While scrolling through Instagram one day, I received a targeted ad for a tropical fruit box. I'd recently been seeing TikToks of various influencers trying different tropical fruits, and I'd been a longtime follower of Kirsten Titus, an influencer who regularly cuts fruit on TikTok from outside her home in Hawaii. Needless to say, I was influenced, and I ordered a four-month tropical fruit subscription almost immediately.
When the box arrived, I was excited to see what I got. I wanted to try all the new fruits and was hoping for my favorite — the passion fruit. But what I didn't expect was a cacao pod. My friend came over for a fruit night, and after cutting into the dragon fruit, persimmon, guava, and more, we decided to tackle the cacao. I cut into it easily and pulled out a slimy white bean. I knew the seeds alone were edible, so I popped one into my mouth, my face changing shape as the slightly sour, gooey outside dissolved. I bit into the bitter cacao underneath and made another face at the strong, unpleasant flavor.
I certainly wasn't going to eat anymore, but I also didn't want the seeds to go to waste. So there was only one logical next step: learn to make chocolate.
"How hard could it be?" I thought.
To my dismay, it was much, much harder than I could have imagined. I scrolled through recipe after recipe, and all of the instructions seemed like something I couldn't scrape together from my tiny Brooklyn apartment. Most recipes required wrapping the seeds in banana leaves and letting them ferment in the sun for days. Unfortunately, like most people in a city, I don't have a backyard or a place to let the seeds ferment in the sun. Eventually, though, I found a recipe that included an alternate means of fermentation: using a dehydrator. Luckily, I already owned a dehydrator from another food project upon which I had recently embarked.
To ferment cacao beans with a dehydrator, simply lay the beans out across the tray, and set the dehydrator to 104 degrees fahrenheit. Most recipes recommend five to 10 days of fermentation, during which time the beige-colored beans are supposed to turn a pink or reddish brown. I left my beans on the tray for the full 10 days, mainly because they never really changed color. Instead, they dried up and hardened, looking more like pistachios than cacao. Already, things weren't going perfectly, but I hadn't technically done anything wrong, so I just continued on.
The next step of the chocolate making process involves roasting the beans, which helps to separate the outer husk, or shell, from the inner bean, also known as the cacao nibs. So I laid the beans out on a tray and stuck them in the oven at 250 degrees for about 15 minutes. If you're more experienced at chocolate-making, you can experiment with the time and temperature, depending on what type of chocolate roast you want (light, medium, or dark), but I decided to keep it simple, stick to one temperature, and pull the beans out after the allotted time. Soon enough, my kitchen started to smell vaguely like chocolate, and I thought, "Okay, I'm doing something right."
"It had been 10 days, and all I had to show for it were bitter chocolate nibs and bleeding hands."
Once the 15 minutes were up, it was time to remove the shells. For chocolate sold commercially, this step is usually completed by machine, but at home, my hands would have to do the job. Supposedly, roasting makes it easier to peel the shells off, and it's not that the shells were necessarily difficult to get off, but they weren't easy, either. After fermenting and roasting, the cacao shells had sharp, jagged edges, and I had to use my fingernails to peel them off the nibs, and before I knew it, my hands were covered in little cuts, and tiny pieces of cacao were stuck under my nails, mixed in with bits of blood. I was starting to think maybe this whole chocolate thing wasn't worth the effort. After all, it had been 10 days, and all I had to show for it were bitter chocolate nibs and bleeding hands. But I had come this far, so I wasn't giving up just yet.
I then broke the nibs up even more, just by crushing them with my hands. They were already pretty brittle, so this step was easy. The next step of the chocolate process is typically done with a chocolate grinder, but who even owns a chocolate grinder? Instead, I had to substitute the chocolate grinder with a high-speed blender I borrowed from a friend.
However, if I were to just blend the beans together as they were, then I would have ended up with only a powder. In commercial chocolate production, they have the machinery to separate the cacao butter from the solids. However, for the average person at home, that's not always possible, and instead, the nibs need to be blended with cacao butter, which I simply bought at a grocery store for more than the price of a bar of chocolate.
