I’ve always liked hot chocolate–I imagine there are few people who don’t. When I was growing up we always had packets of instant Swiss Miss mixes in the winter, and if we’d been to England to visit family, Cadbury’s cocoa or Drinking Chocolate. I discovered Droste cocoa when I was a teenager, and they finally started importing Cadbury’s products to Atlanta, and we stopped buying anything else.
I couldn’t shake the idea that I was missing something, though. In the children’s novel Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare, set during the Seven Year’s War, there’s a reference to two of the characters getting cups of hot chocolate from a stall or a shop. This tiny detail bothered me deeply when I first read the book–I think I was eight–because I couldn’t reconcile the idea of the watery sweet stuff I was used to being consumed in the eighteenth century. I knew what the characters in the story were drinking had to be very different from what I was used to, but I couldn’t convince my mother to let me melt a bar of solid chocolate into a cup of milk to get an idea of what I was missing.
Later on I came across more detailed descriptions, such as the number of people (4, I think) and the steps required to prepare and serve Louis XVI his morning chocolate. Experimenting with Droste cocoa I tried to make something that resembled what I read about in books, but invariably I ended up with something that was much too sweet and badly mixed. (I did try to make a paste, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me to start with the cocoa and add the milk gradually; I started with milk–always a little too much–and ended up with a cup that still had clots of unmixed powder in it. I stopped trying for a few years, as for a long time during and after university I couldn’t often afford good cocoa powder.
I resumed my efforts when I developed an intolerance for caffeine. (Long story–if you use or have ever considered using caffeine tablets, just say no, they really aren’t worth it.) Once in a while I’ll try a few sips of regular coffee and not have hours-long bouts of heart palpitations, but the intolerance always resurfaces weeks or months later. Sometimes I can manage decaf coffee and tea, but the rest of the time I have hot chocolate instead. I usually have to avoid eating any other chocolate during the day, but I don’t mind this so much.
When I lived in Edinburgh there were a number of places where I could get a very nice cup of hot chocolate. There was a place called Chocolate Soup (now sadly defunct) that was pretty awesome, but their confections were more like consuming an incredibly rich dessert than anything suitable for a morning drink. The Elephant House on George IV Bridge served very good hot chocolate when I lived there (I can’t verify that this is still true, but fingers crossed), and there’s a shop in Bruntsfield called Coco Chocolatier (http://www.cocochocolate.co.uk/) whose rose and black pepper hot chocolate is still my gold standard for the perfect cup. If you are ever in the area, try some of their chocolate. You won’t regret it. I have tried to replicate this several times since I left, but my versions are poor substitutes. I’m lucky enough to have friends who send and/or bring me some once in a while (Thank you Caroline!)
When I lived in New York City, there was a cafe in Union Square that I relied on for my hot chocolate–although I was able to drink coffee again by that point–but that place closed down, and now I can’t actually recall the name. Back in Atlanta, I hit a dead end. There are plenty of places to go for good chocolate confections, but hot chocolate just isn’t a trend, at least in my neck of the woods. I’ve tried Starbuck’s, but it’s too sweet and not really strong on the chocolate flavor. I relied on Cadbury’s drinking chocolate and the Mexican-style chocolate that comes in discs (several brands; Taza’s are the best, in my opinion), but I find these either too sweet now or difficult to blend into the milk smoothly. After much experimentation, I settled on a favourite recipe. I hope it bears some resemblance to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cups of chocolate that Wedgwood, Limoges, and other makers of fine china created such lovely pots for, but I need to do more research to find out if this is actually so.
My recipe for the perfect hot chocolate:
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons demerara (turbinado) or coconut sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 tablespoons cream
1 cup milk (low-fat or skim)
Put the milk on the stove to heat. I have a small cast-iron pot for this–it’s actually designed to heat up barbecue sauce on a grill, but I couldn’t find the kind of copper pot I was looking for at the time. This isn’t really necessary; I know every good kitchen should have a dedicated milk pan which is never used for anything else, but I don’t have the storage space for such a thing. I sometimes heat the milk in the microwave when I’m in a rush. Next, mix a bit of the milk (five or six large spoonfuls should do it) into the powder to make a paste. When the milk is just starting to simmer (you should be able to see the steam coming off the surface, and signs of tiny bubbles in the center), pour it into the cup with the paste and stir until thoroughly mixed.
If you’re using whole milk, probably best to leave out the cream. Also, I like my hot chocolate just barely sweet, so you may find more sugar necessary, it’s up to you. You could replace the cardamom with cinnamon and/or nutmeg, or a pinch of ancho chili powder, or add a drop of food-grade lavender or rose oil. Sometimes I a little battery-powered cappuccino whisk to mix the milk into the cocoa, which makes a nice froth when you pour in the rest of the milk, but most of the time I just use a spoon, it requires less clean-up. If you have any cash to spare for kitchen staples and you like chocolate, I recommend investing in a high-quality cocoa powder; it really does taste better than your average Hershey’s stuff, whether you’re making hot chocolate or using it for baked goods. I like Callebaut and Valrhona, but there are several good brands. The drink is rich, but for me this is generally a breakfast in itself. I like this so much I actually look forward to getting up in the morning now.
P.S. Suggestions for chocolate shops in other cities are always welcome–I haven’t done much traveling lately, but I have plans. If you have a favourite place, post a message and let me know!