It’s a whole new ball game

Everybody knows Tu Bishvat is all about fruits, but why not roll some cocoa into the mix? After all, chocolate does grow on trees.

chocolate balls 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chocolate balls 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My niece, Jerusalemite Liora Kahn, and I did a Tu Bishvat presentation together this month at Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica, California, a cooking demonstration combined with a Hebrew lesson. Instead of concentrating only on the holiday’s customary dried fruit, we used them to make sweet coconut-coated chocolate balls. After all, chocolate does grow on trees. When I mention this fact, children often look surprised. It reminds me of when my mother explained to me that milk comes from a cow. Children, and some adults as well, are used to thinking of chocolate as a manufactured product but, like wine, which begins on a vine, how it’s treated greatly affects its taste.
I have been experimenting with an excellent, unsweetened form of chocolate cacao paste made of crushed cacao beans. When I inquired why its aroma and flavor were superior to unsweetened baking chocolate, Wes Crain, vice president of Navitas Naturals, explained that it’s because it’s organic and made from cold- milled cacao beans, a process that reminds me of cold-pressing olives.
Dried apricots match beautifully with chocolate, and so we chose them for our Tu Bishvat sweet. Liora pointed out that the word for apricots in Hebrew, mishmesh, is easy to remember because it contains the word shemesh, or sun, and the fruit indeed has a sunny, golden hue.
It’s easy to forget that chocolate balls had humble beginnings. These scrumptious sweets were originally developed as a way to use up leftovers – dry cake or cookie crumbs. With the crumbs you blend four basic elements: chocolate, dried fruit, juice and butter. Then you form the mixture into balls. Usually these are rolled in coconut but they are also delicious when coated with chopped almonds, diced pecans or chocolate sprinkles, or, for something different, pistachios or toasted sesame seeds. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can dip them in melted chocolate.
I often grind the cookies in a food processor but Liora found in her class that children particularly enjoyed crushing them in a paper bag with a rolling pin. They were eager to make these treats themselves at home.
Cooks who enjoy being inventive in the kitchen like these confections because there is plenty of room for creativity – different dried fruits, juices and cookies. Coming up with variations of these chocolate sweets is easier than with cakes because you can taste as you go along and adjust the flavor by stirring in more cocoa or sugar.
Macerating the apricots in juice or wine, either dry or sweet, makes them tender and gives the candies a good flavor. I even used tea – it happened to be pomegranate flavored – and we were pleased with the results. For extra spirit, you can spike your chocolates with rum, brandy, bourbon or Grand Marnier instead of wine. I cut the spirits with an equal amount of water so they don’t overpower the chocolate, but that’s a matter of taste.
Italians make a similar sweet rolled in a log shape in oiled parchment paper, then chill it and serve it in slices. They call it salame di cioccolato or chocolate salami.
Miri Leibovitz-Shroster, author of the new book Parve (in Hebrew), calls her version of these treats “punch balls.” She makes them by soaking raisins in rum extract and brandy, then mixes them with cocoa, powdered sugar, sponge cake crumbs, chopped roasted almonds and butter-flavored margarine, and rolls them in coconut or ground almonds.
When I want a fruity sweet without chocolate (it does happen...), I puree dates with dried apricots and raisins and stir in finely chopped nuts and sometimes a little orange juice. I flavor the mixture with cinnamon and citrus zest and roll it in spheres. I like to call them Tu Bishvat energy balls.
If you’re in the mood for baking, fruity chocolate chip blondies are another easy, tasty Tu Bishvat sweet. Also known as blond brownies, they resemble chocolate chip cookies in bar form, enhanced for the holiday with any kind of nuts and diced dried fruit that you like.
Crumbs from almost any type of cookie or cake give good results – pound cake, sponge cake, angel food cake, ladyfingers, chocolate cake, sugar cookies, macaroons or even muffins. Use plain cakes or cookies without frosting. Instead of sugar, you can sweeten these treats with honey or jam to taste, or use Silan, a natural date syrup. For a parve alternative, you might try almond butter; start with 4 tablespoons and taste before adding more. You can make these candies ahead and keep them for a week in a covered container in the refrigerator, or you can freeze them.
Makes about 30 candies
4 1⁄2 cup diced dried apricots4 1⁄2 cup sweet or dry wine or     orange juice4 100-110 gr. bittersweet or semisweet     chocolate, chopped4 2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa4 1-2 Tbsp. sugar, or to taste4 80-85 gr. (6 Tbsp.) butter, at room     temperature, cut in pieces 4 3⁄4-1 cup cookie crumbs4 About 11⁄2 cups flaked or ground coconut    or chopped blanched almonds
Combine apricots and wine in a jar and cover. Let stand about 1 hour. Remove apricots, reserving wine.
Heat chocolate, cocoa, sugar and wine from apricots in a heavy, medium saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until chocolate melts. Remove from heat and add butter. Stir until melted. Stir in cookie crumbs and apricots. Mix well. Refrigerate in a bowl for 30 minutes, or until firm enough to shape in balls.
Shape mixture in balls, using about 2 teaspoons for each. Put chopped almonds in a shallow bowl or tray and roll chocolate balls in almonds. Set candies on plates.
Refrigerate before serving about 1 hour or until firm. Serve in candy papers.
These bar cookies are studded with dried apricots, nuts and chocolate chips. If you like, substitute raisins or dried cherries for the apricots. If using walnuts, first taste them to be sure they are fresh. You can keep these cookies for 3 days in an airtight container at room temperature.
4 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour4 1 tsp. baking powder4 1⁄4 tsp. salt4 140 gr. (1⁄2 cup plus 2 Tbsp.) unsalted     butter, slightly softened4 3⁄4 cup packed light brown sugar4 1⁄4 cup granulated sugar4 2 large eggs4 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract4 1⁄2 cup finely diced dried apricots4 1⁄2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts4 3⁄4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 175ºC. Butter a square23-cm. baking pan. Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a mediumbowl. Cream butter in a large bowl. Add sugars; beat until smooth andfluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating very thoroughly after eachaddition. Beat in 2 tablespoons flour mixture at low speed. Addvanilla; beat to blend. With a wooden spoon, stir in remaining flourmixture.
Stir in apricots, pecans and chocolate chips.
Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or untilcake is brown on top, pulls away slightly from sides of pan and awooden pick inserted into center comes out nearly clean. Cool in pan ona rack. Cut in 16 or 20 bars, using the point of a sharp knife. Servethem slightly warm or at room temperature.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book, Chocolate Sensations, published in Hebrew as Shokolad! by R. Sirkis.