Sunday, February 10, 2013


Chocolate-covered figs, a sweet treat for Valentine's Day.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, everybody is writing about chocolate this week. It’s a good enough excuse for me too. Chocolates make a wonderful gift. Chocolate is reputed to be aphrodisiac. Chocolate, usually, is sweet, as in “sweetheart”. No matter if it’s only a marketing ploy, chocolate is worth the celebration.

Spain has a very special chocolate connection, dating back to 1502 when Columbus first discovered cacao beans in what is today Honduras, on his fourth trip to the Americas, and sent some back to Spain.  But it was not until Hernán Cortés tasted chocolate in Mexico (around 1521), where the Emperor Moctezuma served it flavored with vanilla in cups of gold, that Spaniards took notice of the beverage.

The Spaniards added sugar to the bitter brew and, after that, chocolate became all the rage with the Spanish nobility. From 1521 until 1600, Spain had a virtual monopoly on the trade in cacao from the New World. Only after that did the British, Dutch and French expand cultivation of the treasured cacao in other parts of the world (Indonesia, Africa, West Indies). 

Chocolate was originally consumed by the Mayans of Central America. The Aztecs discovered cacao when they took control of Mayan lands in trade expansion. Known as “food of the gods,” it became so valued that only the nobility was allowed to partake of it.

Chocolate mona de pascua in a Barcelona shop.
In Spain, chocolate was deemed by the Catholic church to be an acceptable potion to be imbibed during Lenten fast days, when many foods were forbidden to the faithful.  Perhaps this is why chocolate is especially beloved during the Lenten season. Chocolate eggs, bunnies and chicks symbolize the springtime festival.  In Catalonia, the custom reaches extravagant proportions with the confection of monas de pascua, richly decorated chocolate delicacies consumed on Easter, when more than 300,000 of them are sold. 

I find it fascinating that, to this day, Spain favors drinking chocolate (see the recipe for chocolate a la taza  here) and has never really developed a repertoire of desserts such as chocolate mousse, chocolate cake, fudge, chocolate ice cream, brownies.

Nevertheless, artisanal products such as chocolate-covered figs, a product of Extremadura, are an exquisite rendition of the chocolate arts. (Order them here from La Tienda .) Or, make these bonbons yourself for your sweet love.

Hand-dipping candied orange peel.
I didn’t make the chocolate-fig bonbons pictured in the photo at the top. I purchased them at a local artisanal chocolate factory called Mayan Monkey Mijas. In the photo to the right, a chocolate artisan at Mayan Monkey dips candied orange peel in dark chocolate.


Chocolate-Fig Bonbons
Bombones de Higos

These figs have a chocolate cream filling and are bathed in bittersweet chocolate. Don’t worry if your hand-dipped bonbons don’t have a slick professional finish—they will still taste wonderful.

A thermometer is useful in tempering the chocolate coating for the bonbons. You don’t need a candy thermometer, as the chocolate never heats more than120ºF. Use a dairy thermometer.

Makes 75 bonbons.

1 pound small dry figs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups water
¼ cup brandy
16 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped or grated
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup boiling water

With a sharp knife cut a slit in the bottoms of the figs, leaving the stems intact.

Combine 1 cup sugar and 3 cups water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook 3 minutes. Add the brandy, bring again to a boil, and stir in the figs. Remove the pan from the heat and let the figs macerate 15 minutes.

Drain the figs in a colander, saving the brandy sugar syrup for another use. Spread the figs on a rack and allow to dry in a well-aired place for 2 hours.

Prepare the chocolate cream filling. In the top of a double boiler over boiling water melt 4 ounces of the chocolate. Stir in the olive oil, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and the boiling water. Place the pan over medium, direct heat and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Scrape into a heatproof bowl. Cool the chocolate, then refrigerate.

To stuff the figs with the chocolate cream filling, poke a finger or wooden dowel into the slit to make a hollow and use the tip of a small knife to push about 1/8 teaspoon of the chocolate cream into the center. Place each fig on a tray as it is filled. (You may not need all of the chocolate cream. Reserve unused chocolate for another use.) Set aside in a cool place (not refrigerator) for at least 30 minutes or up to 6 hours.

Place the remaining 12 ounces chocolate in the top of a double boiler. Position a thermometer in the top section of the double boiler. Place over boiling water and melt the chocolate, stirring, until it reaches 125ºF.

Remove the chocolate from the heat and allow to cool to 85ºF.

Heat the water in the bottom of the double boiler to 90ºF and maintain this heat. Place the chocolate over the water again and let it warm to 90ºF.

Dip the figs, one by one, into the melted chocolate. Use 2 forks to remove them, letting excess chocolate drip off, and place the figs on a rack lined with waxed paper. Let the figs dry in a cool place for 3 hours.

 Place the figs in individual bonbon papers or in a box lined with waxed paper. They are ready to eat immediately, but may be kept, refrigerated, for up to 1 month.

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