For most people, drinking hot chocolate is the liquid equivalent of eating a Hershey bar. It is pleasant and evocative of winter nostalgia for taking the chill off after a day spent building snowmen. However, hot chocolate or hot cocoa has lagged behind our chocolate confection consciousness, which has been raised to higher and higher levels of sophistication. Until now. With the same kind of fervor that went into a making great chocolate candy, chefs, chocolatiers and pastry chefs have turned hot chocolate into haute chocolate.
The hot chocolate served in the swank Swann Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia isn’t made from a package by the wait staff. It’s made by executive pastry chef Eddie Hales. Hales first creates his own chocolate syrup out of a variety of quality semisweet and unsweetened chocolate bars. “I’m always experimenting,” Hales says. At teatime, the syrup is served in a teapot with another pot of steamed milk. Customers mix the syrup and milk themselves in china cups to suit their own tastes. My luxurious hot chocolate was accompanied by a plate of madeleines and long, delicate cookie sticks called dents de loup for dunking. Swiss Miss was never like this.
At the Cub Room in New York, executive chef Ben Grossman makes his hot chocolate with Valrhona cocoa powder and bittersweet pieces, and Nestlé’s semisweet chips, then tops it with a homemade marshmallow. My cup looked like it leaped out of a Norman Rockwell painting but tasted as if it were served in a Paris salon, rich and immensely satisfying. And it was just as good when I made it at home. (See recipe below.)
In some restaurants, such as Lucy, a Mexican restaurant in New York, creating hot chocolate also makes for good theater. Heated milk is mixed tableside with two Mexican chocolates—Mayordomo, laced with spices (especially cinnamon) and crushed almonds, and the sweeter, less complex Ibarra—in a traditional Mexican ceramic pot with a molinillo, a wooden tool about 18 inches long with a carved, bulbous end. A waiter rubs the molinillo back and forth in his palms like a Boy Scout creating a fire until a foaming drink is produced. The resulting hot chocolate is frothy and light, with an earthy quality that reminded me of cajeta, the Mexican caramelized goats milk. Cuban pastry chef Alex Asteinza, says he learned how to make hot chocolate from his Mexican staff. “Most of them have had it done at their weddings. It’s a huge thing for them,” he says.
Indeed, chocolate as a ceremonial beverage goes back some 3,500 years in Mesoamerica. It was made by brides of Aztec and Mayan nobility, among others, as part of the marriage ritual since at least the 11th century. These drinks bore little resemblance to modern hot chocolate. They were frothy, frequently bitter beverages that were as often cold as hot, usually thickened with cornmeal, and seasoned with, among other things, chilies and cloves. “Froth was important,” says Elin Danien, a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. “If you couldn’t make a frothy drink, you weren’t marriage material.”
The Spanish, who added sugar to drinking chocolate, introduced the beverage to Europe where it remained the province of the wealthy and powerful until import duties were removed in the 19th century. Aided by lower prices and chocolate’s health claims, not to mention its purported aphrodisiacal properties, consumption soared.
The beneficial qualities of hot chocolate have been confirmed by modern science, most recently in the December 3, 2003 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Researchers at Cornell University demonstrated that hot chocolate contained more antioxidants—chemicals that have been shown to fight cancer, heart disease and aging—per cup than a similar serving of red wine or tea.
Nearly all hot chocolate is made from cocoa powder, a byproduct of chocolate making. When most of the cocoa butter has been removed from the chocolate liquor (the ground cocoa beans, also called cocoa mass) under hydraulic pressure, a cake is formed. This cake is then ground and becomes cocoa powder with significantly less butterfat. Dutched chocolate has been treated with an alkalizing agent to modify flavor (rarely for the better) and to make the powder more easily absorbed in liquid. Dutching may also alter color.
Producers of high quality cocoa have returned the fat to it, giving more flavor and greater mouthfeel. Demand is increasing, too, or at least becoming more discriminating. Three years ago, Seattle-based ChefShop.com carried only one hot chocolate mix. Now it carries eight, including mixes from France, Italy and Spain. “We tried to make a distinction by calling it ‘drinking chocolate’ instead of hot cocoa,” says company vice president Michael Janiszewski, whose hot chocolate epiphany occurred 11 years ago at the Café Rivoire in Florence, Italy. As he explains, “They serve drinking chocolate that literally looks like a melted candy bar. The Italians and Spanish are really into good drinking chocolate.”
I tried 11 different hot chocolate mixes at home. My favorite was a superb Spanish chocolate by Enric Rovira, despite the fact that the cocoa came in pellets that looked like cat food. It was so luscious and thick I wound up eating it with a spoon. My other favorites were La Maison du Chocolat, the most expensive mix (actually a tube of chocolate pearls) at $16 for 7.41 ounces—it had a silky texture and an intense flavor, like melted bittersweet chocolate. This French hot chocolate mix might be too unsweetened for many tastes, though that was easily solved by adding sweetener. I did the same with Bonnat, another French mix with a concentrated dark chocolate flavor. Scharffen Berger, a Berkeley, Calif.-based chocolate maker, struck the perfect balance: a deep chocolate flavor with just enough sugar to make a delicious drink without masking the chocolate’s flavor.
The next five were perfectly acceptable though unremarkable, like a good milk chocolate candy bar. They included U.S.-made mixes from Fran’s, Dagoba, and Kings Cupboard; Swiss-made Essential Pantry (Chefshop’s house brand); and the French L’Ancienne. The only one I found unacceptable was Slitti, a Tuscan mix that was bland and had a chalky mouthfeel. Just for the fun of it, I’d give the Williams-Sonoma peppermint hot chocolate mix a try. Made with Guittard chocolate, it had a bracing minty taste that didn’t overpower the chocolate.
Better than all these mixes though, was Ben Grossman’s recipe. For one large mug (or two coffee cups), steam together 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 2 teaspoons Valrhona cocoa powder, 3 teaspoons Nestlé’s semisweet chips, 1 ounce Valrhona dark (70 percent or more cacao) chocolate cut into pieces, 1 heaping teaspoon nonfat dry milk, 3 heaping teaspoons powdered sugar and 8 ounces cold milk until the temperature reaches 180 to 190 degrees, mixing once or twice along the way.
If you want add seasonings, try cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, even chilies. Put them in a tea ball or cheesecloth so you can fish them out easily. For something stronger, try dark rum, Cognac, or orange liqueur.
Most hot chocolate mixes require you to heat milk on the stove before adding the chocolate. But because milk scorches easily on the stove, get it heated most of the way in the microwave. Mixing the chocolate and milk with a wire whisk doesn’t give you the foam you want. An immersion blender is better, but messy. Best of all is the steamer of a cappuccino machine. You’ll get a rich, frothy, and delicious hot chocolate an Aztec bride would kill for.
This article first appeared in Wine Spectator magazine.