CAROB: the new, ancient ingredient

It was love at first bite! A couple of years back I added carob flour to my bread dough — actually I used far too much the first time—but still the deep earthy flavor won me over; and Costas loved the dark brown bread even more…

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For me carob’s taste has nothing to do with chocolate for which it is supposed to be a substitute. The brown color of the bread would be, I suppose, similar to one made with cocoa powder, although I have never added cocoa to my yeasted breads; only occasionally I stuff my breads with pieces of bitter chocolate. I am sure the ‘carob chips’ I read about in the Whole Foods blog will be a somewhat strange substitution for chocolate chips, especially the dark, chocolaty ones I use in my baking. Carob is now advertised as ‘a healthy chocolate substitute;’ mind you, I never considered chocolate, especially the bitter kind Costas and I consume, an ‘unhealthy’ food, but maybe others do. Whatever the reason—mine is its flavor–carob is getting quite popular these days. The Whole Foods blog and the sleek website for carob products from Crete is ample proof…

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The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) is an evergreen shrub native to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus. It thrives in the poor, rocky soil of our garden. Even better than the olive trees, carobs are among the very few trees that stay green and fresh, oblivious to our dry long summers. We shouldn’t be surprised, though, because this ancient tree, the only surviving of its kind, is a close relative to fava (Fabaceae), the only plant in our vegetable garden that never fails!

According to Wikipedia the fruit of the carob tree “…is a legume (also known less accurately as a pod), that can be elongated, compressed, straight or curved, and thickened at the sutures. The pods take a full year to develop and ripen. The ripe pods eventually fall to the ground and are eaten by various mammals.” In our garden the pods are mainly eaten by our dogs who love to chew them.

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Carob is an old Mediterranean ingredient in its own right, not a substitute for something else. In the old days, before sugar, it was used as a sweetener, somewhat cheaper than honey. Carob syrup or molasses —charoupomelo in Greek, teratsomelo in the Cypriot dialect, dibis el kharoub in Arabic–derives from boiling down and concentrating the marinade produced after soaking milled carob beans in water. According to Wikipedia “…carob juice drinks are traditionally drunk during the Islamic month of Ramadan. It was also a common sweetener and was used in the hieroglyph for ‘sweet’ (nedjem). Dried carob fruit is traditionally eaten on the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. Also it is believed to be an aphrodisiac…”

In Cyprus I found many old recipes using carob molasses or syrup which I have not tried yet, but I soon will; the first one will be the very intriguing cookies boiled in the syrup and served warm!

The pods, not the seeds, are dried and ground to make carob syrup or the flour. The seeds had another important use in antiquity: they are all exactly the same size, and were used as weight for small precious items, like gold. The word Carat, a unit of purity for gold alloys, was derived from the word carob. Today the seeds–also called locust beans–are ground to make locust bean gum, a food thickening agent.

Carob flour is deeply dark and even a quarter cup mixed with seven cups of white and whole wheat flours results in this dark brown bread. I guess I needed at least three times as much cocoa powder to get close to that color.

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See the Recipe: Carob, Barley and Rye Bread, with Cinnamon and Sunflower Seeds

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