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[Photograph: Andrew M. H. Alexander]

Pairing chilies with chocolate is nothing new, and understandably so. It's a delicious combination that showcases subtle aspects of chilies and chocolate that may otherwise go unnoticed. There's a lot more to it than making chocolate spicy, but it's not difficult stuff. As more varieties of chilies become increasingly common, and as we gain a greater understanding of chocolate flavor varieties, it's not hard to make combinations that rival those of many chocolate makers and pastry chefs.

Chilies and chocolate are New World tropical fruits, and they have real, varied fruit flavors. Just like a region's food and wine, they can be paired in complimentary ways, either for their natural flavors, or the result of their processing. Cacao seeds are ground, roasted, and refined, which can impart whole new flavors into the chocolate. Likewise, chilies are dried in different ways which substantially alters that flavor. (I'm not a huge fan of using fresh chilies in chocolate, though I'll mention one way later on). While I don't think there's a "wrong" way to pair chilies and chocolate, certain fruit flavors can accentuate or contrast each other for a product that feels much more balanced than just adding some cayenne.

The Flavors of Chocolate

San Francisco-based chocolate company TCHO has produced one of the best tools I know of for thinking about chocolate: the flavor wheel. Rather than add flavors to chocolate, they select and roast beans to highlight different specific flavors. What I love about this graphic is that it doesn't mention cocoa solid percentage, a limited indicator of chocolate's actual flavor. Assuming you're using dark chocolate in your baking (milk chocolate tends to taste washed out among all that flour and butter), your chocolate may taste berry-like, herbal, citrusy, roasty and coffee-like, floral, or a number of other flavors. A guide to the flavor profiles of major chocolate brands will have to wait for another day, but the first step to an awesome chili and chocolate pairing is to taste your favorite chocolates and decide what they taste like.

Sussing Out Chili Pairings

Once you have a sense of what your chocolate tastes like, consider your chili options. You may want to grind up some chilies and dust them on a bit of chocolate to see how they taste. But from personal experience I'll warn you to do this in small amounts: My tongue, fingers, and nose are still getting over the capsaicin burns.

When pairing you want to draw attention to common flavors in the chili and chocolate, or make a contrast between light and heavy ones. For example: You can increase the smokey character of some chocolates by including some smoked chipotle chili. Or you can lighten up a deep, ruddy chocolate with a brighter chile. You may want to complement one fruity flavor with another, or combine a citrusy chocolate with an herby chili. Chilies and chocolate bring out each other's richness; considered pairings balance that richness and make it more complex.

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[Photograph: Andrew M. H. Alexander]

This is a situation where grinding your own chilies, while not essential, is a huge help. (This is my grinder, and we have a very special relationship.) The just-ground flavor of chilies is substantially different, and since we're doing culinary nitpicking here, those nuances matter. Plus, grinding whole chilies allows you to decide how much of the capsaicin-loaded membranes you want to include. Below is a list of common (and some not-so-common) dried chilies that I think pair well with chocolate. They're ordered (roughly) from light, fresh, and bright to deep and dark, with some tasting notes and paring suggestions.

  • Aji panca: Very light and berry-like, with a good kick. Tastes almost like blueberries. I found it best with lighter and berry-like chocolates so its fruity nuances don't get covered up, though it's also very good with acidic chocolate (see below).
  • Aleppo: Fresh-tasting and oily, acidic and light but complex and zesty. Great with nutty chocolates.
  • Guajillo: Commonly sold as New Mexico. Ruddy and bold, perhaps the most "peppery." Another great contrast for roasted chocolate flavors, though with a deeper and fuller chili flavor and feel than aleppo. Its bite also compliments floral or light berry flavors. This is may favorite all-purpose chili for chocolate.
  • Ancho: The classic moderate chili. Good for more muted chili flavor as it's less intense than guajillo. Use a milder herbal or citrusy chocolate for something reminiscent of mole.
  • Cascabel: Coffee-like, almost tannic. Perfect to accentuate roasted coffee chocolate, though perhaps used in tandem with another, brighter complimentary chili so you have more than a one-note dessert.
  • Chipotle: Overused? Possibly, but its rich, sweet and smokey flavor is the best way to bring out the smokiness of a very dark, challenging chocolate.

Other Considerations for Your Pairings

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

How you use your chocolate also affects how they're paired. In something like a truffle, the chocolate doesn't change much, and your combined flavors will be preserved. When you dilute your chocolate in something like a brownie or a fudge, the chocolate's general character shines through, but some of its subtle nuances may be lost. So while I'd use chipotle with an intense chocolate in a truffle for a smokey character, I wouldn't bother in a brownie. When diluting chocolate, pairings that highlight contrasts can come through stronger than one designed to bring out one specific flavor.

Chiles don't care much for cold—their flavor gets dialed down while their bland heat remains—so while chili-chocolate ice creams and other frozen desserts are pretty common, I don't think they do much for the flavor the chili. If you do want to go that route, one of your best bets is a fresh habañero or scotch bonnet chili. They spread intense chili flavor and spice evenly through a custard and on the tongue, providing a rounded spiciness that almost has a texture of its own.

Hot chocolate, on the other hand, loves some chili, and heat will amplify its flavor and aroma. So use less than you'd use in something baked, and pick a chili that's exceptionally aromatic to benefit from the heat.

Cocoa powder has its own set of chili guidelines. Natural cocoa is acidic and a little bitter, so I like it with lighter chilies that have a more fresh, fruity aroma (such as aji panca). Dutch-processed cocoa has a neutral pH and tastes and feels richer, darker, and more "chocolatey." I think it has a less unique character, so I pair it with two chilies—something bright and peppery for contrast, and something darker, such as pasilla, which tastes lackluster to me on its own with chocolate but can make cocoa even richer.

There's no "wrong" way to add some chilies to your chocolate, and yes, these differences are subtle. But if you're a fan of chocolate or chiles, combining the two is a great way to learn more about the complex flavors of each. Without much effort you'll be able to do much better than that "Mexican Spice" bar at the grocery store.

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