The health benefits of chocolate are widely celebrated, but there’s always that pesky asterisk attached. Although chocolate contains flavonoids and other antioxidants that may benefit your heart and buoy your mood, it also can be loaded with sugar and calories. That’s why we’re usually told to limit our consumption to one small square of dark chocolate a day.
Enter brewed cacao: a trendy new beverage that delivers all the benefits and decadent flavor of dark chocolate, without any of the sugar and fat, and virtually no calories. It also is low in caffeine, so you can enjoy it any time of day. Brewed cacao is, however, rich in theobromine, another mild central nervous system stimulant. Some users believe that theobromine boosts their mental energy and focus but without the nerve-jangling effects of caffeine. Controlled trials have so far failed to support these impressions.
Cacao beans intended for brewing are processed a bit differently than those destined to become chocolate or cocoa powder. Instead of the slow “baking” required to bring out the optimal flavor for chocolate, the beans are handled more like coffee beans and roasted quickly at high temperatures. Less processing means more of the beneficial compounds are preserved. As a result, a cup of brewed cacao contains roughly twice the amount of the flavonoids catechin and epicatechin as a square of dark chocolate or cup of hot cocoa.
With its rich, chocolatey aroma and full-bodied mouthfeel, brewed cacao is somehow more than just a beverage. Although an afternoon cup of tea or coffee often feels incomplete without a little something to go with it, a cup of brewed cacao, with or without a splash of milk, feels completely satisfying. As an after-dinner offering, it easily replaces both coffee and dessert.
To brew the perfect cup, place 2 tablespoons of ground cacao beans in a French press, add 1 cup of boiling water, stir briefly, and steep for 5 to 7 minutes before pressing. Brewed cacao can be enjoyed black or with milk or nondairy creamer and a touch of sweetener, if desired. The spent grounds make great compost, and your compost heap will smell wonderful.
The ground beans also are edible — and quite tasty! Try blending a spoonful into a smoothie, stirring into hot cereal or sprinkling over ice cream.
Although newly trendy, brewed cacao actually is nothing new. It was enjoyed by native Central Americans as early as 1,500 BC. So, the next time you get a craving for chocolate, instead of heading for the candy counter, why not make like the ancient Mayans and brew up a cup of cacao?