In the movie Chocolat, the riverboat captain tells the chocolatier that his favorite of all her confections is none other than the prosaic cauldron of hot chocolate she keeps on the hob to thaw out her customers. When she pours out a cup, it’s so thick it’s like hot molten chocolate bars. Hard to imagine how anyone could swallow more than a spoonful of it in reality, but you immediately believe it’s superior to the thin, miserly stuff that’s been passed off as hot chocolate in your childhood. And you’re right.
And on the other hand, how could anyone in their right mind want to down a cup of melted chocolate bars? Too rich, and for me, much too fatty. And with much too much cleanup–the last image that stuck in my mind from Chocolat was actually not the hot chocolate Juliette Binoche handed Johnny Depp and Judi Dench but the thickly encrusted cauldron that had been cooking chocolate all day long. Scary, and what a waste of chocolate for one scene!
So I don’t go for that myself, or at least not on such a grand scale. Though if you want that kind of recipe–go to David Lebovitz’s blog and look for Parisian (or worse yet, with even more chocolate, Belgian) hot chocolate. He’s got two kinds of Mexican hot chocolate drinks too.
Cocoa powder, the ordinary day-to-day stuff of American hot chocolate mixes, seems so much less potent and chocolaty than all the fancy recherché chocolate bars with the cocoa solids percentages, the exotic Latin American or African source names, the single-source, fair-trade, wine-label-styled descriptions. Cocoa powder is so prosaic (unless it’s Scharffen-Berger or Valrhona or another premium brand). How could it possibly be good enough for a high-class, French-style cup of hot chocolate?
Granted, cocoa powder–dutched, natural, either way–it’s pure cocoa solids. But it doesn’t really give you the full chocolate experience if you just mix it into things. Something’s missing.
Most professional chefs and chocolatiers will probably tell you it’s the cocoa butter that’s missing. And they’re not entirely wrong–fat does carry flavor and keeps the more volatile, delicate aromas in the chocolate from evaporating off too quickly or breaking down under heat.
But if that were the entire reason, cocoa powder, stripped of all its fat and stored in warehouses and supermarket shelves for months at a time, would be flavorless and dead by the time you got it home from the store, and we know that’s not the case.
When you make brownies or chocolate cake with cocoa powder, there comes a point in the baking when you suddenly smell the chocolate wherever you are in the house at that moment. Before you even realize you’re smelling it, before any timer goes off, your feet are leading you back to the kitchen, and your first instinct when you get there is to open the oven and grab yourself a piece of it. It happens even if you’ve made a cake with applesauce instead of oil or butter.
So where’s the flavor hiding in the cocoa powder, and how do you recapture the magic? The answer, or part of it, might be hiding in A Tale of Two Cities. Yes, really. If you never managed to get past the first chapter in high school, consider the following little gem. Charles Dickens manages to skewer the French aristocracy pre-revolution, the French national obsession with cuisine ever afterward, and even French grammar in a single description of breakfast.
Monseigneur, one of the great lords in power at the Court, held his fortnightly reception in his grand hotel in Paris. Monseigneur was in his inner room, his sanctuary of sanctuaries, the Holiest of Holiests to the crowd of worshippers in the suite of rooms without. Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning’s chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the Cook.
Yes. It took four men, all four ablaze with gorgeous decoration, and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur’s lips. One lacquey carried the chocolate-pot into the sacred presence; a second, milled and frothed the chocolate with the little instrument he bore for that function; a third, presented the favoured napkin; a fourth (he of the two gold watches), poured the chocolate out. It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two.
—opening to Chapter VII, A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (source: Project Gutenberg)
If that doesn’t make you want to pick up your old paperback copy again and try to get all the way through this time, nothing will.
Needless to say, I don’t have four servants. I don’t even have one. And I hate washing more pots and chocolate-stirring implements and escutcheons than I have to. But I take my hot chocolate fairly seriously. And clearly, Monseigneur’s servants did too, but they also had the classic problem of the chocolate sinking to the bottom, or why the whisk?
How to solve it, though?
Take a look at the back of the cocoa box. If you’re not going to take advice from the people who so desperately want you to buy more, who are you going to listen to?
The standard advice is to mix the cocoa powder and sugar together, heat with a small amount of water to a boil, then add the milk and stir and heat up again until it just starts to foam slightly at the top. This is pretty good advice in its way, but I always find the recipes a bit weak on chocolate power and a little high on sugar, and the stuff always seems to have sunk to the bottom of the cup at the end, leaving most of the milk weakly flavored and light brown. It doesn’t stay together.
