Heretical as it is, I will make the bold statement that, at times, I find hot chocolates and cocoas to be unthrillingly blah.
Blah, of course, being a highly-technical term denoting boring, dull, unexciting, humdrum. In my head I hear that despondent wah-waaaaah slide of a trombone that's used in cartoons when the last balloon is popped right before the party, or the scoop of ice cream falls off the cone with a splat on the pavement, and the hero looks at the camera, crestfallen.
That's what hot chocolate can be like sometimes.
On one end of the spectrum they sip heavily, and dare I say it cloyingly, as if simply a chocolate bar melted down. Which is not really an insult per se, because that can be a glorious thing, but mine is only a once in a while desire to experience that full hit.
On the far end from that, there's hot cocoa. I associate it with single-serve packets (with nubs of dehydrated marshmallows included), stirred unceremoniously with hot water, thin and wan - without much going for it beyond a colour suggestive of beige and brown and brick mixed together.
Before a step further, there should be an admission that I've a deep-rooted fidelity to that stuff. It is, to me, the flavour of winter class trips in elementary school - of the ice rink, and even more so, the provincial park we'd often visit. I am without notion of what we'd do there in the cold months, without recollection of much save for the big white room with grand, mullioned windows, where, after we'd do whatever it was we'd been doing, the gaggle of us would trundle in with snow pants and hats and sodden scarves, set our damp mitts to dry on the radiators, then each crisscross our chilled fingers around a styrofoam cup of hot cocoa. We slurped it up greedily and I wouldn't change a thing about the memory.
That said, that's not the hot chocolate we're drinking these days. For us, we turn to this recipe. It's become our usual brew; the hot chocolate of our thermos this winter, the one that steamed from mugs on the first Snow Day of Benjamin's school career (a red-letter day, by all accounts), the one upon which we float our marshmallows. It's safe to say that we're set on it as our own.
Its complexity sneaks past you, I can't say imperceptibly because it is noticeable or I couldn't be talking about it, but it is in a manner that you might not register at first - it tastes of chocolate and more. There's the bitter of coffee that calls attention to the darkness in chocolate, the accent of cinnamon that sets them both off, all smoothed out by the subtlety of cocoa.
Though this may look a fussy production, rest assured that while the upmarket neighbour to a mix, it only requires the slightest bit more by way of effort. There is a sole idiosyncrasy to the method, one I came upon accidentally when I walked away from the stove for longer than I should have, and it's a ritual I've since adopted as rule. It is most likely in direct violation of cookery rules and I'll make no apology for that.
You're going to boil the chocolate.
Well, the chocolate and cream and all the rest of it. Just for a minute or two, the bubbles shouldn't be furious. And stir conscientiously as it's happening please. In boiling, you give the mixture the opportunity to concentrate and thicken, so that the final texture is in between that of hot cocoa and drinkable chocolate. It coats the throat thinly, silkily. I'll wager seductively, if we want to go that far.
No trombones about it.
Our Hot Chocolate
As you'll see from the list of ingredients there are opportunities to fidget this recipe to meet your tastes. I'm happy with the lesser amount of sugar and a bittersweet chocolate, but others might want a gentler, rounder drink. Go with what works for you.
3-4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons best-quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup 12% cream (single, pouring, half and half)
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar, cocoa, espresso powder and cinnamon. Pour in a little of the milk and whisk until smooth. Pour in the rest of the milk, then the cream, stirring until combined. Add the chopped chocolate and heat until the mixture comes just under a simmer.
Stirring constantly as to not scorch, maintain the heat at a simmer and cook until the chocolate thickens slightly, around 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, stirring now and again as it will continue to thicken as it stands, and cool to your desired temperature.
Makes just over 2 cups, serving four daintily, if you can show such restraint.
- If cinnamon is not your thing, scrape in the seeds from an inch of fresh vanilla bean, or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract. A pinch of a nice sea salt can also do wonders. The same can be said for cayenne.