For most people, drinking hot chocolate is the liquid equivalent of eating a Hershey's bar. It evokes winter memories and is a pleasant way to take the chill off after a day spent building snowmen.
However, hot chocolate, or hot cocoa, has lagged behind our ever-more-sophisticated chocolate-confection consciousness. Until now. With the same fervor that went into 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 waitstaff. 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 pitcher with a 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 near end of story.)
In some restaurants, such as Lucy, a Mexican restaurant in New York, creating hot chocolate also makes for good theater. At Lucy, 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 reminds me of cajeta, the Mexican caramelized goat's 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's place in social and religious contexts is well-documented and its use 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. Modern hot chocolate bears little resemblance to these drinks. They were frothy, frequently bitter beverages that were as often cold as hot, usually thickened with cornmeal and seasoned with, among other things, chiles and cloves. "Froth was important," says Elin Danien, a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. "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. Consumption soared, aided by lower prices and chocolate's claimed healthfulness, not to mention its purported aphrodisiacal properties.
The beneficial qualities of hot chocolate have been confirmed by modern science, most recently late last year in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Researchers at Cornell University demonstrated that hot chocolate contained more antioxidants-chemical compounds that have been shown to fight cancer, heart disease and aging-per cup than a serving of red wine or tea of comparable size.
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 into 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 dissolve more easily 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 for chocolate is increasing, too, or is 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. I also liked La Maison du Chocolat, the most expensive mix (actually a tube of chocolate pearls) at $16 for about 7.5 ounces-it had a silky texture and an intense flavor, like melted bittersweet chocolate. This French hot chocolate mix might not be sweet enough for many tastes, though that was easily solved by adding sweetener. I did the same with Bonnat, another worthy French mix with a concentrated dark chocolate flavor. Scharffen Berger, a chocolate maker based in Berkeley, Calif., 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. 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 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° F, mixing once or twice along the way.
If you want to add seasonings, try cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, even chiles. 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, heat it 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.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).
How to Get It
ChefShop.com Inc. Chocosphere La Maison du Chocolat Scharffen Berger Zingerman's Delicatessen
(877) 337-2491; www.chefshop.com
(877) 992-4626; www.chocosphere.com
(800) 988-5632; www.lamaisonduchocolat.com
(800) 930-4528; www.scharffenberger.com
Ann Arbor, Mich.
(888) 636-8162; www.zingermans.com
La Maison du Chocolat