Story by Christine Burns Rudalevige | Photographs by Dominic Perri
The cacao is one evergreen tree not likely to be at home in the Pioneer Valley anytime soon. It greatly prefers the warmer climes of Central and South America and West Africa, which don’t experience Western Massachusetts wintertime weather.
But that is not to say that cocoa powder and full-blown chocolate bars, chips, chunks, and shavings can’t be paired up with a host of local ingredients in heartwarming chocolate treats exchanged between lovers, family members, and friends.
Fresh local eggs and dairy are two obvious inclusions in chocolate-heavy baked goods. But fruits like apples, pears, and dried plums (previously known as prunes) and hearty vegetables like beets and winter squash can be cooked, puréed, and stirred into batters and bases to add both moisture and nutrition to cakes, muffins, and brownies without changing the rich chocolaty flavor. These additives also allow bakers to cut back a little bit of the fat, if that is a goal, without much notice taken by the eater.
Baker Laura Puchalski, owner of the 2nd Street Baking Co. in Turners Falls, says that when you are looking to slip a little extra nutritional love into a chocolate treat, it is imperative that the cocoa powder and chocolate you use be of high quality. She routinely turns to many of the Fair Trade options widely available in both health food and grocery stores in the Pioneer Valley.
Cookbook author Virginia Willis, who splits her time between homes in Hatfield and Atlanta, says adding buttermilk to chocolate desserts tends to heighten their flavor due to buttermilk’s slightly acidic demeanor. The constitution of buttermilk has changed: Once simply the liquid left over when butter was made from cultured cream, today’s store-bought version is low-fat milk infused with a culture that sours and slightly thickens it.
Many baking recipes call for only a cup of buttermilk, which is typically sold in quart containers. To make a quick buttermilk substitute from local milk you’ve already bought from market, simply add 1 teaspoon of white vinegar to 1 cup of low-fat or whole milk.
Each of the following recipes—contributed by Puchalski; Willis; Vermont-based food writer, recipe developer, and photographer Katie Webster; and myself—introduces an ingredient or two—some local, some a bit more foreign, but all to help address dietary issues—that can help you put just a little bit more love into this year’s holiday treats along with the chocolate.
Cream Cheese Kissed Red Velvet Mini Cupcakes
Chef, food stylist, and cookbook author (and part-time Hatfield resident) Virginia Willis is a recent convert to using vibrant local beets as the coloring agent for her Red Velvet cakes and cupcakes. They also
contribute to the very moist crumb on these little sweets.
Avocado Chocolate Pudding with Whipped Coconut Cream
Baker Laura Puchalski, owner of the 2nd Street Baking Co. in Turners Falls, developed this recipe to provide vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free eaters with a little chocolate love. Bakers can adapt the type of milk, sweetener, and flavoring to their dietary needs and tastes. She recommends using high-quality Fair Trade cocoa powder for the pudding, and suggests getting the can of coconut milk––as well as the bowl you’ll be whipping it up in––as cold as possible in order to get the best whipped coconut cream.
Claire’s Cream Cheese Brownies
In Virginia Willis’s new cookbook called Lighten Up, Y’all (Ten Speed Press, March 2015), she gives credit to French-trained pastry chef Claire Perez for helping her build the recipe for these dark, rich, knock-your-socks-off chocolate brownies. Willis likes to call these “grown woman” brownies, and advises to make them for yourself and your loved ones rather than the next PTA meeting. The secret ingredients are local applesauce and buttermilk.
Fiber-Filled Flourless Chocolate Torte
Katie Webster is a food writer, recipe developer, and photographer who focuses on seasonal, healthy eating in the Burlington, Vermont, area. She eats chocolate every single day. With this recipe, she sneaks in a cup of pitted prunes to add both moisture and fiber to this dense torte. You really only notice the chocolate. Webster blogs at HealthySeasonalRecipes.com and is working on her first cookbook: It’s about cooking sweet and savory dishes with maple syrup.
Triple Chocolate Winter Squash Muffins
When I ask my 16-year-old son if he liked the newest version of chocolate chip muffins I’d made him and his sister for breakfast, he typically grunts, “Yes.” But that affirmation is always followed by an accusation: “Why? What did you slip into them this time?”
He knows me well. There is a cup of puréed winter squash in these. You can use butternut, acorn or blue Hubbard. I prefer the latter, and my son doesn’t even notice, really.
Christine Burns Rudalevige grew up in Berkshire County but currently calls Maine home. There, she writes about sustainably sourced foods and develops and tests recipes that use them. Contact her at email@example.com.