Now, exactly how much cacao butter you'll need is anybody's guess. I ended up pouring all of the cacao nibs into the blender, slowly adding cacao butter as needed. When the powder looked slightly wet, I transferred it to the microwave for 30 seconds, which is supposed to help extract the cacao butter from the nibs. Then, I put it back in the blender and continued blending, slowly adding more cacao butter until the powder began to turn into more of a paste, and I continued adding cacao butter until there was no powder left.
Then, it's time to add powdered sugar, and because I wanted milk chocolate, condensed milk as well. This also involved some guesswork. Essentially, the amount of sugar and milk you use depends on your own personal preference. I personally love sweet, sweet milk chocolate, so I added a lot of sugar and milk, taking a little taste with each addition.
From there, it was time to manually grind the chocolate using a mortar and pestle. And of course, tasting and adding more sugar and milk as needed. Eventually, my weak, skinny arms were sore from grinding for what felt like hours, but was probably only 15 to 20 minutes, trying to make the chocolate as smooth as possible, knowing it would never be as smooth as store-bought chocolate. And after adding what felt like an exorbitant amount of sugar and milk and still feeling like the chocolate was neither sweet nor milky enough, I just gave up and moved onto the next step. This wouldn't be perfect, I accepted. I should have realized that back when my hands were bleeding.
At this point, some people might choose to temper the chocolate, which is a complicated process of strategically raising and lowering the temperature of the chocolate to form a crystal structure that is shiny, snaps easily, and holds its shape at room temperature. But my arms were tired, and I had dried blood under my fingernails, unable to fathom continuing on to another complicated task, so I simply skipped that step and molded the chocolate using an ice cube tray. I poured the chocolate from the mortar and pestle into the tray and allowed it to set at room temperature. From there, I collapsed onto my couch, vowing never to make chocolate again.
And a couple hours later, my homemade chocolate was ready to taste! All I can say is, I definitely made chocolate. But it didn't taste as good as any of the fancy chocolates you can get at the grocery store, and the consistency wasn't as smooth, and in the end, I spent more money on ingredients (powdered sugar, condensed milk, cacao butter, and the cacao pod itself) than I would have on a chocolate bar. So will I be doing it again? Absolutely not. But if anyone else wants to give it a try, the recipe is below.
1 cacao pod
- Extract the cacao beans. Cut open your cacao pod and pull out and separate the beans.
- Ferment the cacao beans. Using a dehydrator, place the beans evenly across the trays. Set the dehydrator to 104 degrees fahrenheit, and allow the beans to ferment for 5-10 days. They allegedly should change to a pink/reddish brown color, although mine did not.
- Roast the beans. Remove the beans from the dehydrator after 5-10 days, and place them evenly on a tray, putting them in the oven at 250 degrees, for 15-20 minutes.
- Remove the shells. Remove the beans from the oven, letting them cool. Then peel the shells off of the beans with your hands, removing the cacao nibs. Then, crush the cacao nibs using either your hands or a rolling pin.
- Blend the beans. If you don't have a chocolate grinder, place the crushed up beans in a blender. Blend the beans at high speed, adding small pieces of cacao butter until the beans look slightly wet.
- Microwave the powder. Remove the powder from the blender, and place in the microwave for 20-30 seconds.
- Continue blending and adding ingredients. Place the powder back in the blender, and continue blending. If the powder is not turning into a paste, continue adding cacao butter until you have a chocolate paste. Then, add powdered sugar and condensed milk to taste. Keep blending, and taste the chocolate every five minutes or so, determining whether you want more sugar and/or milk.
- Remove the chocolate paste from the blender, and manually grind in a mortar and pestle until smooth. Add more powdered sugar and/or condensed milk if needed, depending on how you want the chocolate to taste.
- Now, you can either temper the chocolate or skip ahead to the molding process. To mold the chocolate, place the chocolate in a mold of your choice, tapping it against your counter or table to help remove air bubbles. Allow the chocolate to set at room temperature. Store in the fridge.