I, like many people, have a complicated relationship with chocolate. Because I’m a type 2 diabetic, I have to watch my sugar and carb intake, which means I cannot enjoy chocolate with abandon; neither can friends of mine who are dairy free.
Because of this, I’d developed a real love of cacao nibs, the chopped and roasted crumbles of cacao beans that I use to add texture and subtle chocolate flavor to baked goods. Minus the additions of sugar and dairy, they’re the perfect touch for scones, brownies, and even breads like pumpernickel or hearty ryes, where their bitterness and crunch are a welcome addition. Not long ago, I was doing my usual pandemic online searching for sources and discovered something new and alluring in my cacao nib search thread.
Easy never tasted so awesome.
Caramelized cacao beans.
Five minutes later, I’d placed my first order for a bag of this new, thrilling variation on that ancient seed. And now they are one of my favorite things to snack on and cook with.
First, what exactly is cacao?
Is this cocoa misspelled? Or the other way around? Maybe, in a way, because both words point to the same tree of origin: the Theobroma cacao tree, which produces pods filled with seeds that are processed to become chocolate. Cocoa refers, of course, to the processed powder that we use to make chocolate. Cacao refer to the seed itself. And we use the word nibs to describe chopped up, roasted bits of those seeds.
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And by the way, cacao is good for you!
Cacao is considered a superfood. The source of dark chocolate’s health claims, cacao is high in antioxidants and offers a strong punch of iron, calcium, and magnesium, not to mention being a source for flavanols (linked to better cardiovascular health) and finally, they’re high in fiber. What more could you possibly want in a tasty treat?
So what exactly is a caramelized cacao bean?
Rather than being chopped into little nibs, this is a whole cacao bean, roasted and then enrobed in a thin shell of caramelized sugar. Even with the coating, these are a low-sugar, low-carb food, and completely dairy free. Think about those caramelized nuts you can buy at street fairs, or pralined nuts you might make to snack on for a cocktail party. These eat like candied almonds, but with a deep and fruity chocolate flavor that is pretty extraordinary. I stir them into snack mixes with nuts and dried fruits, chop them up to bake into cookies, garnish desserts, or add them anywhere I might put a cacao nib. They’re divine.
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They don’t land on the palate where chocolate does, exactly: You don’t get chocolate’s creaminess or melt factor, but you do get that fundamental essence of chocolate flavor from the cacao, not to mention the promise of chocolate’s health benefits, as cacao is a whole bean and unprocessed beyond the roasting.
Ready to try them yourself? Check out Ava Jane’s Kitchen, a cool little company based in the Mexican surf town of Sayulita, which came up with my favorite new treat. (They also sell their own avocado oil and locally-harvested sea salt and spice mixes.) There’s a variety of buying options, from a first-time bag (3.5 ounces) for $16.00 to the Family Package of 5 bags for $49.99. Bet you can’t devour just one!
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