Cocoa is a surprisingly versatile stand-by and it pays to know what you're getting. Cocoa powder, fermented, dried and roasted cacao beans, ground into a fine powder, comes in several forms, the two most common being natural cocoa and Dutch-process cocoa. Natural cocoa is light in colour with high acidity, while Dutch-process cocoa has been through a washing process, using a potassium carbonate solution, which alkalises it, producing a mellow, earthy flavour and dark colour. We prefer Dutch-process cocoa for the complexity of flavour it adds to dishes and that rich hue.
Of course, cocoa comes into its own in sweets, but it also adds deep flavour to savoury dishes, too. It's a natural match for rich meats such as venison and a popular addition to Mexican mole.
Dutch-process cocoa is available from delicatessens and specialty food shops. It's a bit pricier than its supermarket cousin, but its intensity means a little bit goes a lot further.
Chocolate self-saucing pud
Preheat oven to 180C. Sieve 130gm plain flour, 2½ tbsp Dutch-process cocoa and 1 tsp baking powder into a bowl, add 80gm caster sugar and a pinch of salt, and stir to combine. Add 125ml (1/2 cup) milk, 50gm melted butter and 1 egg, mix to a smooth batter, then spoon into a buttered 1-litre ovenproof dish and smooth top. Whisk 220gm brown sugar, 2½ tbsp sieved Dutch-process cocoa and 250ml boiling water in a bowl, pour carefully over batter and bake until centre springs back when pressed (20-25 minutes). Serve with ice-cream or cream.
Spice-rubbed pork ribs
Combine 35gm (1/3 cup) cocoa in a bowl with 60gm brown sugar, 2 tsp ground chilli, 2 tsp smoked paprika, 1 tsp ground ginger and 2 tsp salt. Add 1 tbsp Dijon mustard and coat 2 racks of pork ribs (2.8kg) with rub. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, removing from the fridge an hour before cooking. Preheat oven to 140C, place ribs in a roasting pan and roast, turning occasionally, until tender (40-45 minutes), then place on a wire rack over a baking tray. Increase oven to 220C and roast ribs, turning once or twice, until browned (15-20 minutes).Serve with lime wedges and slaw.
Combine 150ml espresso in a jug with 50ml each Marsala and golden rum. Whisk 4 egg yolks, 2 tbsp caster sugar and 1 tbsp Marsala in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water until thick and pale (3-4 minutes). Whisk 300gm mascarpone and 100ml pouring cream in a bowl until smooth, then fold in egg yolk mixture. Spoon a little mascarpone mixture into glasses and dust with cocoa. Dip savoiardi biscuits (you'll need about 8) into coffee mixture, then break into pieces to fit into glasses, forming a layer over mascarpone. Repeat layering, finishing with mascarpone and a dusting of cocoa. Refrigerate overnight and serve freshly dusted with cocoa.
Toast 2 torn corn tortillas and 2 tbsp pumpkin seeds in a dry frying pan over medium-high heat until evenly browned (2-3 minutes), then process in a food processor with 1 chopped Spanish onion, 2 chopped long red chillies and 2 garlic cloves to a paste. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, add onion mixture, and sauté until tender (4-5 minutes), then add 2 tsp each ground cumin, ground coriander and ground pasilla chilli, and 2 cinnamon quills. Fry until fragrant (1 minute), then add 250ml chicken stock, 200ml tomato polpa and 1 finely chopped chipotle chilli in adobo, and bring to a simmer. Add 8 skinless chicken thigh fillets, season to taste, cover with a lid, reduce heat to low and simmer until chicken is tender (6-8 minutes). Remove chicken from pan and set aside. When cool enough to handle, coarsely shred meat. Meanwhile, add 2 tbsp Dutch-process cocoa to pan, simmer until sauce thickens and reduces slightly (10-15 minutes), then return meat to pan, heat through, check seasoning and serve with steamed rice, coriander, crumbled feta and lime wedges.
Hot tip + Dutch-process cocoa will keep in an airtight jar in the pantry for up to three years. Be sure to always sieve it before use, whether for sweet or savoury dishes, or it will clump together.