Photo by niseag03/FlickrCC
Zeke's post made me take stock of the number of brands of hot cocoa and hot chocolate mixes I have in my constant rotation. It was nine, not counting the three brands of cocoa powder I have. It really doesn't pay to pass up a new brand wherever you can find it—and as Zeke's sweep of five interesting kinds when the endless snows of Siberia on the Potomac, as James Fallows recently took to calling Washington, makes clear, there are a lot more available now than when my own obsession began.
Most of them now involve actual chocolate, instead of sugar, cocoa powder, and dried milk powder—the usual ingredients, and of course sugar is first. In seconds, crack Atlantic intern Suzanne Merkelson provided me this overview of common brands:
Here's a random sampling of hot chocolate mixes:
Ghirardelli Chocolate Hazelnut: 75% sugar
Swiss Miss Rich Chocolate: 72% sugar
Nestle Rich Chocolate: 67% sugar
Nestle Hot Cocoa w/ mini marshmallows: 65% sugar
Swiss Miss French Vanilla: 64% sugar
Swiss Miss, no sugar added milk chocolate: 45% sugar
Average (not including the "no sugar added" kind) 68.6%
Interesting that "no sugar added" Swiss Miss milk-chocolate entry, no? In any case, when you buy mixes you're buying sugar, generally weak cocoa powder—and recall that, counterintuitively, "dutched" cocoa powder looks darker and richer, but is in fact weaker in flavor—and a couple of emulsifiers and artificial flavors, generally vanillin.
I have an almost limitless tolerance for sugar and a fairly inexplicable love of cocoa powder coupled with indifference/aversion to actual chocolate (cocoa liquor plus cocoa butter), so I can bear mixes more cheerfully than most. And Zeke's batch reflects the new style of actually putting chocolate into hot-chocolate mixtures, which makes it hot chocolate and not hot cocoa.
This is the French style as epitomized by Ladurée, home of the macaron, and the reason hot chocolate got redefined in this country when Maury Rubin, of New York's City Bakery, and others started melting chocolate into cream and serving, well, hot ganache. I still head straight for the hot chocolate (and homemade marshmallows, another national trend that Rubin can claim credit for popularizing) and pretzel croissants at City Bakery, but generally dilute it, because drinking hot cream, not milk, is something of a championship sport. If you want a marathon, try a cup of LA Burdick's hot chocolate, which as Zeke points out—and Bostonians who fell in love with it when the New Hampshire chocolatier opened a store in Cambridge a few years ago—is a full meal.
The Angelina mix that Zeke finds just a shade better than Swiss Miss was my own introduction to a new-style thick hot chocolate from a pouch, and for years I commissioned my brother and niece, who commuted from Paris to New York, to bring me back the maroon metallic bags. I even got Ari Weinzweig to carry it at Zingerman's, but the shipments were apparently irregular, so he started selling one of the many mixes that began appearing of similar richness: Rovira chocolate a la taza amargo, whose handsomely designed stiff-paper pouch says it's packaged in Barcelona.
The brands Zeke mentions, for instance Vosges, have become more and more available here, and follow the cocoa-mass model; a few of the brands I've got include Teuscher, also one of the first Angelina-style mixtures to be sold here; Marie Belle Aztec, from the popular and stylish Soho shop; Barbero, from the Italian Piedmontese artisan maker of the only chocolates I love, dark and smoky from fresh-roasted hazelnuts that grow near Cherasco, the arty hill town that is home to the sinuous Art Nouveau shop; and Silly Cow farm chocolate truffle, in a cute little milk bottle that moos Vermont (not literally but almost).
But my favorite hot chocolate is still hot cocoa, the way Italians really make it when they're not being influenced by France, as everyone in the Piedmont region is. And the best I've found substitutes unrefined brown cane sugar for the usual dose of fine-ground, tasteless beet sugar: Les Confitures a l'Ancienne, from a French supplier that exports fairly widely. And strong, barely sweet hot cocoa thickened with a secret ingredient is still the best way to make it. Here it is as I wrote about it long ago in The Atlantic:
Using the proportions in Ada Boni's Talismano della Felicita, the Italian Joy of Cooking, I have developed a general formula for hot chocolate. You can prepare double or triple batches of the dry ingredients and keep the mixture in a jar, and add a third to a half cup of the mixture per cup of liquid.
To make two generous or four modest cups, in a saucepan whisk together half a cup of cocoa powder, one teaspoon of cornstarch or arrowroot, a third of a cup of sugar, and half a cup of water, on or off a low flame—it will dissolve either way after thirty seconds or so. Add half a cup more of water and a cup of milk, of whatever kind you like. Keep stirring over low to moderate heat for about ten minutes, scraping the bottom to prevent scorching, until the mixture thickens. I wish I could recommend scooping up some of the dry mix from a canister, stirring it with water or milk, and putting the mug into a microwave oven for a minute or two. But every time I have tried preparing hot cocoa in a microwave, no matter how much headroom I leave in the cup it boils over and makes a mess. I think my recipe provides the ideal dark brew, to be sipped from small cups (proper chocolate cups are somewhere between demitasse and teacups in size). To bring the liquid to a more familiar consistency, simply add another cup of hot milk or a half cup each of water and milk. Optional additions are a teaspoon of vanilla, a pinch of salt, or a sprinkling of freshly ground nutmeg (which accentuates chocolate better, I think, than cinnamon).
But if the cocoa powder is good, I don't want any of these. My favorite is Pernigotti, a cocoa in a class above all others. Many aficionados agree with me, and we speculate about what makes it so superior: Some sneaky form of sugar? Chestnut flour? The only ingredient listed after cocoa is one percent vanillin. Yet that single addition doesn't seem to explain how Pernigotti can be good enough to eat straight. I discovered Pernigotti long ago at an Italian trade show; now Williams-Sonoma sells it (though not through mail order), so it's very easy to find.
I still have part of a can of W-S Pernigotti cocoa, but I'm not sure they still stock it. Nominations for favorite cocoa powders please! Good cocoa is really the secret to satisfaction in life.
This article available online at: