Chocolate and Chiles Make the Perfect Combo
Inspired by her family’s heritage, a local chocolatier turns up the heat with her sweet- and-spicy confections.
By Marilyn Hawkes | Photography by Rick Gayle
Chiles have always been part of Lisa Jaimes-Toon’s story. As a child growing up in Mesa, everything she ate had chiles in it: sauces, salsas—even the bread pudding, she recalls. The spicy fruit was invariably at the center of family gatherings. Her grandmother Carolina would often slow roast meat, make chile rellenos, consommé and green chile corn tamales for get-togethers. “The aromas of my grandmother’s cooking and her fabulous meals are part of my family’s history and memories,” she says.
Jaimes-Toon would spend countless hours in Carolina’s kitchen absorbing the fragrance of garlic and onions frying on the white enamel stove and learning cooking techniques, from whipping egg whites with a hand-powered beater to roasting, peeling and stuffing a variety of chiles. When she was 5 years old, her grandfather sawed off a broom handle to craft a rolling pin so she could help her grandmother make tortillas. “She gave me a handful of masa, and I rolled it into shapes, like play dough, and then we made tortilla cinnamon rolls on the ‘plancha’ or griddle,” Jaimes-Toon recalls. On occasion, her grandfather would harvest “nopalitos” (prickly pear pads), which she would eat with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt.
It was this lifelong passion for food and cooking that propelled Jaimes-Toon to leave behind a 15-year career as a social studies teacher, attend culinary school and start a catering and cake-making business. One of her most popular offerings was Mexican chocolate cupcakes with chile and cinnamon frosting. It was this confection that sparked the idea for chile-laced chocolates.
“The Aztecs and Mayans used cinnamon and chile to sweeten chocolate long before they used sugar,” she explains. Archaeologists believe that chocolate was cultivated by the Mayans as early as 900 AD. They would grind the cacao pods into a liquid and temper its bitterness with chile, honey and cinnamon. The result was an intensely flavored drink called Xocolatl. The spiciness of the capsaicin contained in the peppers adds depth to the sweet, creamy taste of chocolate, and the unique flavor profiles of the different varieties of both can enhance or contrast for a mouthwatering gastronomic sensation.
Jaimes-Toon knew she had a great product, but there was one problem: She had no idea how to label or market the candy. That is until she came across a worn photo of her grandmother.
The sepia-tone print, taken in 1923, shows Carolina at age 22, in a simple black dress, sitting on the arm of a wood dining chair in a yard. Jaimes-Toon recalls how, in the early 1900s, her grandmother came to the U.S. by train from Northern Sonora, Mexico, after her family’s housekeeper tipped off raiders of notorious revolutionary general Poncho Villa that silver and valuables were buried beneath a water trough on their property. Carolina was only 9 years old when her family packed up and headed north to Morenci, then Tempe, before finally settling in Mesa.
“It hit me like a lightning bolt,” Jaimes-Toon remembers. “My grandmother’s influence on my cooking had brought me to this point. I decided to use this picture to honor her and give her credit.”
What began as a simple tasty treat has blossomed into Carolina’s Chocolate. Six recipes combine couverture chocolate with fresh spices and chipotle, jalapeño, cayenne and ancho chiles. The labels display historic photographs of her ancestors. The color of the label and ribbon on each 3-ounce package represents the hue of the chile found in the chocolate.
Tempe-based pastry chef Tracy Dempsey uses the versatile candy in some of her recipes. “I recently did a take on s’mores and made chocolate ice cream using Smokey Joe to re-create a campfire sensation of smoke with a little heat,” Dempsey says. She also makes chocolate chip cookies with pieces of Salty Senorita. “I love everything about her product. It’s local and grassroots, and Lisa is a dyed-in-the-wool Arizonan.”
Today, Jaimes-Toon and her husband, Roger, who she credits with helping to grow her business, travel around the state, handing out sweet samples at events and festivals. Carolina’s Chocolate can also be found in a variety of grocery stores and local gift shops. “It’s a whole new phase in my life,” says the chocolatier, who insists on keeping it “all in the family.”
Like wine or coffee, chocolate and chiles have diverse flavor profiles. The former can can be floral, fruity or nutty; the latter, berrylike, tangy or earthy, with varying heat levels. Here is a look at the six flavor combinations that were inspired by Lisa Jaimes-Toon’s family history.
Spicy Sonoran: Honoring Jaimes-Toon’s grandmother Carolina, Spicy Sonoran blends cayenne chile, cinnamon and 64% cocoa for a taste reminiscent of Mexican hot chocolate. The cayenne sweetens the chocolate, eliminating any bitterness, and deepens its flavor.
Smokey Joe: Named for Jaimes-Toon’s father, Joe, who had “smoky, dark features,” this 70% dark chocolate is loaded with chipotle peppers. Considered a medium-hot chile, chipotle lends robust, earthy notes to the confection.
Jalisco Jalapeño: Inspired by her grandfather Jesus Garcia from Jalisco, Mexico, who loved green chiles, this silky, luxurious white chocolate with 31% cocoa butter evolves on the tongue, first revealing cinnamon, then vanilla, cream, butter, salt and, finally, picante jalapeño. One bite brings to mind the sweet and spicy goodness of Carolina’s rice pudding.
Holy Mole!: This rich, savory take on mole sauce features 78% dark chocolate combined with toasted ancho red chile and a touch of sweet pasilla negra chile, pumpkin seeds, salt and a few secret spices. The photo on the label is of Carolina and her six children, who were, as Jaimes-Toon notes, “holy, moly—all huge characters.”
Las Abuelas: Pungent pasilla negra chiles add sweetness and balance the bitterness of the 73% dark chocolate, resulting in a dark raisin taste on the tongue. Gracing the label are Jaimes-Toon’s great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, who is holding a card signed by President John F. Kennedy, celebrating the elder’s 105th birthday in 1963.
Salty Senorita: The only chile-free offering, Salty Senorita has 64% cocoa festooned with bits of sea salt. The crusty salt enhances the dark chocolate while subduing its bitterness.