Hot Chocolate: How to Make It an Opulent, Adult Drink

by Corby Kummer

I NOISILY disdain chocolate. When the dessert menu arrives, I make a point of announcing how happy I would be if chocolate desserts ceased to exist. As the diners around me swoon over luscious mousse or ganache (chocolate beaten with cream), I ostentatiously keep my fork at a distance—not. I regret to say, my usual comportment. In post-adolescent memory I have eaten exactly half of a Gold Bar (from Fran’s Chocolates, in Seattle), which is mostly almonds and caramel and is thoroughly commendable, and bitten into maybe three or four chocolate truffles I didn’t finish.

But like all food-minded people with strong opinions, I’m a hypocrite. I love Oreos, and what I think of as their ne plus ultra—chocolate “amore” biscotti with fat squiggles of white icing from La Tempcsta, in South San Francisco. And I can’t possibly count the cups of hot chocolate I have drunk since discovering that it can be an opulent, adult drink. In fact, in the relentless weather of late winter I don’t even try to get through a day without at least one cup of hot chocolate. Mixed with a bit of coffee, it’s an incomparable restorative.

This discovery, like many in my adult life, took place in Italy—in Turin, to be exact, one of the most elegant places I know and a city dear to my heart for its pastry tradition. Piedmont, the region of which Turin is the capital, was long the property of the house of Savoy, and the French influence is still strong there, blessedly relieved by Italian ideas of lightness. On the Via Roma, one of the suspiciously wide urban axes lined with 1930s buildings which in an Italian city conjure Fascist parades, the city gathers at the Zucca caffe, not to be seen (usually the case in Turin) but because everything there is extra good. The hot chocolate at the bar is a silken, deep-mahogany drink that demands to be sipped very slowly.

Getting your cup takes time. Baristi (bartenders) fetch the thick hot-chocolate mixture from a small refrigerator, and after waiting patiently for it to drip out of an old milk bottle, they heat a small cupful under a milk-frothing nozzle. The very warm liquid can be consumed only at a stately pace, and the dense chocolate flavor is greatly preferable to the unctuous richness of other chocolate. After many visits during which I prodded, quizzed, and made conversation wiih baristi, I found out why I could crave this deep-chocolate experience while remaining steadfastly indifferent to conventional ones: I like cocoa powder but not chocolate.

CHOCOLATE-lovers crave the mouthfilling sensation that cocoa butter, a fat occurring naturally in cocoa beans, provides. Uniquely, cocoa butter remains solid at room temperature but melts upon contact with the body (in your hand and in your mouth). This property makes it among the most expensive of all comestible fats, animal or vegetable. A cocoa pod is roughly the size and shape of a big acorn squash, and contains forty-five to fifty almond-shaped beans; the best come from Ghana. Venezuela, and Indonesia. The beans are fermented, dried, shelled, and roasted, in a process very like that for coffee beans. Cocoa butter is separated out when broken roasted cocoa beans, called nibs, are pulverized and pressed; a cake containing solids and some cocoa butter remains, and is ground into cocoa powder. The final fat content of cocoa powder is anywhere from 10 to 30 percent. with an average of 22 percent in the kind consumers buy and 10 to 12 percent in the kind manufacturers use. (A certain amount of fat is necessary to round out the flavor, and besides, stripping cocoa of all its fat requires the use of chemicals that could leave questionable residues.) The fat content of unsweetened baking chocolate, by comparison, is about 55 percent; the fat content of bittersweet, semisweet, sweet, and milk chocolate, which all have cocoa butter added back in for flavor and texture, is in the 30s (the sugar and milk solids dominate, reducing the total fat content).

This doesn’t necessarily mean that hot chocolate is a lot less fatly than chocolate bars and frosting—after all, you can make it with whole milk or cream. But at least you control the fat content, after that of the cocoa powder is taken into account. You can certainly melt chocolate into milk, and if you love cocoa butter, you’ll probably enjoy drinking it. But what I prefer is the least fat and the most cocoa flavor possible. Italians generally use half milk and half water, but the ratio hardly matters, because a secret ingredient makes all the difference. I’ve taken to using half skim milk and half water, and the results provoke reactions ranging from gratifying interest to recipe-hounding.

The secret ingredient is nothing more than cornstarch. It ennobles a simple cup of hot chocolate, making it a regal amalgam of chocolate sauce, pudding, and old-fashioned hot cocoa. The dense liquid coats a spoon beautifully, like a thin glaze or a wood stain. It also leaves an appealingly cracked wash on the walls of the cup; a fortune-teller could likely make something portentous of the patterns. Arrowroot, another pure starch, works equally well. Potato starch, often the thickener of choice in Italy, is a bit gross for hot chocolate; the goal is something puddinglike, not hot pudding.

BEFORE moving on, I’d like to say a few unkind words about commercial hot-chocolate mixes, which are based on cocoa powder. They’re too sweet, to begin with. Nestlé Quik, which I recently bought hoping to find it better than I remembered, seemed unbearably sweet, and no wonder—like most cocoa mixes, it contains about 80 percent sugar. Mixes frequently contain inferior cocoa powder, and my various tastings have shown me that the flavor of the cocoa powder you begin with is critical. It can be as deep and nuanced as good coffee. Mixes often include powdered milk, which has that awful bone-meal taste. The more highfalutin ones, like a new Nestlé “European” line, use artificial flavors and vegetable oils, leaving a residue in the mouth like an oil slick.

