Quick break from boardgame reviews – I think I have six or seven in the queue to write up – and from prospect writing (the top 100 goes up on Thursday) to talk about one of my favorite beverages: Hot chocolate.
Now you might be thinking about hot cocoa, which is often incorrectly labelled “hot chocolate” by … well, by morons, because hot cocoa doesn’t contain chocolate, and cocoa and and chocolate are not the same thing. If you’ve had good chocolate – I don’t mean Hershey’s, which is to chocolate as gas stations are to coffee – then you know what I mean.
And that’s not to say that hot cocoa has no place in the beverage pantheon – hot cocoa is more of a quick warm-you-up, while hot chocolate is dessert in a cup. Hot cocoa does have the advantage of being easier to make, even without resorting to packets of sugar, guar gum, and “natural flavor.” Here’s how I do it:
1 Tbsp Dutch-processed cocoa (or 2 tsp cocoa and 2 tsp shaved bittersweet chocolate)
1 tsp sugar, or to taste
8 oz milk
Put the dry goods in your mug. Heat the milk to a bare simmer – in a microwave, try a minute on high, stir to prevent a skin from forming, then another minute – and pour just enough into the mug to moisten the cocoa. Stir or whisk until you have a smooth paste, then gradually stir in the remainder of the milk. If you find yourself with lumps of cocoa powder in the finished product, try sifting it after measuring. Add a shot of espresso for a mocha where both the coffee and chocolate stand in front, with the sweetener playing rhythm as it should be.
Hot chocolate, in a general sense, is what it sounds like: Chocolate, heated until it’s pourable, mixed with milk or cream or a combination thereof, and perhaps with accent flavors layered on top of it. If you’ve seen Chocolat – which, by the way, was much better than the book – you know what this looks like. It’s the best chocolate delivery system known to man, viscous and unctuous and full of antioxidants, but who the hell cares about that because it’s chocolate!
I’ve tried a number of recipes for hot chocolate (also called “drinking chocolate” in some sources), and all were good because, again, we’re talking about chocolate. If the chocolate you put in is good, the finished product will be good. Callebaut is my favorite major brand, but these days I use the Pound Plus 72% bar of Belgian chocolate from Trader Joes, which is a lot more affordable when you go through the stuff as quickly as we do. (Valhrona is fine, but what they charge is in no way justified by some superior quality or smoothness. Callebaut is usually 60% of the price and as good if not better in texture and flavor.)
For my birthday last year, my wife bought me a small book called, appropriately enough, Hot Chocolate, by restaurateur and food writer Michael Turback. I find most little food books to be more novelty item than useful resource, but Turback approached this like a researcher, talking to dozens of pastry chefs around the globe and reproducing 60 of their recipes for hot chocolate, some of which incorporate unusual ingredients like chili pepper, ginger, key lime, cardamom, chestnut paste, matcha, or sake. Most work on the same general principle, however: Begin with a ganache (roughly equal parts cream and bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate), then use that as the base for a beverage by adding milk and other flavors.
My favorite recipe so far is from Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio’s ‘wichcraft chain, which Turback says is known for the hot chocolate served in 12-ounce paper cups, a quantity I find hard to fathom because it’s so filling. Its key ingredient is fresh bay leaf, although I have made it several times with dried crushed bay leaves and can report excellent results. The recipe in the book makes six servings, but here is my adaptation for one:
Sisha Ortuzar’s Bay Leaf-Infused Hot Chocolate
1.5 ounces (40-45 grams) bittersweet chocolate, 60-72% cacao, finely chopped
2.5 fluid ounces (5 Tbsp) heavy cream
1 cup milk
1 dried bay leaf, crumbled
Pinch salt (optional)
Bring the milk and bay leaf to a simmer and let steep for at least five minutes, until the leaf is fragrant. Keep it warm as you make the ganache, but don’t let it boil or reduce.
Place the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl or directly into a mug. Heat the cream to a bare boil – be careful, as cream boils over fast, and fat burns easily – and pour over the chocolate. Let stand for two minutes, then stir to make a smooth paste.
Strain the milk into the ganache and stir until the mixture is smooth and homogeneous. Add a tiny pinch of salt if desired and serve.
I find salt intensifies the chocolatey flavor of chocolate, but the drink is still rich, deep, and satisfying without it. You can also boost it with coffee or rum or a liqueur like Amaretto or Chambourd, but I prefer it au naturel because it’s like mainlining cacao. Much credit is due to Ortuzar, chef and co-founder of ‘wichcraft with Colicchio, for the bay leaf/chocolate pairing, a less-than-obvious combination that works even better than chocolate and chili pepper.
Turback’s book is about hot chocolate, not hot cocoa, so all of the drinks included are rich and probably high in calories, not that there’s anything wrong with that. He includes a section on alcoholic hot chocolates, as well as a few white chocolate beverages that are just a waste of space. (Really, Michael, a book with 57 or 58 recipes wouldn’t have been enough?) Towards the back of the book are pairings, recipes for a chocolate drink and for a pastry to go with it, like a cinnamon-almond hot chocolate and cinnamon-dusted churros from David Guas, a former pastry chef turned consultant and author of DamGoodSweet, a book of New Orleans-inspired desserts.
Hot Chocolate isn’t an essential cookbook but it’s the sort of cookbook to which I’m gravitating these days, books that can inspire me with new ideas for flavor combinations rather than instruct me on the mechanics of a recipe. However, making hot chocolate is about making ganache, and anyone with a stove and a whisk can do that, so a non-cook can get some value from the book as well.