Coconut Chocolate Cake

It was my birthday this week and I gave myself the same present I give myself every year. I baked a cake. This year it was a coconut chocolate cake, something I’ve been thinking about making for a while. Something else I have been thinking about is how to incorporate more coconut oil into my cooking. I have found that its subtle flavor adds a pleasant note to anything Asian, like stir-fries and curries. It also makes a good substitution for butter or vegetable oil in baking. Despite long held prejudice by many in the food industry, coconut oil has recently been found to be a superior oil to use in baking and cooking.

Our history with coconut goes back a long way, when we first started visiting Mexico. We once came close to becoming petty criminals when we purchased two coconuts with the tops lopped off, straws inserted, somewhere on a hot plaza in Mexico. As we wandered off, contentedly sucking on the cool, refreshing liquid, we were sternly called back by the vendor and informed that we had only purchased the coconut water, not its meat. We meekly stood in front of her and finished the water while she eyed us suspiciously, then handed the coconuts back to her. She, no doubt, had plans for her coconut meat, either to use in cocadas — coconut macaroons — or to sell it dried and shredded. We had had plans for the meat, too, but she effectively laid them to rest.

Back to my coconut chocolate cake. As it was my birthday and I didn’t want to spend all day in the kitchen, I used a quick chocolate cake recipe found on a can of Hershey’s cocoa some years back. But the recipe was only for inspiration. Sifted whole wheat flour was used instead of white flour, the sugar was halved, coconut oil stood in for vegetable oil, and dry, unsweetened coconut was added. The cake turned out moist, tender and redolent of coconut. There is no such thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to coconut.

Coconut Chocolate Cake

  • 1 cup (7 oz./200 g.) organic sugar
  • 1  3/4 cups (7.2 oz./218 g.) sifted whole wheat flour (save the bran for muffins)
  • 1 cup (2.5 oz./70 g.) dried, unsweetened organic coconut
  • 3/4 cup (2.6 oz./73 g.) powdered cocoa
  • 1  1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1  1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 free-range eggs
  • 1 cup (.24 ml.) organic milk
  • 1/2 cup (.12 ml.) melted organic coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 cup (.24 ml.) boiling water
  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. (180 deg. C.). Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans or one 13×9-inch pan.
  2. Stir together sugar, flour, coconut, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in bowl of standing mixer.
  3. Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla and beat on medium speed for two minutes. (If beating by hand, beat vigorously for four minutes.)
  4. Stir in boiling water. Batter will be very thin.
  5. Pour into prepared baking pan and bake 30-35 minutes for round pans or 35-40 minutes for 13×9-inch pan until thin knife inserted in center comes out clean. *
  6. Cool on racks for 10  minutes; remove from round pans. Rectangle cake can be left in pan.
  7. When completely cool, dust with powdered sugar.


  • *I under-bake chocolate cake by about five minutes for a very moist center and more intense chocolate flavor. If you under-bake, the knife blade will not be completely clean when the cake is tested for doneness.
  • Some organic ingredients are easy to find in Mexico. Others, like whole wheat flour, are non-existent. Use what is available and what you can afford if you are concerned, like me, about chemicals in our foods.
  • Coconut oil contains no cholesterol, but does have saturated fat. What nutritionists are learning is that not all saturated fat is the same. Some are better than others, and some are actually healthy, such as the lauric acid (saturated fat) in coconut oil. If you buy coconut oil, do not buy any with the letters RBD on the label. This stands for Refined, Bleached and Deodorized. This is nasty stuff, containing chemical residues that were used in processing. RBD oil has no coconut taste or aroma.

