Hot chocolate is a drink with a lot of literary connections. It starts when we’re young—who can listen to The Polar Express when they were a kid and not want to taste some melted chocolate bars? Then there’s the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time, when the insomniacs in the Murray family gather in the kitchen at midnight for cocoa. The origins of the drink get a nod in Naamah’s Blessing, Jacqueline Carey’s alternate history account of American exploration in the sixteenth century, when the scheming Shahrizai family makes alliances over precious chocolatl brought back from the new world.
I started thinking about doing a hot chocolate recipe as part of my post on Little, Big (which is forthcoming, I promise). There is one scene I love very much that mentions a thermos of spiked hot chocolate. It would have been a good match, but then I realized I have too many feelings about both that book and about hot chocolate to fit into one post.
I think I liked hot chocolate when I was a kid, but as an adult it mostly disappoints me. It’s always too sweet, or upsettingly grainy, and when it falls even a little bit below piping hot it gets sort of thick and nasty. Granted, most of the time I’m not using the best materials or methods—a packet of premixed powder, whatever milk is on hand, and the microwave. Even when I go to a coffee shop and let someone else make me one, hot chocolate tends to be a letdown.
There have been two exceptions to this rule:
- GROM is an Italian gelato chain that serves ciocolatta calda in the wintertime. My favorite is the fondente con crema– dark chocolate with a scoop of cream gelato.
- L.A. Burdick’s is a fancy chocolatier with four locations in the Northeastern United States. They are also the source of the chocolate mice that inspired the ones in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.
So those are the best two hot chocolates I’ve ever had, but neither of them are practical for day to day consumption. With that in mind, I took to the internet to try to find a homemade recipe that I could manage.
First I tried this recipe from Kemp Minifie at epicurious. The words “simple” and “for one” in the title appealed to me. The small number of ingredients was also nice, since I was searching from my phone in the grocery store parking lot.
The basic idea is to combine the powdery ingredients- salt, sugar, cocoa- in a little bit of milk (I used whole milk) on the stove, and once everything is dissolved add the rest of the milk and stir until it’s heated through. I needed more than the recommended 2 tablespoons of milk to get everything dissolved, and I also went light on the sugar (1 tbsp), but otherwise I followed the directions.
The result was okay. The texture was thin enough to be drinkable but still rich, but the taste was pretty average. It wasn’t substantially better than the hot chocolate I had a coffee shop a week ago. I also feel like I dirtied a lot of dishes for just one cup of a moderately satisfying beverage.
That said, I was still obviously going to drink it, so I loaded it up with whipped cream, cup up a mini-pandoro that I’d been saving, and brought it out to the deck with my book. Seventy-degree weather in December feels pretty weird, but I’m not complaining.
My next attempt was inspired by Cara Nicoletti of Yummy Books. I was trying to see if there were other famous books featuring hot chocolate besides the ones I mentioned above, and I stumbled onto her post about hot cocoa and The Polar Express. If you are into food and books, or books about food, go check out that blog. I know her book, Voracious, has been added to my virtual to-read pile.
Nicoletti’s recipe involves making a chocolate ganache that then has to be chilled before it can be transformed into hot chocolate. She also includes a recipe for homemade marshmallow fluff topping. Even though I have traditionally been scared off by anything that requires a candy thermometer, I decided to give both of these a go.
I had one and a half vanilla beans instead of the required four, so I used some extra vanilla extract (Google tells me that 1 inch of vanilla bean = 1 tsp vanilla extract, and the one full bean I had was about 3 inches long, so I went with that). I also used a hand mixer instead of a stand mixer. It seemed to take a really long time to get the fluff to the right consistency, but I have no experience with this and get bored easily, so it was probably average.
Making the two recipes took me about two hours, including cleanup. The worst part was scraping out the vanilla beans. I narrowly avoided stabbing myself a few times and did not avoid dropping the pods into both the cream and egg white mixtures. The best part was licking the spoons and the beaters, because damn, these are both delicious.
I let the ganache and the fluff chill in the fridge for about six hours, which was enough time for it to solidify a bit. I put two heaping tablespoons of ganache into each mug and poured hot milk over it, then topped with fluff.
The result was life changing. I’m not even exaggerating. The perfect texture, sweet but not too sweet. The orange in the chocolate was subtle and perfect. This recipe has cured me of my cocoa curmudgeon status. The best part is that the ganache stays good in the refrigerator for two months, so I can enjoy this treat well into the New Year. If it lasts that long.