Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce

Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce


Just about everyone has a story about a teacher who left an imprint on their life. I have several, but the first was Miss Allen. Donna. In 1988 I was part of her first ever class, one of only eight kiddos starting out in the only kindergarten at a brand new school, in a subdivision still under construction. That year was a hard one for my family. My brother was diagnosed with cancer. I don't remember much about that year, but I do remember Donna rushing over to care for me in the middle of the night when my parents had to bring my brother to the hospital.

Two years later, she was my brother's teacher. His life, by then, was no longer ordinary. He had already been sick for two years, and he missed a lot of school. He himself was also not ordinary; he had been ill for so much of his little life, endured so much, that he no longer seemed phased by any of it. He often wore superhero costumes to school instead of regular clothes. In Donna's class he was able to have a precious handful of normal school experiences, full of fun and friends and exploration-- all the good stuff kindergarten is about--before he passed away in the winter of that year. 

For years afterwards, Donna remained a special person in my life, coming over once a week for dinner and to give me piano lessons. I loved visiting her at home, where she would make me ice cream sundaes with homemade chocolate sauce. At some un-remembered point in time, my mom started making it, too. It became a family staple, and our cupboard was never without the familiar red and yellow canister of Fry's Cocoa Powder.


In university, I came home pretty much every weekend, hauling my duffel bag of dirty laundry through the snow on Friday evenings. This required catching a subway, then a train, then a bus, before finally arriving at the bottom of my parents' street. On Sundays, before she drove me back to school, my mom would cook a comforting winter meal, like roast chicken with mashed potatoes or a prime rib. On the back of the stove there was often a pot of Donna's chocolate sauce, made earlier in the day and ready to be gently reheated and spooned over vanilla ice cream. On extra special Sundays, the ice cream was scooped over store-bought angel food cakes or homemade brownies. All afternoon, I would pass by the stove every time I got bored with studying, breathing the smell of roasting meat and dipping my finger into the chocolate goo when no one was looking.

Although the original version is perfect, I have gradually updated this recipe over the years. I swapped out Fry's for Green and Black's. It's my personal favourite, and is also fair trade and organic. I also add a spoon of instant espresso powder, a trick I learned years ago from Ina Garten. It makes the chocolate taste more chocolatey. For the same reason, I use brewed coffee in place of the water. I always have the dregs of a pot sitting on my counter, so why not? I exchanged the white sugar for brown, and cut back on the amount. I added sea salt, because it balances the sweetness of the sugar and brightens the bitterness of the coffee and cocoa. Most recently, I have begun browning the butter before adding the other ingredients. All of these little additions and substitutions make the sauce feel more adult, though my kids still love it. It is intensely flavoured, as bitter and salty as it is sweet. This may not seem appealing, but I promise you it is worth a try. After all, ice cream itself is very sweet. 

While this sauce is simple and quick, it is sometimes inconsistent in terms of texture. If it is heated too long or too hot, the sugar will turn to candy, and it will harden into a ball as soon as it hits the ice cream. The original directions call for it to be brought to a boil and then immediately taken off the heat. I like to take it off a moment sooner, just before it reaches a bubble. This prevents the brown sugar from fully dissolving, so that it stays a bit gritty and crystalline, sort of the texture of brownie batter. I love this, but if you want it smoother, heat it until it just barely boils. 


Sweet Bitter Chocolate Sauce

Yield: About one cup


  • 1/4 cup butter (if using unsalted, increase salt to 1/2 tsp)
  • 1/4 cup good quality cocoa powder, such as Green and Black's
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp fleur de sel 
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp instant espresso
  • 3 tsp brewed coffee or water


  • Plunk butter into a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat. Melt, and then continue to cook, watching it carefully, swirling or stirring it often. It will froth up before the milk solids start to settle and brown. It will go from not-quite-there-to burnt in a matter of seconds, so be ready to snatch it from the heat as soon as it looks nutty.
  • When the butter is the colour of hazelnuts, turn off the heat and whisk in all of the other ingredients. 
  • Turn the burner back on and heat the mixture until it is just below a boil, then immediately remove from the heat. 
  • Can be used right away, or cooled and stored in the fridge. When reheating, take care to do so gently. Don't allow it to boil! You can thin it with a little extra water or coffee if it has become too thick.

*Note: for a vegan version that is almost as yummy, substitute coconut oil for the butter, simply melting it before adding the other ingredients.

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