Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.
-Joanne Harris, Chocolat
Chocolate. Its temptation, dark, rich, like a forbidden kiss, lingers on the tongue and exists in our memory, where it lives forever. We remember our first taste. A piece stolen from the fridge in the middle of the night. A chocolate bar given to us as a child. A box of truffles for Valentine's Day.
Hot chocolate has always comforted me when I'm melancholy, and as December comes I am seeking solace in a warm cup. My youngest daughter and I make chocolate chip cookies, and as we take them hot from the oven, the chocolate melts. We eat them as hot as we can handle, we cannot resist them.
Chocolate. The Aztecs drank it luxuriously with chili peppers, vanilla beans, spices and served it in gold goblets. The Spanish of the sixteenth century became addicted to chocolate, and as its popularity spread, it was prepared hot and thick with orange, vanilla and spices. Spanish conquistadors of the time drank the Aztec cacahuatl (cocoa water) or xocoatl (xoco means "bitter" and atl means water) which sometimes contained cornmeal or hallucinogenic mushrooms. In Andalusia, it became chocolate from chocolatl, and a Chocolatadas culture emerged. A piping hot churro dipped in a demitasse of velvety chocolate (churro y chocolate) is how I've come to know the sultry side of hot chocolate, the kind of chocolate served at a chocolate café in Barcelona.
It's simple to improvise a cup of hot chocolate, as no one recipe is the only way. The base of the recipe is some good quality chocolate (ScharffenBerger 60%-70% dark or stone ground dark chocolate such as Chocovivo) and milk. I'm fond of whole milk, but lately prefer nut milks like almond (which complements chocolate), but if you aren't up to making your own almond milk like I do--- just use a good store bought brand. I personally like the taste of almond milk with chocolate, however, use this recipe as a guide to adapt as you please. I love to steep the almond milk with a split vanilla bean and cinnamon stick. My favorite cinnamon? Cinnamon Hill brand makes a gorgeous wooden cinnamon grater (seen in many of my photos) and they have the best Ceylon and Saigon cinnamon sticks for baking and cooking use. The freshly harvested cinnamon is so fragrant when you grate the sticks, you cannot imagine using pre-ground cinnamon again.
Adding your own blend of flavoring is also what makes your hot chocolate. You can spice it up with ancho chile powder and cinnamon sticks to enjoy it Mexican style, or warm it up with chai spices for that cozy nestle in by the fireplace with a good book feeling. I also like a splash of Amaretto for an Italian hot chocolate, with fresh grated nutmeg on top of whipped cream.
The chocolate itself makes the hot cocoa. The rustic stone ground type is my favorite, and I suppose that says something about me. Once when I was wandering the farmers' market here in Los Angeles, I discovered a bar of chocolate that made my chocolate melting dreams complete: Chocovivo. They had samples, and of course I tasted all of them, but by far my favorite was named Shangri La. It has toasted black sesame and pieces of goji berries in it. This chocolate melts so beautifully, it will make you give up the cocoa powders of the past for a hot cup of chocolate.
Another chocolate experience that came as revelation in a cup like a Proustian fantasy--- a thick-as-melted-ganache hot chocolate served in a paper mug with a floating island of real whipped cream on top, cold to the tongue, while underneath this glacier of cream was pure chocolate lava. This hot chocolate was an awakening to my senses. It wasn't thinned down with milk. The chocolate was bittersweet with a roasted taste that paired in harmony with the plain and cold whipped cream.
Here are some ideas for your holiday hot chocolate:
Just Hot Chocolate: semi or bittersweet chocolate bar + milk
Mexican Hot Chocolate: chocolate + milk + ancho chile powder + cayenne + cinnamon
Chai Chocolate: chocolate + milk + cinnamon + nutmeg + cardamom + ginger powder
Amaretto Chocolate: chocolate + milk + amaretto
Haute Chocolat: the fanciest stone ground chocolate bar + milk + whip cream + sea salt
I've searched for holiday recipes and ideas to make the best hot chocolate at home as well as for gifts during the season. You could make this chocolate mixture for yourself and also put the extra mix in a jar for a gift to someone who may be as passionate about chocolate as you are.
Hot Chocolate Mix
1/4 cup raw granulated sugar (or coconut sugar, optional)
4 ounces chocolate of your choice (60% cacao) chopped
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of kosher sea salt
Blend all ingredients in a food processor until powdery.
Heat one cup of milk (coconut, almond, whole, or soy) in a saucepan over low to medium heat.
Add a few spoonfuls of the hot chocolate mix. Add spices and/or flavorings of your choice.
Whisk over heat until warm and the mix has melted and incorporate it well.
Blend and serve topped with whipped cream (there's some delicious vegan coconut whip out there, or go on and use that homemade whipped cream made with vanilla bean), grated cinnamon, or however you'd like it.