Chile and chocolate. That’s an ancient Mexican tradition, right? Well, not exactly. Yes, both chiles and cocoa beans come from Mexico, but the cocoa drink of the Aztec court bears little resemblance to what we think of today as chocolate. The savory, spiced chocolate drink favored by Moctezuma, made by grinding up the bitter beans and adding spices, was more like a rich, aromatic black coffee with nothing sweet about it. It was only after cocoa beans traveled the world (to Europe via the Spaniards) that they were transformed into the chocolate we know today.
Probably the most well-known savory dish showcasing the chile and sweet chocolate combination is the rich, dark sauce known as mole (pronounced MOH-lay). A complex concoction of Old World and New World ingredients, mole has become codified over the past few centuries as Mexico’s national dish.
On the dessert side, I’ve never seen a chile-spiked chocolate sweet made by any of the traditional producers in Mexico. But I do see it in contemporary shops and kitchens—and I love it. A little chile adds a wondrous warmth to something already captivating. For example, chipotle (with a little mezcal) gives chocolate truffles a smoky smolder that makes them an adults-only treat, while the luxurious chocolate sauce deliciously demonstrates how the earthy-fruity flavor of an ancho chile echoes the fruity flavors we love in chocolate. Similarly, a chocolate and pumpkin-seed cake made with candied anchos reminds us that chiles are botanically a fruit and can add unexpected dimension (not just heat) to whatever dish they grace, especially those with chocolate in them, too.