprinkles and chips
So I’ve been using the nibs as sprinkles for chocolate cake (above), or as an ingredient for biscotti and cookies. Cocoa nibs are funny as, strangely, they’re reminiscent like carob, which, for those of us who remember the 1980s, was another fad food that health foodie types tried to promote as an alternative to chocolate. I like carob, as carob, but as an alternative to chocolate, it just doesn’t cut it.
So if I want a chocolate chip cookie, I have to use chocolate. But my cocoa nib cookies are great – as something distinct. I’m enjoying playing around with a recipe for cookies that uses the technique where you form a cylinder of dough then cut it. This can be called “slice cookies”, or “icebox cookie” (from keeping the dough in the freezer, or fridge). I first encountered it years ago via the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, but the ever-informative Alan Davidson, in the Oxford Companion to Food, writes, “The American habit of making rolls of cookie dough and keeping them in the refrigerator or freezer may have come from Germany; the doughs for some German biscuits such as Heidesand are made into rolls and chilled before slicing.”
Adding crystallised ginger was just a hunch I fancied playing with, and I’m pleased with the results. Ideas are rarely new in this day and age – seven billion plus humans, the internet – and I’ve definitely enjoyed ginger and dark chocolate combined before, so that led me to nibs and crystallised ginger, an ingredient I enjoy in steamed puddings and pear cakes.
Ginger is the root of Zingiber officinale, but rather than being dried and powdered, it’s boiled in syrup, rolled in sugar – another name for crystallised ginger is candied ginger. As such, it’s a cousin of things like candied peel or candied angelica (the stems of Angelica archangelica, a somewhat out-of-fashion ingredient).
140g plain flour
100g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp powdered ginger (optional)
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
150g unsalted butter, softened
100g light brown sugar
100g granulated sugar [test with caster also]
1 egg, beaten (at room temperature*)
100g cocoa or cacao nibs
120g crystallized ginger, roughly cut up
1. Sieve together the flours, baking powder and powered ginger – only use the latter if you like the cookies a little bit more gingery. Stir in the salt.
2. In another bowl, cream together in the sugars and butter. Cream until light and fluffy.
3. Add the beaten egg, a little at a time.
4. Add the flour mix to the creamed mix and bring together, adding the nibs and chopped ginger.
5. Bring the whole mixture to a dough. It should be a little sticky, not too much.
6. Form the dough into two cylinders, using slightly floured hands if you find it too sticky.
7. Wrap each cylinder in plastic and put in the fridge, for at least an hour. The cylinders will be fine in your fridge for a day or two, though the dough will dry and become slightly crumblier the longer you leave it. Some say this deepens the flavour, but that’s another discussion.
8. When you’re reading to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 180C.
9. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment.
10. Cut the cylinders into rounds, about 8mm thick. The mixture may crumble a bit, if it does, just gently squeeze back together. You won’t achieve perfect rounds, due to the nibs and chunks of ginger.
11. Place the rounds on the sheets, leaving some space for expansion between then, about 4-5cm.
12. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely coloured.
13. Transfer to wire racks to cool.
* Always bake with your eggs at room temperature. I doubt it makes any difference to taste but it does help when beating eggs into a creamed sugar and fat mixture, reducing the chance of curdling. It’s also better when making things that require the egg, or the white, to be whisked, as the warmer egg incorpates air more effectively. Personally, I don’t generally store eggs in the fridge. Eggs have a great storage system already – it’s called a shell. If the egg is off, having it cold won’t make any difference. And, frankly, when was the last time you had an off egg? I’ve encountered them once or twice in my life. Plus, as I bake so much, and like omelettes and whatnot, eggs never last long in my house, so are are generally fresh, usually from these guys.