With the latest barrage of blizzards gone, and potentially more to hit much of the country, it's no wonder our latest sweet craze offers satisfaction that's not only decadent, but served warm as well. Drinking chocolate has been gaining ground as America's 'must-have' liquid refreshment—a direct result of the increasing number of artisan chocolatiers nationwide—and is appearing on restaurant, chocolate shop, and bar menus from Portland, Oregon, to NYC. While the frothy beverage has never gone out of style, it's received a makeover in recent years. Forget the stand-alone whipped cream topping. Today's edgier drink boasts everything from peanut butter to booze.
Mexico's Maya civilization had been drinking chocolate 3,000 years ago. Served both hot and cold the beverage was sort of a magical elixir, bursting with benefits like flavonoids to improve blood flow and resveratrol, an antioxidant known to enhance moods. “The Maya and the Aztecs used cacao widely to cure several illnesses,” says Ana Rita Garcia Lascurain, director at Mexico City's MUCHO Mundo Chocolate Museum, which opened in 2012. “Mixed with tlilxóchitl (vanilla) or ueinacaztli (a flower) it was drunk for a cough, or as a laxative, to induce labor and to open the pores.” Traditional Mexican hot chocolate is made with full ground cacao and water, spiced with chili powder, and flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and sometimes almonds, all three of which says Garcia Lascurain add to its nutritional value. However, when Europeans adopted the drink in the 16th century they also adapted it to their tastes, substituting milk for water and adding sugar to sweeten the overall bitterness. Now variations abound.
Italy's cioccolata densa is a thick, rich, and creamy drinking chocolate served in a demitasse cup (think espresso), while Belgium is known for its chocolat chaud, a steaming cup of white milk served with a bowl of bittersweet finely chopped chocolate and sometimes marshmallows. In the U.S. most people differentiate between hot chocolate—a mix of ground chocolate and milk, similar to the Belgium or French style—and hot cocoa, a lighter version made with cocoa powder and milk or water, and sweetened to taste with sugar. But with the concurrent rise of boutique chocolate shops and speakeasies operated by accomplished “mixologists”, new adaptations on the beverage are seemingly endless.
Take the Hot Oaxacan, a boozy hot chocolate served at midtown Manhattan's The Jeffery featuring Mezcal, xocolatl mole bitters, and Sriracha hot sauce. Patrons line up for a similarly spicy version at Lilly Handmade Chocolates in Cleveland, though with peanut butter instead of spirits. At Max Brenner in Bethesda, Maryland, guests not only get to choose their liquid chocolate (which includes both dark and white varieties), but can flavor the drink with caramel and sea salt, chocolate wafer balls, or vanilla cream. While some of the drinks are seasonal, places like Cacao in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco's The Mill offer the steaming beverage year-round.
At The Mill (where, to be honest, it can be cold enough for hot chocolate any time of the year) servers offer a rich hot chocolate made with pulverized 70% Ambanja from Dandelion, a local bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Still back in Mexico, Garcia Lascurain swears by the original. “Cacao has almost three times as much flavonoids than wine or green tea,” she says, “[but] because of the alkalizing process [done in other countries] cocoa loses 60-80% of its flavonoid content, meaning many of its health benefits. Also, dairy may inhibit the absorption of antioxidants, so chocolate in water—the way we drink it in Mexico—is preferred.”
Drinking Chocolate with Chile
At Mexico City's Dulce Patria, chef Martha Ortiz serves up a Mexican hot chocolate that’s senusal and spicy, just like the restaurant's creative cuisine.
Yields 4 portions
4 oz. semisweet chocolate bar for baking 70% cacao
1 qt. milk
1 pinch of star anise
1 pinch of ground cardamom
1 pinch of cinnamon
1 piece of deveined chile ancho
4 oz approx., agave syrup, to taste
Boil milk with chocolate and spices. When it comes to first boil, remove from the heat and let the spices infuse in the covered pot for 15 minutes.
Crush the deveined chile ancho to obtain flakes.
While serving the hot chocolate in a cup, dust with chile flakes.
Lots of Hot Chocolates from Jacques Torres Chocolates
Published in October 2013, The Chelsea Market Cookbook: 100 Recipes from New York’s Premiere Indoor Food Hall offers up numerous takes on the familiar hot chocolate, including raspberries flavored and a Mexican-inspired version with milk instead of water, courteousy of artisan chocolatier Jacques Torres Chocolates.
For the hot chocolate:
1 cup whole milk
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (any percentage), finely chopped
For raspberry hot chocolate: 5 fresh crushed raspberries
For spiced hot chocolate: A pinch of ground allspice, ground cinnamon, ancho chile powder, and chipotle chile powder.
For vanilla hot chocolate: ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For peppermint hot chocolate: 1 peppermint candy cane (allow it to melt)
For mocha hot chocolate: 1 teaspoon -instant coffee, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
Heat the milk in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until slightly warm. Whisking constantly, gradually add the chocolate. Cook, still whisking constantly, just until the milk begins to form bubbles around the edge of the pan. Do not allow the milk to boil.
Pour the mixture into a mug. Garnish with whipped cream and/or shaved chocolate, if desired.