As I’ve previously mentioned on the ol’ blog, my parents adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet last December and haven’t stopped raving about how physically fantastic they feel or the delicious food they enjoy since. (Side Note: While my mom is completely vegan as far as I can tell, I don’t refer to my father as such since he occasionally eats meat at restaurants when not accompanied by me). Soon after I returned home for my last two weeks of summer break, we entered a discussion about the health detriments of sugar and how it has become a toxic, addictive substance in the modern world. My father, though he now tremendously enjoys the Stevia that replaces the sugar in his morning coffee, still admits to missing a particular processed, sugary (and quite un-vegan) product: Reese’s peanut butter cups.
The aficionado of healthy cooking that I consider myself, I decided to provide my father with a belated, homemade birthday gift of healthy, refined sugar-free, completely vegan chocolate-peanut butter cups. Adapting this recipe from Sift, Stir, and Savor, I experienced fabulous results—my father enjoyed nearly all of the cups in a mere two days—and found the process of making them surprisingly simple, not to mention fun.
Thus, when confronted with the urge to whip up a batch of goodies for a beloved neighbor with whom I had not connected in a long while, I returned to the stuffed chocolate cup model, opting to create a version with a fruity, creamy center of farmers market blackberries and cashews, flavored with one of my all-time favorite herbs: lavender.
However, I should explain that these blackberry-lavender cream chocolate cups—as well as the peanut butter cups I made for my father—contain no actual cocoa. Rather, the “chocolate” in these cups comes from carob powder, produced from the pod of a tree that grows along the Mediterranean Sea. Though many choose carob over chocolate in order to avoid caffeine, I personally switched to using carob powder for all my chocolatey culinary ventures after I learned of the child slavery behind most of the chocolate sold today.
To quote (…myself) from an article that I wrote for my campus newspaper this past Valentine’s Day: “The chocolate bars and cocoa powder that we frequently encounter originate from the cacao bean—a large, pod-like seed that grows on the Theobroma cacao tree, which grows primarily in the tropical climates of West Africa and Latin America. Supplying 75 percent of the world’s cocoa market, two West African countries—Ghana and the Ivory Coast—have met the demands of a growing chocolate industry by resorting to the use of child labor to maintain competitive prices in a market of cheap cocoa. Often sold by their own relatives to traffickers or farm owners, the intensely impoverished children of West Africa face life-threatening work environments and educational deprivation upon entering the cocoa harvesting industry. Working from dawn until dusk, children climb to the tops of the cocoa trees, hack at the beans with a machete—which often results in slashes to the child’s appendages—and drag human-sized sacks of the pods through the forest. In addition, children as young as 12 years old spray the cacao trees with hazardous agricultural chemicals without donning protective equipment. Subsisting on corn paste and bananas, child laborers frequently lack access to portable water and may live in such conditions for months or even years, exposed to regular beatings and locked in their rooms at night to prevent them from escaping.
“Recently, a handful of commendable organizations and journalists have worked to reveal the widespread use of child labor and slavery on West African cocoa farms, leading to an increase in secrecy on the part of the chocolate industry. Many major companies that offer chocolate products—including Clif Bar, Trader Joe’s and Vosges—refuse to disclose from which regions they source their cocoa, while in 2010 authorities of the Ivory Coast government detained three journalists who published a newspaper article regarding government corruption related to the cocoa industry.
“Luckily, we can still enjoy truffles and other chocolatey goodies by employing a bit of mindfulness when choosing which cocoa products to purchase. While buying any chocolate sourced from West Africa essentially guarantees the unintended support of child labor, choosing cocoa grown in Latin America—where a majority of organic cocoa originates—results in less of a chance of backing a corrupt industry.
“However, even many organic and Certified Fair Trade chocolate products have been documented to employ exploitative labor, and for this reason, the only current reliable list of truly ethical chocolate companies comes from a non-profit organization called the Food Empowerment Project (FEP). Committed FEP volunteers contact virtually every company that implements chocolate in their products to inquire as to from where they source their cocoa, and if they provide a satisfactory answer, FEP features them on their ‘chocolate we feel comfortable recommending’ list. Including such companies as Whole Foods, Divine, Endangered Species, Equal Exchange, Nature’s Path, and Taza, the list also highly recommends against purchasing chocolate from Hershey, Kirkland and Scharffen Berger.”
While I completely trust the FEP’s list of reliable chocolate companies and truly admire their work, I find that abstaining from chocolate altogether—in favor of easy-to-find carob—proves easier than sifting through every chocolate product to verify its origins (kind of like how choosing veganism proves easier than choosing animal products raised under arbitrary guidelines of “humane-ness”). For me, switching entirely to carob sacrifices none of the full-flavored decadence of chocolate, especially when that decadence coats an equally succulent filling of cashews, blackberries, and lavender. Now, onto that recipe, hmm?
Blackberry-Lavender Cream Chocolate Cups—Raw, Soy Free, Low Sodium.
Makes about 9 cups.
1/2 cup cashews, soaked at least 1 hour (overnight is best)
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup blackberries, fresh or frozen
1 tbsp coconut oil, melted
2 tsp maple syrup or agave
1 tsp dried culinary lavender
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
1/4 cup carob powder
1-2 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
Place a chocolate mold, mini muffin tin, or other small cup-shaped vessel into the freezer.
In a high-speed blender, combine the first six ingredients (soaked cashews through lavender) and puree until smooth. Refrigerate for 30 minutes while you prepare the carob coating.
In a small bowl, combine, the last four ingredients (coconut oil through vanilla extract). Remove the chocolate mold from the freezer and, using a pastry brush, coat the bottom and sides of each cup with the carob mixture. Place the mold back into the freezer and allow to harden for about 2-5 minutes. Repeat the coating and freezing procedure two more times.
Remove the blackberry-cashew mixture from the refrigerator and the carob cups from the freezer. Spoon about a tablespoon of the cashew mixture into each carob cup, then coat the top of each cup with half of the remaining carob mixture. Place the cups in the freezer for another 2-5 minutes, then coat the tops of each cup again with the rest of the carob mixture. Place in the freezer once more to completely harden, then store in the refrigerator until ready to eat.
Until next time, Ali.