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Alimentary, My Dear

Chocolate — The Food of the Gods
That Found Its Way Into Paddlers' Packs

By Tamia Nelson

August 16, 2005

Chocolate. The Mexican god-king Montezuma is said to have downed fifty pitchers of chocolath ("cacao-water") a day. But few of his subjects could afford more than a single taste of the precious stuff. Today, things have changed. Now almost every paddler has a chocolate bar stashed somewhere in his pack, and cocoa is a favorite fireside beverage. It's easy to see why. Though oatmeal bars, fruit leathers, and nuts are tasty and satisfying, nothing quite takes the place of chocolate. Once, when I was a young girl, my grandmother treated me to a trip to a chocolaterie. There, the proprietor offered me a piece of solid Belgian chocolate. It was a transforming gastronomic experience, one that I wasn't to repeat until much later in my life, when I took my first sip of single-malt whisky. (Sadly, my grandmother, whose love of fine chocolate had its roots in her European childhood, could only watch me eat. She was a diabetic, and chocolate was a forbidden pleasure.) Of course, fine Belgian chocolates didn't often come my way, but after that day in the chocolaterie I never ventured far from home without a supermarket chocolate bar in my rucksack. It was as much a part of my outdoor kit as a canteen and a pocket knife — part of Being Prepared. It still is.

What's the secret of chocolate's appeal? Maybe it's the complex flavor, the subtle blending of sweet, bitter, and salt. Or maybe it's the way chocolate feels on the tongue. Or maybe it's something else. From time to time, food chemists and medical researchers publish new theories. Usually these involve chocolate's ability to satisfy (or stimulate) some fundamental human appetite, a premise that's given concrete form in the movie Chocolat. For my part, though, I just know that chocolate tastes great. It's good fuel, too, particularly on days when an icy norther "raises the grain" on all but the smallest mountain tarns. For those of us who often use our muscles to take us where we want to go, both on the water and off, that's more than enough.

But who wants to eat the same thing, day in and day out? Not me. Luckily, chocolate takes many forms, and all of them are delicious. We can follow Montezuma's example and drink it. Or we can nibble from bars variously labeled "dark," "sweet," or "milk." Or we can add chocolate to cakes, cookies, or brownies. Or eat it in candy. (What trail mix would be complete without M&M's®, after all?) And that's just the beginning. Black breads like pumpernickel are frequently made from a chocolate-enriched dough, and chocolate is also an essential ingredient in mole poblano, an intricate Mexican sauce served with poultry and meat. Whatever your favorite chocolate treat is, this much is certain: you can expect your appetite to grow on exposure to fresh air. That's why I always have chocolate tucked away in both my getaway pack and my bike's bar bag, and why a larger supply goes along in a food pack on longer trips. Heat is a problem, however. It doesn't take many hours of summer sun to convert a block of chocolate into a molten blob. An early attempt to address this sticky situation, the so-called "tropical chocolate" developed for the military during World War II, wasn't a total success. It resisted the assaults of digestive juices almost as well as it stood up to the sun. Then the ubiquitous chocolate M&M's® stepped into the breach. Problem solved. Surprisingly, semisweet chocolate chips can often take the heat, too, though not quite so dependably as M&M's®. Cocoa powder, of course, will defy the hottest weather. Just be sure to keep your powder dry!

Or do you prefer chocolate as an occasional garnish, rather than a staple food? Then I've got something for you. On weekend adventures and other trips close to home, I sometimes take along a bag of my favorite chocolate chip cookies. These aren't just another chip off the old block. They're liberally studded with large hunks of semisweet chocolate, along with fragments of toffee candy. And they're not hard to make. Best of all, the work is done before you leave for the put-in.

Tamia's Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Makes 24 cookies

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup room-temperature butter
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg

6 ounces coarsely chopped semisweet chocolate
1 cup Hershey's® HEATH® toffee pieces

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix the flour, soda, and salt in a small bowl. Next, combine the soft butter, sugar, and vanilla in a larger bowl and beat together, then add the egg and beat again till fluffy. Now pour the contents of the first (flour) bowl into the second (butter) bowl and beat until you have a homogeneous dough. Lastly, fold in the chocolate and toffee pieces with a large spoon until all are more or less evenly distributed.

When the dough is ready, drop tablespoon-sized balls onto a cookie sheet. If you space the dough balls about two inches apart, you'll probably need a second sheet to accommodate 24 cookies, but there's no need to grease either one. The butter in the dough will prevent sticking. Bake the cookies for about 13 minutes, rotating the sheets around at the halfway point to ensure uniformity. Once the edges of the cookies are golden brown — the centers should still be a little soft — they're done. Remove them from the oven immediately. Don't let the cookies burn around the edges or become hard in the center. After allowing the cookies to cool on the sheet for two minutes, use a spatula to transfer them to a rack for further cooling. (If you don't have a cooling rack, simply line another pair of cookie sheets or a platter with paper towels and cool the cookies on them.) Be careful when removing the cookies from the baking sheets. The chocolate will be fluid, and the still-warm cookies are fragile.

After the cookies have cooled completely, place them in doubled plastic bags. Pad these well so the cookies won't crumble in the pack. On the other hand, if you won't be heading out any time soon, just freeze the cookies right in their plastic bags. Then, when the big day arrives at last, remove the bags from the freezer and stow them in your pack. The cookies will be thawed and ready to eat by the time you stop for lunch.

A Note on Chopping Chocolate  First, buy a box of 1-ounce squares of semisweet baking chocolate. You'll need a heavy-duty knife to carve the squares into bite-sized chunks — a chef's knife is perfect. Here's how to do the job safely: Place the tip of the blade on a cutting board with the edge just touching a chocolate square. Rest the palm of your "off" hand on the back of the blade, splaying your fingers and thumb upwards while applying gentle downward pressure on the blade tip. Now rock the blade back and forth, keeping the tip in place as you slice off pieces of chocolate. Continue till you've reduced the whole square to a collection of odd-shaped chunks, each one about the size of a kidney bean. (Don't worry about the irregular shapes. They add interest and enhance the texture of the cookies. Don't fret about any small curls and crumbs of chocolate, either. They'll all add to the flavor of the cookies.)

Be forewarned: These cookies are so delicious that you'll be lucky if any survive the cooling-off period. Better whip up two batches just to be on the safe side. And one more thing — when you're in the backcountry, remember that chocolate's appeal easily jumps the species barrier. No bear, raccoon, or skunk will turn down the offer of a meal on the house, and the smell of chocolate is as good as an invitation. Mice are crazy about chocolate, as well. Notwithstanding their diminutive size, their sharp little teeth can get through the heaviest waterproof bags in a hurry. So double-bag all your chocolate and hang your food bags high. Better yet, use an airtight hard-plastic food safe. Don't be surprised if the candy bar that you set down on a riverbank rock disappears between bites, either. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Chocolate has captivated the human imagination for many centuries. It's been employed as both a symbol of love and a weapon of war, branded an addictive drug and lauded as life-giving medicine. Having graced the tables of semi-divine kings and common laborers alike, it's also found its way into the packs of polar explorers and been carried to the summits of the world's highest peaks. Paddlers, too, have a passion for chocolate. That's why this food of the gods is now a canoeing and kayaking favorite.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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