The month of February always whispers chocolate to me, ever so gently and subtle and maybe a little mischievously. There’s just something about this time of year, with its big bedazzled and festooned heart shaped boxes that makes me want chocolate all the time. And I’m not even a big chocolate person. So this month, with the exception of my last post (because it was Chinese New Year after all), is going to be all chocolate, all the time. So let’s start off with hot chocolate. Warm, chocolate elixir to the gods. A really good hot chocolate that I made to warm me earlier this week during what I’m calling Snowtorious B.I.G – the whopper of a blizzard that hit Chicago. It was indeed a doozy. But can I share something wonderful? After the plows came through, I bundled up and psyched myself to shovel out my little marshmallow of a car. Standing there, not sure exactly how to start when the snow was up to the door handles, three guys offered to do it for me. No kidding. Done in 15 minutes flat and I sent them off with a pizza I had just made and my cherished New Glarus stash. My heroes! God, I love this town.
So the first chocolate beverage is believed to have been created by the Mayans around 2,000 years ago, and a similar, cocoa based beverage was an essential part of Aztec culture. Once the Europeans got a hold of it from the explorers who had discovered in the “New World”, hot chocolate really took off. It was even used, for quite some time, to treat ailments like stomach diseases. Now that’s my kind of medicine!
I grew up in an era of Nesquik and canisters of Swiss Miss with those little pebbley freeze-dried mini marshmallows. Didn’t we all? I usually threw in an extra scoop or two into the hot water to make it super sweet as well as a handful of marshmallows from the bag of Jet Puffs stashed in the pantry. It was good – warm and overly sweet – and I thought it was just fine until I started drinking the real stuff as an adult. Now then, this was a whole different category. Hot chocolate made with whole milk, cream and good chocolate; all melted up, rich and enveloping like a warm, toasty Willy Wonka blanket. Augustus Gloop would have approved. When I started making homemade marshmallows, that upped the game even more. I was happy.
Then I started working at Vosges Haut-Chocolat where I learned hot chocolate – chocolat chaud – was a whole ‘nother ballgame. We’d mix up big batches – by hand mind you - of dark 64% cacao chocolate, high quality cocoa powder and vanilla sugar. Oh my. While I appreciated the offer of skim or soy milk, really I did, it was at it’s best made with a combination of whole milk and cream. This wasn’t the time to turn into the health police. Oh no way. The classic Parisian blend was great but the Aztec version really turned my head. Just a touch of chile powders gave it a punch, a little zip, the slightest hint of a burn that woke me right up. It was delicious.
Over the years, I’ve experimented and whipped up versions of my own; both in the vein of the Vosges blends and simpler ones using the Mexican-style chocolate found in most stores. The two brands of this type of chocolate that I’m familiar with – Abuelita and Ibarra – are easily found in the Hispanic aisle of most markets these days and come in boxes containing several individually wrapped discs. This “Mexican style” chocolate has sugar, ground almonds and a hint of cinnamon that simplifies the whole process and makes a really good hot chocolate. I finely chop a few discs, heat it with some milk and a little cream, and then add a touch of ancho and chipotle powders for a little kick. Served hot with warm, freshly fried churros – well, it’s rather miraculous. Your day will turn around. After those nice boys shoveled out my car, I warmed up a cup for myself with a shot of dark rum (I did give them my beer after all.)
Traditionally Mexican hot chocolate is served hot and frothy, made so with a tool called the molinillo. I have one but I forgot to use it. I poured a cup, spiked it and started drinking completely forgetting about this frothing step. Whoops. If you don’t have one, a blender makes a fine stand-in. Now if you were sitting in a Barcelona cafe, the hot chocolate would be very thick, almost pudding-like, and you’d have to have a churro alongside . You can bet that post is coming up next.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: ARE YOU KIDDING? IT’S CHOCOLATE. That word alone tips the scales toward the ridiculous. Warm, liquid chocolate? We’re well beyond into the stratosphere now. Make this when you need a nice, rich warm spicy hug. Like after shoveling 20″ of snow off your sidewalk. Yeah, that’s a great time to enjoy this – tuck a thermos in your coat pocket. It’s also great for those morning get-together-things – family brunches, before sporting events, during sporting events, after sporting events. How about after sledding, sitting on the porch, after dinner, when you’re bored, after the movies, when you’re supposed to be working? They say chilies pump up those endorphins, so yeah, drink up. And no I don’t know exactly who “they” are but I’m sure they’re trustworthy.
SPICED MEXICAN HOT CHOCOLATE
3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 disks Mexican Chocolate (8 scored pieces each)
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ancho chile powder (or regular chile powder)
pinch of chipotle powder (or cayenne pepper)
- Finely chop the chocolate with a serrated knife.
- In a heavy saucepan, scald the milk and cream over medium high until bubbles form around the outside of the pan.
- Add the chopped chocolate and salt; stir with a whisk over medium heat until chocolate is dissolved and the milk is frothy.
- Add the chile powders and stir until combined. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Transfer to small cups and if you can, serve with the warm churros for dipping.