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Thinking outside the (chocolate) box


To mark World Chocolate Day (July 7) we turn our thoughts to everybody’s favourite ingredient.

While the appeal of a gooey brownie, molten fondant or silky mousse is undeniable, chocolate is a far more versatile substance than you might think, shining in sweet and savoury recipes alike, with the power to add a rich, multi-layered depth to a great variety of dishes. 

After all, chocolate was originally consumed by the Aztecs without the addition of sugar, mixed instead with spices, corn or wine to form a frothy, bitter drink revered for its aphrodisiac and fortifying powers and even claimed to be the ‘drink of the gods’. It was only in the sixteenth century that chocolate became adapted for those with a sweet tooth, first as a drink and then as the solid bars we know and love today.

Savoury ways with the sweet stuff

Here are some ideas for spicing up your chocolate consumption in a few unexpected ways.

  • A little grated dark chocolate – the darker the better, try the 100 percent cocoa content variety for a real taste experience – makes a fabulous addition to slow-cooked dishes. Try it in a beef chilli, or a vegetarian chilli made with a mixture of black beans, lentils and bulgur wheat. It also works wonderfully with slow-braised beef or venison dishes, particularly when red wine is added to the mix. 
  • Similarly, chocolate is a key ingredient in many Mexican mole sauces, where it is often combined with nuts and dried fruit to delicious effect.
  • Anatra al cioccolato is a decadent Italian recipe for duck slow-cooked in a rich chocolate sauce, often fortified with marsala and vinegar. I love to make it with duck legs, cooked until utterly falling apart, and serve it with toasted pine nuts and plain rice or pasta. It has to be tasted to be believed – if you’re sceptical about the combination, you will be pleasantly surprised. 
  • Quick-cooking cuts of venison like steak or cutlets can be paired with a chocolate sauce made by deglazing the frying pan with a little red wine and beef stock, letting it bubble away and then grating in a little dark chocolate to make a rich, glossy sauce.


  • If you can get your hands on a chocolate-infused balsamic vinegar, it is fabulous paired with avocado, chicory and goat’s cheese in a hearty, flavour-packed salad – non-vegetarians can add slices of smoked duck or chicken. Pecans and raspberries are surprisingly good additions too – try my recipe. It’s also excellent with pears, walnuts and goat’s cheese – try my recipe here.
  • Chocolate has a surprising affinity with cheese. Very strong dark chocolate makes a luscious addition to a cheese rarebit sauce, while chocolate can also be incorporated into pesto, excellent when paired with goat’s cheese.

Chocolate has a reputation for being unhealthy, but in its relatively unrefined form – cacao – it can make a nutritious addition to a variety of recipes, including breakfast. Cacao is high in antioxidants and less processed than regular cocoa, and also has an intense dark chocolate flavour. You can buy it in powdered form, as a thick paste and as crunchy nibs, which have a strong, rich taste. All are ideal for baking, and can be used to pep up your breakfast – all the childlike joy of eating chocolate for breakfast, without any health-related guilt!

How to legitimately enjoy chocolate for breakfast

  • Stir a couple of tablespoons of cocoa or cacao powder into a regular pancake batter for delicious chocolate-flavoured pancakes without the additional calories. You could also add some cacao nibs for a crunchy chocolate kick.
  • Similarly, try sprinkling cacao nibs, fresh raspberries and a spoonful of your favourite nut butter over your morning porridge for a breakfast that tastes like dessert.
  • Chocolate and avocado smoothies are a popular drink in Indonesia. Replicate this by blitzing an avocado with a couple of tablespoons of cacao, your choice of milk, and maple syrup to taste. 
  • Try making this delicious pear, raspberry and chocolate baked oatmeal for a weekend brunch with a difference. Leftovers keep and reheat well, too, so you could even make it as an indulgent breakfast for one.
  • Add cacao powder and cacao nibs to your favourite banana bread recipe. Serve toasted with a dollop of ricotta and a drizzle of honey for breakfast or brunch.
  • Sweeten a classic soda bread dough with a handful of cacao nibs and dried cranberries for an unusual morning loaf – excellent toasted with butter or ricotta cheese.
  • For hot chocolate lovers who may not be able to justify their consumption of this indulgent beverage on a daily basis, consider a chocolate tea blend, which can be enjoyed at any time of day as a pick-me-up. There are a range of black teas infused with cocoa shells and cocoa pieces on the market, often combined inventively with various combinations of chocolate and spices. It might be the start of a brand new tea adventure!

Elly McCausland is a food writer and blogger at Nutmegs, Seven. She has a passion for travel and all things gastronomic, with a particular emphasis on fruit, breakfast and proper British puddings. When not concocting recipes or planning her next cultural odyssey, she is an English literature academic, specialising in children’s literature.