Saturday, January 01, 2011

Hot Chocolate for a Wintry Day

With the arrival of the winter solstice, how about a classic wintertime drink? This is my column in the Athens Banner-Herald for my Wednesday spot three days before Christmas.

Here's a hot chocolate that's fancier than what Mama served after we played outdoors in the cold. I include an adult version, less sweet than some, with a touch of liqueur or liquor. The junior version has a marshmallow.

Chocolate, from "xocolatl," the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for a spicy, bitter drink made from cocoa bean paste, vanilla and hot chilies, was encountered in Mexico by the Spanish conquistador Hern n Cortéz. That Aztec drink, containing native Central American plants, goes back at least 2,000 years to the Mayans.

Introduced to Europe by the Spaniards, chocolate, especially once sugar and milk replaced the hot chilies, became a fashionable drink among the upper classes.

The terms "hot chocolate" and "hot cocoa" are virtually interchangeable. Both are made from cocoa powder, which is what remains of cocoa bean paste after the cocoa butter is largely removed. Cocoa dissolves, or is at least thoroughly wetted, when heated with liquid.

Cocoa powder is sold with the baking supplies, not with the drink mixes. Hershey's, the traditional U.S. brand, makes good hot chocolate. It still has the flavor from many people's childhoods. San Francisco's Ghirardelli produces a premium American cocoa. Several supermarkets carry their own brands of cocoa that are quite decent, too.

International cocoas, available sometimes in specialty shops or online, include Van Houten and Droste from Holland, Cadbury's from England and Kras from Croatia.

In addition to pure cocoa powders, there are instant cocoa mixes. I find those quite avoidable.

However, two good "drinking chocolate" solid preparations are available to dissolve in hot milk, one by Ghirardelli, the other, "Abuelita," from Nestlé of Mexico. The Mexican version is heavy in cinnamon.

My mother had a "secret" for rich creamy hot chocolate (which she called cocoa). She added canned evaporated milk - not for economy, but for flavor. Similarly, I make hot chocolate with a mixture of milk and canned evaporated milk.

Hot chocolate can be fancied up. For adults, stir into the cup up to a tablespoon of Kahl a, Cointreau/Grand Marnier, Baileys, Drambuie, Amaretto or Frangelica. Peppermint schnapps and cr me de menthe also are fun. Lacing it with brandy, rum or bourbon makes more serious hot chocolate.

The drink can be frothed, like cappuccino. It can be topped with whipped cream and dusted with cinnamon or nutmeg.

For kids, forget the adult flourishes. Just put a marshmallow in the cup before pouring in the hot liquid.

The recipe makes a quart of hot chocolate, or four to six servings. For convenience, the syrup part can be done ahead, and the hot chocolate made by heating the syrup with milk later.

Hot Chocolate

1/4 cup cocoa

1/4 sugar

1/8 teaspoon (scant) salt

Large pinch of cinnamon

1/2 cup water

1 (10-ounce) can evaporated milk

21/4 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix dry ingredients in pan. Using whisk, mix in water to moisten ingredients thoroughly.

Bring to gentle boil. Simmer 2 minutes, whisking frequently. Add both milks. Whisk occasionally while heating. Bring just to a simmer, but do not boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla.

Pour into cups to serve. If desired, stir into each cup up to a tablespoon of liqueur, brandy, rum, bourbon or a marshmallow.

Top with whipped cream, if desired. As an option, dust with cinnamon or nutmeg.


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