Perhaps if we take a cue from coffee brewing–cocoa and coffee beans are both roasted or fermented, ground to powder and mixed with boiling water to bring out their flavor. Now, I actually always hated Turkish coffee, or at least the unfiltered stuff we used to call botz (mud) in the kibbutz where I volunteered after college. Our pathetic way of doing it was to pour boiling water over fine-ground coffee and let it sit until the stuff sank. But the right way to do it is to let the water and beans come just to a light boil three times, lifting the finjan (toucan-beaked, long-handled brass coffee pot) off the flame each time. That extracts as much stuff from the coffee as it’s going to–it certainly extracts the caffeine well enough to cause earthquakes with a single sip. If you’re careful about the temperature control, you can keep most of the flavor–especially if you pour it through a filter before serving. The other key is to use enough, and fresh enough, coffee for the volume of water.
Back to the chocolate dilemma. The message I took from all this was to heat a larger-than-called-for amount of cocoa powder with a standard-or-a-bit-less amount of sugar and a little water, maybe 1/4 cup per mug of hot chocolate as a first step. But rather than just letting it come to the boil, I wanted to heat it more than once, stirring, until it really developed that chocolate aroma. And, just as importantly, that extra cooking gives the sugar and water time to thicken into a syrup base.
It works–heating a few times you get a thick, glossy very dark chocolate syrup in which the cocoa powder particles seem to have blossomed or unfurled both physically and flavor-wise.
You can actually stop there and use it as a quick, fat-free chocolate sauce for strawberries or ice cream and it’s pretty good and intensely flavored, with a decent texture as long as you eat it fairly quickly (i.e, that meal, before it dries out). When it dries, it’ll be kind of powdery rather than ganache-like because there’s no fat, so you wouldn’t really want to use it to coat caramels or dried fruit for presentation. Maybe it would work to stir a little cream or a pat of butter into the hot sauce to keep it pliant or storable, but I haven’t tried it because most of what I want it for as an impromptu sauce is its intense chocolate power, uncut by fat.
But back to the hot chocolate. When you stir in the milk (or brewed coffee and milk, for mocha), you get a darker, richer, more chocolate flavor and texture, and it stays together longer. And although you can do it by hand on the stove top, it works particularly well in the microwave, at least in single-mug quantities (which also means you don’t need to wash out a pot), as long as you keep an eye on it for boilover.
Hot Chocolate by the Mug, microwave edition
- 1 heaping T cocoa powder
- 2-3 t. sugar
- 1/4 c. water or brewed coffee
- milk to desired volume (8-10 oz cup)–skim or other percentage as desired
- optional: pinch or shake of cinnamon and/or mild chile powder (fine-ground dried New Mexico, Anaheim, ancho, pasilla or guajillo peppers–seeds removed first–or Aleppo pepper)
Stir the sugar and cocoa together in the bottom of a microwaveable coffee mug–and when I say microwaveable, I don’t mean “good for 30 seconds before the glazing overheats,” as I learned the hard way at my in-laws’ last year over the winter break. I mean microwaveable for 2 minutes and still comfortable to pick up by the handle.
Pour the water or coffee in slowly, just enough at first to moisten the powder and stir to a paste, then stir in the rest. Microwave on HIGH 1 minute, watching carefully to avoid boilover. Stir–if it’s only slightly thickened and climbed the sides of the mug the first time, microwave again for a couple of 10-20 second pulses. It should climb more slowly and be very thick indeed when you stir it. Then gradually stir in milk to the volume you want–if you want your chocolate intense, fill the mug only halfway; if you want it standard, the whole way up. Heat again for 30 seconds to 1 minute (depending on volume), stir again and heat some more in 20-second pulses if it’s not yet hot enough for you.
Getting true to the movie version–I’m not sure I would, though there are plenty of “Mexican Chocolate with Chile and Cinnamon” kinds of recipes out there. To my mind, the chile powder and cinnamon Juliette Binoche’s character added to her chocolate pot are “add at your own risk”. A small dusting of cinnamon is fine and decorative once in a while, but I find it a distraction from the flavor of the chocolate, which I prefer plain or with coffee. Sometimes less is more. If you’re adding chile powder, you’d do best with a small pinch added at the end so that the flavor doesn’t take over during cooking. You want subtle heat that blooms in slowly and keeps you warm long after you drink the chocolate, not an overt sting that prevents you from tasting anything else.