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Tamales de Chocolate por Día de la Candelaria

Chocolate Tamal, photographed outside under fading evening light

Tamales are always a major undertaking, especially for someone who reads tamal recipes, rather than actually makes them. I won’t name names, but let’s just say it had been about twenty years since I last made any by myself. Things had to change, and tomorrow being Día de la Candelaria was as good a reason as any to put my hands to the metate. I mean, KitchenAid mixer. I really don’t even own a metate, but greatly admire Lesley, blogger of The Mija Chronicles, for her metate work, when she probably has a food processor and KitchenAid sitting on her kitchen counter. I have been vicariously working on the metate with Lesley for months. And vicariously making tamales with other bloggers. That partly changed today, when I made Tamales de Chocolate. Sadly, I have yet to buy a metate.

Making  tamales took longer than I thought it would, but that is often the case when making a new recipe. First, the corn husks had to soak for two hours. The masa and chocolate mixture was chilled in the fridge for one hour for added tenderness. Then the filling and tying, then two hours to steam the tamales. By the time they were done, there was barely enough light outside for a few photos, but what a great way to start our evening with a steaming pot of chocolate tamales.

This recipe is adapted from one by Rick Bayless at Frontera Kitchens. Rick uses pulverized Mexican chocolate. I used cocoa powder, and coconut oil instead of butter. Russ just about flipped when he tasted one, saying it was better than the chocolate tamal I recently brought home from the market. He also thought a bit of Mexican crema spooned over a tamal would be nice and offered to buy a carton tomorrow. He’s such a sweetheart.

Tamales de Chocolate makes 12-15 tamales

  • 12-15 corn husks, plus extra for cutting into strips for tying
  • 2/3 cup (5 oz.) soft organic coconut oil or butter
  • 1 cup organic sugar (5.4 oz./150 grams)
  • 1/2 cup (1.8 oz./50 grams) cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) masa dough
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml.) organic milk or water
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) sesame seeds
  • 4 tablespoon (60 ml.) pumpkin seeds
  • 6 tablespoons (90 ml.) dried cranberries or raisins
  1. Cut off cupped end of corn husks, and cut other end to square it. Then cut into rectangles 6″ wide by 7″ long.
  2. Soak corn husks in hot water for 2 hours.
  3. In a standing mixer, blend coconut oil and sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Add cocoa powder, baking powder and salt and mix about 3 minutes.
  5. While mixer is running, add masa dough in small pieces and beat until completely incorporated, about 1-2 minutes.
  6. Add milk and beat until smooth. Batter should be the consistency of a thick cake batter, but still keep its shape when spooned.
  7. Refrigerate batter for 1 hour to increase tenderness (optional).
  8. If refrigerated, beat again until soft, adding additional milk if needed to form a soft batter.
  9. Stir in sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries.
  10. Place a collapsible vegetable steamer or other rack in the bottom of a tall pot. Pour in water up to the bottom of the steamer and heat pot.
  11. Drain corn husks.
  12. One at a time, place a husk in front of you, tapered end closest to you. Spoon about 1/4 cup of chocolate masa mixture onto the center of each husk, leaving 2″ border on the lower edge.
  13. Spread masa mixture into a rectangle, forming a 2″ across and 4″ top to bottom, leaving a 2″ border on the lower edge closest to you.
  14. Bring the sides together and roll around the tamal in the same direction. Fold up the bottom edge and tie with a strip of corn husk. The top of the tamal stays open.
  15. Stack tamales in the pot, standing on end, open end up. Cover and steam over medium-low heat for 2 hours,  replacing water if necessary.
  16. Serve warm.


Diana Kennedy says to place a penny in the bottom of the tamal pot. When it stops rattling, the pot needs more water. As she has made her share of tamales in her time, I followed her directions, wondering if pesos would work just as well. Not wanting to take a chance that pesos might be too heavy to bounce around, I used two pennies and they rattled nicely.

Día de la Candelaria is a religious and family celebration throughout Mexico, when tamales and atole are served to friends by the person who bit into the little doll in their piece of rosca on January’s Three King’s Day.

Tamal is the singular word in Spanish; tamales designate plural. There is no such word as tamale in Spanish.