If you rely on a commercial mix. you might take a tip from Susan Purdy, a skilled baker who has written excellent books on cakes and pies, including the new Have Your Cake and Ear It, Too: add at least half again as much cocoa powder to the mix, to cut down on the sweetness and beef up the flavor. Unfortunately, this won’t eliminate the tinny aftertaste of a flavored mix. Quik is relatively unsullied. and will benefit from the addition of an equal amount of good cocoa powder. All you’re buying in Quik besides cocoa powder, though, is sugar, vanillin (synthesized vanilla), and lecithin, which helps powders stay suspended in liquid.

The key to the rich drink I fell in love with in Turin is the profligate use of cocoa powder. My guide in brave excess has been Ann Hodgman, the author of the new Beat This! cookbook, surely the funniest book ever written about food—anyone who has been blue lately, or has spent more than five minutes in the kitchen, should buy it. Hodgman says that she knows how to make anything delicious; “I just double the chocolate and add some bacon.”

Using the proportions in Ada Boni’s Talismano della Felicità, the Italian Joy of Cooking, I have developed a (baconless) general formula for hot chocolate. You can prepare double or triple batches of the dry ingredients and keep the mixture in ajar, and add a third to a half cup of the mixture per cup of liquid. If this sounds like a lot more dry to wet than you’re used to, wait: you’ll see the combined wisdom of Hodgman and Boni. 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 WilliamsSonoma sells it {though not through mail order), so it’s very easy to find.

My second favorite cocoa is De Zaan, a Dutch brand, not to be confused with Dutch-process cocoa powder, which has alkali—a base, similar to baking soda— added to darken the color and make the powder easier to suspend in liquid; I don’t find that “dutching,” as it’s called, makes any difference in flavor or workability. De Zaan is usually sold only in bulk to the food industry, but the U.S. sales office will send you a 250-gram tin for $8.95 plus shipping (the number is 203-351-9509).

And what of Hershey’s, that ever-reliabie staple? It dissolves beautifully, even though it isn’t dutched. and it makes such a thick mixture, for reasons I can’t discern (it’s pure cocoa powder), that you need to halve the amount of cornstarch you use or you’ll end up with pudding. The flavor, sad to say, is oddly chalky and very acidic. I like acid in coffee, but I prefer a smooth, sweet roundness in cocoa.

IF the idea of drinking a chocolate bar appeals to you. you can begin with melted chocolate rather than dry cocoa powder, using what is often called the Viennese method for making hot chocolate—although during a week of cafe-going in Vienna a few years ago I saw powder come out from beneath the counter whenever I ordered hot chocolate. Melting chocolate over a heat source is a tricky procedure, subject to sudden burning. Double boilers are required for stovetop melting; I find that the easiest way is in the microwave oven. Break or chop the chocolate into rough pieces, pile them into a measuring cup, and cover it with plastic wrap. Books sometimes suggest an ounce of chocolate to a cup of milk, but listen to Ann Hodgman—use two ounces. Heat two ounces for one and a half minutes, or four ounces for two and a half. The squares and shards will probably look like watches in a Salvador Dalí painting; stir them vigorously with a whisk or a wooden spoon to create a smooth paste. Separately, scald the amount of milk you will need, either in the microwave or on the stove. Beat it into the melted chocolate, which won’t rebel by solidifying or clumping if the milk is good and hot. I’ll never love this drink as I do thick cocoa made with cocoa powder, but many people will find it irresistible when made with half milk, half cream.

As with cocoa, the choice of primary ingredient makes all the difference. I don’t recommend Baker’s or any unsweetened chocolate, which will require much doctoring to be palatable. Try a bittersweet or sweet chocolate you enjoy eating (Valrhona and Callebaut are the current chocolate-lovers’ raves). It’s hard to suggest amounts of sugar and flavoring, because chocolate often has both added to it; you’ll have to drink some and take note of what seems missing. Flavored chocolate bars will give you flavored hot chocolate, similar to the currently popular (and mostly appalling) flavored coffees: raspberry, orange, cherry. hazelnut, and the like. The flavorings (usually syrups or jellies) will melt nicely if they don’t contain solid bits of nut or caramel or nougatine or citrus rind, which will create a forlorn sediment at the bottom of the cup.

IT seems that most people have strong feelings about hot chocolate, and you’ll probably want to perfect your own variations. Adding a shot (about two ounces) or two of espresso to a half cup of cocoa is my own favorite, creating a copy of the Turinese bicerin, which is served in glasses with silver holders in the city’s gorgeously restored Art Nouveau and Art Deco bars. Or you can add liqueur—coffee, chocolate, or hazelnut. Many will like whipped cream or, for a reversion to childhood, marshmallows. A friend recently asked what to do about the marshmallow problem—regular are too big, and mini are too small and chewy to be any fun. Ann Hodgman, as usual, has the solution: wet scissors. Snip regular marshmallows into quarters, and they’ll be just the right size to melt slightly on top of hot chocolate. This is the sort of multiculturalism we all can swallow.