As a chef and Industrial Engineer, I am constantly trying to increase efficiency in the kitchen. This involves decreasing hands on time, reducing error (scorching burning etc.) and increasing consistency. I decided to explore the possibilities of applying sous vide technology to recipes from early colonial Mexico and earlier pre Columbian eras. The goal was to make these recipes easier for a modern cook to prepare without losing any of the authentic flavors.
Sous Vide is a process whereby very precise low cooking temperatures are applied to items in a vacuum-sealed pouch. Pioneered in France in the 1960s and due to an abundance of inexpensive home equipment has become quite common in the US and Europe.
The equipment involved in sous vide is quite simple. You need three things: a container to hold water, a device to heat and circulate the water, and a bag to put the food in. There are several sous vide devices available to the home cook all priced below $150. The circulator is a combination of an heating element, a temperature controller and an impeller used to circulate the water bath and ensure even temperature throughout the food. Any container that holds more water by volume than the volume of the food you wish to cook will work. People use coolers, food storage containers and regular stockpots. Ziploc freezer bags work fine to hold food, as do any one of the various vacuum sealers or chamber vacuums. The only other modern tool I used was an immersion blender, the modern version of Abuela’s Molinillo.
The three recipes I am going to replicate are: chocolate grits, Champurrado, and the tempering of chocolate. Nixtamalization of corn, processing with alkali from ashes, was practiced by early Mayan and Aztec cultures. We also know they cultivated chocolate to drink and grew chilis Based on these facts, and the fact that they used finely ground corn masa and chocolate as a drink, I surmise that they would have used coarser ground corn and chocolate in a more porridge like consistency. Therefore, my first recipe is for chocolate grits. I do not believe it a stretch to imagine a chef in a household of some means making this concoction considering the number of pictures we have of cacao, maize and chilies. I have used grits in this instance, but virtually any coarseness of corn meal from Masa to creamed corn would work with only minor modifications. This recipe includes only ingredients available to pre Columbian people.
The Champurrado recipe comes from the New Taste of Chocolate book by Maricel Presilla. Champurrado means mixed drink.. A traditional post-colonial drink frequently combines elements of both old world and new world elements. The variations on this drink are numerous with literally dozens of YouTube videos describing different “authentic” versions. Corn masa, sugar, chocolate and milk are ubiquitous as the base; the spices often include both old world and new world.
Finally, I have included a technique for tempering chocolate using sous vide. This is a common technique in professional settings, but outside of those circles it is little known with home cooks often using a microwave. With the accessibility of home based sous vide equipment this technique needs to be more widely disseminated as it reduces waste, cuts down on cleanup and extends the time a cook has to use the chocolate.
Pre-Columbian Grits and Cacao:
2 Cups Water
½ Cup Grits
Pinch of salt
1 Tablespoon coarsely ground cacao. I used a small bowl and the butt end of a knife to grind up some Criolla Cacao beans I procured from a chocolatier in Indianapolis.
1 Tablespoon of honey, the easiest sweetener I could find that would be historically correct
1 Teaspoon ground chili.
All the ingredients went into a sous vide bag, I cooked the mixture for three hours at 185 degrees. The chili and chocolate disintegrated and mixed with the water, the corn turned very soft but held its shape.
While warm, this recipe has the consistency of southern style grits and tasted remarkably like the cocoa wheat cereal. The result was not bitter at all, more nutty and sweet than anything else and the honey could easily have been halved. It was incredibly filling and a mere 1/3 of a cup felt like a large portion.
Once cold this mixture had the texture and much the same flavor as chocolate no bake cookies. It is not hard to imagine this mixture being rolled into balls and used as travel food.
For Champurrado combine:
3/4 cups masa
1 cups water
4 cups milk
3 sticks cinnamon
4 star anise pods
1 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cups brown loaf sugar, finely ground
3 ounces good quality 70-75% chocolate
Put all this in a large plastic bag. Put in a water bath at 180 degrees for 2 or 3 hours. Pull the bag out and squeeze it a bit to agitate every 20-30 minutes. Pour into serving container, remove spices with slotted spoon or tongs and hit it with an immersion blender to create foam and ensure complete mixing of melted chocolate. Less than 10 minutes total hands on time and very forgiving.
This mixture turned out very thick and creamy and held a lot of air, not unlike chocolate flavored whipped cream. Ironically, perhaps because of the milk or perhaps because of the molasses content of the brown sugar it was not particularly sweet.
This drink was quite robust and filling, could easily be used as a meal replacement and the sous vide machine coupled with the immersion blender made the process fast and easy with little cleanup, but certainly lacked the romance of using an antique molinillo.
My final project was using Sous Vide to temper chocolate to use in recipes or decorations. The process went like this:
Vacuum seal chocolate buttons in a bag
Heat to 115 in order to totally melt the chocolate, it took about five minutes and I “kneaded” the bag three times to ensure evenness.
I then lowered the water temperature to 80 degrees and held the chocolate there for five minutes so as to reach equilibrium
The final step was to raise the chocolate to 90 degrees so that the crystals could align. Again I kneaded the bag a few times while holding.
The chocolate came out perfectly tempered, furthermore the bag could be kept in the 90 degree water for several hours if one were decorating a large item or many smaller items.
In conclusion my goal was to use the ingredients available in Mesoamerican over several centuries but apply modern cooking techniques to remove, to what extent was possible, the technical aspects of cooking, which is much harder to ascertain than the ingredients. Sous vide gives the same results as traditional cooking methods but removes the specialized skill set of the cooking, which may have not passed on through the generations.
The biggest surprise to me was the taste of the pre Columbian chocolate chili corn concoction. This preparation would not taste out of place at a brunch at an expensive hotel or restaurant.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods”. Harvard University, AAAS E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1985. Print.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.