A Guide to Weird and Wonderful Chocolate Pairings
Let’s be honest. To most of us, drizzling a spoonful of perfectly good molten chocolate over odd things just to see if it adds a certain something, seems perfectly wasteful. But in the culinary world – where we chefs do our thing – chocolate becomes so much more than a sweet treat. It’s like a spice, but an incredibly multi-layered one. Like wine, your experience of chocolate is influenced by where the cocoa bean grew, how it was cultivated, the harvesting, how long it fermented for and finally, how it was made into actual chocolate. Then, there’s all the different types of chocolate, ranging from white (0% cocoa) to baking chocolate (100%). And like cooking with wine, your dish will only be as good as the chocolate you used to make it.
In this brief guide, let’s look at some of the best (and most unlikely) chocolate pairings, and what chocolate goes best with what ingredient.
Pairing With Dark Chocolate
The most successful chocolate pairings happen when there’s dark chocolate involved. It’s just closer to cocoa’s original state, which makes it more versatile as a flavouring ingredient than, say, milk or white chocolate.
And why not? When sizzled to a caramelised crisp, bacon gives off the most delectable umami notes that perfectly complement dark chocolate. Smoked bacon? Even better. If you think about it, chocolate goes REALLY well with salt, and what is a rasher of beechwood-smoked bacon other than a salt-adjacent treat! Next time you make a batch of cupcakes topped with a dark chocolate ganache, instead of vermicelli (more sugar), sprinkle a fine, crispy bacon powder over it. You can thank me later.
Beyond its initial kick, ginger’s heat leans towards the sweet side, which is perfectly contrasted by dark chocolate’s bitter, cooling character. Tradition dictates that ginger enrobed in chocolate should take the form of glacé ginger, but chop it fine and sprinkle it over a Florentine biscuit, and you’ve got yourself a teatime hit!
It was one of the first Lindt bars we saw on our shelves when the Swiss company opened shop in South Africa. But we weren’t exacty strangers to the idea, were we? Remember the After Eight mint? If you’re like me, you also would have dipped fresh mint leaves in dark chocolate as an after-dinner treat more than a few times. Whatever you do, though, don’t go the mint and milk chocolate route. It’s just not the same.
This particular combination is as polarising as coriander or Chardonnay. You either love it or you hate it. Somehow, the combination of orange and chocolate always reminds me of Christmas, and it can be used in anything from cakes and creams to mousses. On the other hand, dark chocolate pairs well with most fruits, so don’t push the orange agenda too hard.
When the Spanish first discovered chocolate in Central America, it didn’t take them long to discover that it paired really well with peanuts. So well, in fact, that peanut butter was often used to “dilute” the cocoa and so, produce “more” chocolate – without compromising on flavour. The combination of chocolate and peanuts is a classic, and unless you have a peanut allergy, you don’t need convincing.
WHAT KIND OF CHOCOLATE ARE YOU?
In France and Italy especially, glacé fruit and chocolate pairings are incredibly common, and confisseries like Maison Auer and Confisserie Florian remain some of the best places to stock up on a special gift – in Nice anyway. Here are some of my favourite fruits to pair with chocolate.
South Africans are no strangers to this combination, not if you’ve ever had a Snacker, Bounty or Niki bar. And if you feel your palate has become more sophisticated than store-bought coconut confectionery, there are countless cakes and tarts (let’s not forget the hertzoggie) to choose from.
Pears are subtle in flavour, but sweet, so a dark chocolate is the perfect partner to a pear. Add a sprinkling of shaved almonds and you’ve got a talking point. Poached pears with chocolate sauce (Poires Belle Hélène) is a classic French dessert, which reminds us not to drench the pear in chocolate, or else you’ll overpower it.
Let’s not pretend that dipping strawberries in dark chocolate doesn’t put you in mind of a romantic dinner for two. It’s a cliché, but it’s a classic. If you’re starting to feel like you’re neck-deep in dark chocolate, strawberries go really well with white chocolate too. And if the strawberry and chocolate thing is a bit much, tailor the experience with a more unusual pairing.
During the height of summer in July, the city of Palermo in Sicily hosts the Santa Rosalia festival, which celebrates a saint who played an integral role in eradicating the plague that struck the city in 1624. But in the food world, the festival is probably most famous for introducing us to the magical combination of watermelon and chocolate, a delicacy that goes by the name of gelo di melone. It’s essentially a thick watermelon soup flavoured with cinnamon, chocolate, or candied peel – or all of the above.
We’re heading into true foodie territory here. So, we know about chocolate and bacon. We also would have come across chilli chocolate – if only in passing down the Lindt aisle. But in the savoury department, chocolate has a few more tricks up its sleeve.
Before you run for the hills… actually, there’s no convincing you if you don’t like aubergine in the first place. But if you do, read on. Aubergine and chocolate is a traditional Italian dessert that originated on the Amalfi coast, where it’s as common as soft serve.
A few years ago, you couldn’t attend a catered wedding without stumbling upon a giant wheel of camembert drenched in white chocolate. If you consider what a great pair pear and chocolate make, is it such a leap to introduce gorgonzola to the mix? Goat’s cheese is equally as surprising – especially when paired with a chocolate with a 63% or higher cocoa content. Isn’t cheese just another type of dairy?
Considering what a staple pasta is to the Italians, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they have a whole pasta dessert repertoire, which would not be complete without il cioccolato, of which the Venetian tortelli – which comes in an amaretti and cocoa version – is the one to beat.