In Alta Verapaz, a lush and deeply forested region of Guatemala that was part of the ancient Mesoamerican chocolate empire, the Kekchi Maya roast cacao beans and grind them with ululte, the local name for the tiny but devilish chile piquin. They shape the resulting sticky paste into balls, which are then air-dried and stored. To add heat and flavor to feast dishes like the chompipe (turkey) and pepiaries (stews thickened with pumpkin seeds), they grate a little of this mixture over the food.
I've taken up this exciting idea at home, but I tend to expand on the seasonings. This particular version was inspired by a batch of Papua New Guinea beans that had been dried over wood fires during the rainy season. They were too smoky and hammy for a fine chocolate, but perfect for my purpose. I played up the smokiness with a dash of Spanish smoked paprika and added a little allspice and soft true cinnamon from Mexico.
Experiment with other combinations of spices if you wish, or vary the proportions to taste. Once you discover how this magic seasoning wakes up food, you might enjoy passing the cacao balls around the table with a small cheese grater and letting each person grate his or her own onto the plate. I've used it with lobster stew, slightly sweet cream soups, and different meat stews (lamb, beef, even venison).
A powerful mini-food processor is almost essential for grinding the cacao and chile, unless you have a good big marble mortar and pestle.
Heat a griddle, medium-sized cast-iron skillet, or Mexican comal over medium heat. Add the cacao nibs and dry-roast for 2 minutes, until fragrant, turning constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula. Turn out into another container and set aside.
Add the chiles, cinnamon stick, and allspice berries to the griddle and roast the same way, stirring, for 2 minutes. Scrape into an electric spice mill or coffee grinder with the salt and paprika; grind to a fine powder.
Combine the spice mixture and roasted cacao in a mini-food processor and process into a warm, sticky paste, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Scrape out onto a work surface and shape into 12 small balls. Let sit until thoroughly dried. Store in a tightly sealed jar. When ready to use, grate over any dish of your choice.
Adapted from The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes by Maricel E. Presilla (Ten Speed Press, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Maricel E. Presilla.
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