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Champurrado, Drink of the Gods

If chocolate is considered food for the gods, champurrado, chocolate atole, must be their drink. February 2 is Día de la Candelaria when tamales and atole will be served. Las mujeres (the women) are already grinding cacao beans to make chocolate for champurrado. I’m taking the easy route, and using Ibarra chocolate, the sweet table chocolate used for making hot drinks.

Russ and I were touring the colonial city of San Luis Potosí when we first encountered champurrado on a plaza in front of the city’s baroque cathedral. This has now been many years ago, but the memory has stayed with me. I can’t remember my first taste of chocolate candy or my first bite of a juicy peach — I was too young. But champurrado came into my life when I was old enough to fully appreciate and remember its smooth chocolate richness. I’m sure I immediately had a second cup. I hope I did.

And somewhere in the mountains, when we were still traversing Mexico with our vintage Avion trailer, we found atole strainers made of woven horse hair in a village market. The hand-woven mesh of dark hair was stretched across rough, hand-cut hoops of pinewood and tied onto the hoops with fibers, and meant to strain out the larger bits of masa. This was a handcraft we had never seen before, nor have we since. We bought three graduated sizes of strainers, but I never use them. They are appreciated as a craft from a by-gone era. (They are in the background of the top photo.) Cheap, plastic strainers are now in every Mexican kitchen, including mine, and that is what I use when making atole.

Día de la Candelaria marks the halfway point between winter solstice and Spring equinox. It is the day tamales are served to friends by the person who found the little doll in their piece of Rosca de Reyes, Three Kings Bread, last month on El Dia de los Reyes, which marks the end of the Christmas holidays. If your slice of rosca hid the baby doll, you’re about to host a tamales and atole fiesta this week.

In the photo below, you will see whole cocao beans on the right. I went the easy route, and used chocolate tablets, meant for making hot chocolate. Pictured with the tablets is a ball of fresh masa, the same corn dough used to make tortillas.

Champurrado 4 servings

  • 5 oz. (142 grams) fresh masa
  • 6 cups (1.5 liters) water
  • 3 discs Ibarra chocolate, chopped
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 pinch of salt
  1. Crumble masa into water and whisk well until dissolved.
  2. Strain through a sieve into a pot, discarding solids.
  3. Heat the masa liquid in a pan over medium heat and stir until thickened, about 8 minutes.
  4. Add chopped chocolate and whisk until chocolate is dissolved.
  5. Serve hot.


Chocolate is made from seed pods of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). “Theobroma” means “food of the gods”. The Mayan people knew cacao had divine associations. It was used in their rituals and consumed in great quantities by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma.

Atole has sustained people of Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Taken as a nourishing gruel, it can be sweetened with piloncillo, an unrefined sugar, and sometimes fruit. For special fiestas, champurrado — chocolate atole — is served with tamales.

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Chocolate, slavery and our collective guilt

There is no delicate way to ask this question: Are we complicit in the use of slavery today to produce chocolate?

Hundreds of years ago, Mesoamerican slave labor harvested cocoa beans to supply European demand for chocolate. I recently came face to face with this horror from the past while visiting Chocolate: The Exhibit,at the Minnesota History Center.

This exhibit is on loan from the Chicago Field Museum. Upon returning home, I visited the Field Museum web page to learn more about chocolate (a taste I love so much, I think it should have its own place on the food pyramid). One thing led to another, as it does when you trip from link to link on the internet, and it wasn’t long before I was reading that history has repeated itself, that slave labor is being  used again to harvest cocoa beans, this time with child slaves, in parts of West Africa. And, to answer the question in the first paragraph, yes, we are complicit. You and I support this evil each time we purchase a chocolate product that is not labeled fair trade, free trade, slave-free or organic. Time to rethink my relationship with chocolate.

Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, where hundreds of thousands of children work the plantations, many of them as slaves, supply 70% of the world’s cocoa. (Certifying Blood Chocolate, June 25, 2010) Teen-age boys are sold into slavery by their impoverished parents. Others are lured by agents who scout for homeless children in Mali and then transport them to Cote d’Ivoire where they work in appalling conditions without the ability and resources to find their way home. (Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote d’Ivoire)

Consumer outrage over this situation forced many chocolate producers, including giants in the industry, such as Nestle, Mars and Kraft, to sign the non-binding Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol in 2001, which commits the companies to eliminate “… the worst of child labor. The Protocol did not commit the industry to ending all child labor in cocoa production, only the worst forms of it … the protocol was criticized by some, criticism which seems to have been validated by the fact that industry still has not delivered on farm level certification against the worst forms of child labour”. (Cocoa Protocol — Wikipedia)

Chocolate has deep roots in Mexican culture, history and cuisine (Oaxaca al Gusto, by Diana Kennedy)

Other chocolate producers have signed on with the Rain Forest Alliance to ensure the entire cocoa supply is “sustainably produced”. Critics say that RA standards aren’t severe enough to change the industry, and instead offer its members a way to look good for consumers without significantly changing business practices. (Certifying Blood Chocolate)

Compliance seems spotty and mixed. And confusing. Do the labels “organic” and “fair trade” mean slave free? According to Caroline Tiger, writing for the online magazine Salon, there is, apparently, another option that is slavery-free. “Organic chocolate, sold by such U.S. companies as Newman’s Own and Dagoba, is also ‘slave free,’ since organic farms are subject to their own independent monitoring system that checks labor practices.” And from Stop Chocolate Slavery , “It has also been noted that, as of now, they don’t grow cocoa beans organically in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), which is where the vast majority of the reports about chocolate slavery have come from. Finally, according to Camille Littlejohn of Newman’s Own Organics, the limited supply of certified organic cocoa ensures that organic cocoa farmers receive a premium price. So, apparently, organic is also okay”.

After writing this, I eyed my chocolate stash with a wary eye. Hershey’s cocoa. Trader Joe’s bittersweet chocolate. My old standby, Mexican Ibarra chocolate. Surely the artisanal chocolate bars from B.T. McElrath Chocolatier in Minneapolis were untainted, but why was there no label on the packaging assuring the buyer of free trade, fair trade, organic, anything?

Back to the web pages, where I read that B.T. McElrath “support(s) sustainable agriculture by sourcing chocolate products with UTZ Certified Sustainability Program and socially responsible business practices.” So why not state “Free Trade” on the label?

UTZ is not without its critics. It requires its members to follow national laws regarding renumeration of employees. If a country, such as Cote d’Ivoire, has poor or non-existent laws regarding child labor and adult employment, but the laws, such as they are, are followed, UTZ is satisfied. (Wikipedia)

Hershey has an impressive web page devoted to explaining their social commitment. “Building on Milton Hershey’s legacy of commitment to consumers, community and children, we provide high-quality Hershey products while conducting our business in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable manner.” Again, there is nothing on the cocoa can label to indicate free trade or their social responsibility. Perhaps it is because Hershey is not as committed as it claims to be. An article by John Robbins in the Huffington Report, dated as recently as September 2010, states “this carefully researched report pointed out that the Hershey company lags well behind its competitors in taking responsibility for the impact the company is having on the local communities from which it sources cocoa around the world … While Hershey’s primary competitors have at least taken steps to reduce or eliminate slavery and other forms of abusive child labor from their chocolate supply chains, Hershey has done almost nothing”. (Huffinton Report)

My 500-gram bar of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate, measuring almost 11″ by 5″, has all the room in the world to state something about its free trade commitment, if it has one. The package is happy to tell me the chocolate bars are “made exclusively for Trader Joe’s in a small town outside of Antwerp by confectionery artisans”, but nothing about their social commitment. Nothing about being slave free. Perhaps the S word is too dirty to mention, even in a positive context, if Trader Joe’s has anything positive to say.

It seems that if a company is taking the high road by certifying that all their chocolate is sourced from free trade growers, they would want to announce this fact. Is the absence of this information because their chocolate is not 100% fair trade, therefore the fair trade label is only on a few chocolate items, if any? Is an agreement with the Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol, which lacks any enforcement, enough to make them look good without really changing anything?

I would love to know that there is more up-to-date information, that the above mentioned companies — and the hundreds of other companies not discussed here — are now in 100% compliance with the Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol. I would love to be corrected by more current information. I want to be corrected and told that blood chocolate is a thing of the past. Sadly, I can’t find anything more current that disputes my conclusions. Bittersweet, indeed.

What You Can Do:

  • Be a responsible buyer. Check  for fair trade or organic labels.
  • Call or write the producer and ask tough questions. Demand slave free chocolate.
  • Boycott companies that have no commitment to slave free chocolate.
  • Sign a petition telling Hershey to shift toward Fair Trade certified cocoa
  • Spread the word.

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Chocolate: The Exhibition

Chocolate: The Exhibition, is showing now until January 2 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. While visiting family in Minneapolis, I was able to visit this exhibit, on loan from the Field Museum in Chicago. This is a very well assembled presentation, both educational and entertaining. It begins with the history of cocao, starting with its Aztec origins, follows chocolate’s introduction to Europe by the Spaniards, explains its connection with the slave trade, and ends with a well detailed display of commercial chocolate candy production.

Chocolate making tools, historical and modern, are on display. I smiled to see a molinillo, almost identical to the two I brought from Mexico as gifts. This ancient tool, used for hundreds of years to foam hot chocolate, is still widely used in Mexico today. The molinillo on display is labeled a “stirrer”, which I think is a misnomer. When using a molinillo, a whisking action, not a stirring action, is employed to create foam and bubbles.

Two more molinillos are in the case pictured below, with the deep, clay pots used for foaming chocolate drinks. Molinillos, hand carved with their jangly rings from a single piece of wood, are still sold in Mexican markets and even in some modern supermercados.

I thought I already knew a lot about chocolate, but I was surprised to learn about its connection to slavery. The Aztecs had yet to discover sugar and drank their chocolate bitter, seasoned with chiles and other spices, but the Europeans added sugar and the new drink became a favorite.  As this new taste swept through Europe, a great demand for cocao beans and cane sugar grew. The dark side to this story is that a huge pool of slave labor was required to supply Europe with chocolate and sugar. Ironically, the first people pressed into slavery to harvest great quantities of cocao beans and sugar cane were Mesoamericans, who labored from the early 16th. until the late 18th. century to supply European demand.

I regret including such a negative note about one of my favorite foods, but I would be amiss to ignore the fact that much of today’s chocolate is still produced from cocao beans harvested by children, literally working as slaves. This is a dirty secret of the chocolate industry, one swept under the rug as profits trump ethics. Buy chocolate labeled “Fair Trade” to insure you are not participating in a commerce that exploits slave workers. To see a list of companies producing fair trade and organic chocolate, and to learn more about exploitation of cocao workers, read Stop Chocolate Slavery.

(Update: For more on this topic, see my more recent article , Chocolate, Slavery and our Collective Guilt.)

After writing this, I’m ready to eat chocolate. Thank goodness I have four bars of B.T. McElrath chocolate, handcrafted chocolate from Minneapolis. Thank goodness it is fair trade chocolate. I don’t know which bar I like best: Chile Limón, Dark Chocolate or Salty Dog, with a pop of salt crystals in each bite.

Please describe the photo

Chocolate: The Exhibition will be on on display through January 2, 2011, at the  Minnesota History Center, located at 345 Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for children. Phone: 651-259-3000.


More reading:

History of Chocolate (Field Museum)

How to Foam Hot Chocolate with a Molinillo