Skip the mix: DIY hot chocolate just tastes better

Evan Maffiore, beverage manager at Milkboy, steams milk.
Evan Maffiore, beverage manager at Milkboy, steams milk. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 04, 2013

THEY MAY not have been so good with dates, but those Mayans knew a good thing when they tasted it.

Historians believe that a savvy Mayan swigged the first chocolate beverage about 2,000 years ago - a drink made from ground cocoa, cornmeal, water and chili pepper.

And while he's sadly known mostly for his revenge these days, the Aztec ruler Montezuma's court reportedly drank about 2,000 cups of xocolatl (Aztec chocolate) per day, 50 of which were consumed by the ruling leader himself.

For those of us who love the dark, intense flavor of chocolate, the notion of drinking our obsession is the very definition of win-win. Although the Maya consumed their chocolate cold, there are occasions when only cozying up with a hot cup of drinking chocolate will do. That's any time it's snowy, of course, or on a dreary afternoon when spring feels forever away, or any time life's road is especially bumpy.

When the going gets really tough, you can even add a snort of something a bit stronger for extra fortification. Think of it as culinary first aid as wonderful to administer as it is to experience yourself.

Now, if you believe hot chocolate comes out of an envelope with suspicious, freeze-dried white bits in it, a mix to be added to hot water for a beverage that tastes like overly sweetened, melted cardboard, you are sadly mistaken.

Real-deal hot chocolate is made from high-quality chocolate, with its inherent buttery richness, mixed with some combo of milk and cream. The variety of hot chocolate popular across the pond tends to be served in smaller cups, as opposed to huge steaming mugs. It's on the thicker size and can be flavored with everything from cardamom to lavender to chili pepper.

R2L pastry chef Peter Scarola likes to combine 72 percent-cacao dark chocolate and milk chocolate with steamed milk. One trick is to stir chopped chocolate into a little of the milk to make a paste, then add that to the rest of the steamed milk, for a smoother, richer cuppa.

"Using real chocolate instead of just cocoa gives you a creamier, more chocolaty drink," Scarola said. "You also get that wonderful little bit of creamy chocolate on the bottom of the cup, perfect for scooping with a marshmallow."

R2L is also home to a spiced hot white chocolate, pure magic in a cup.

While the spiked Dallis Brothers coffee drinks are a staple at MilkBoy, the hipster music lounge and eatery at 11th and Chestnut, the Waiting Room is worth a second sip. New to the seasonal beverage menu, the drink is so named because of the bar's proximity to Jefferson Hospital.

It's a meld of housemade chocolate syrup with espresso and steamed milk, topped with a shot each of Frangelico and peppermint schnapps - sure to warm your cockles.

Classic Cake Executive Chef Robert Bennett, who has been working with chocolate for 28 years, makes an ultrathick version of a hot chocolate he first tasted in Paris decades ago.

"It was served in a demitasse cup with a mound of whipped cream and little bowls of Kir-soaked cherries and rum-soaked raisins to garnish as you wished," he said. "I experimented to get the recipe right back when I was at Le Bec-Fin."

Here's his secret: Using both water and half-and-half in the mix, along with a vanilla bean, cocoa and bittersweet chocolate.

"I can't count how many tries it took me to get it right," he said. "This is super rich, something you don't want to guzzle but really savor at the end of the day, or after being out walking in the snow."

Bennett, who worked on New Orleans' Bourbon Street as the pastry chef at Arnaud's back in the '80s, loves to spike his cup with Grand Marnier - although Scotch and brandy work just fine, too.

A chocolate fiend since age 4, when she declared that she'd only drink milk if it was chocolate, Valerie Beck is the founder of Chocolate Tours in her native Chicago, as well as in Boston and Philly.

"Hot chocolate is even better for you than eating chocolate," said Beck. "Some scientists are saying that cocoa's natural antioxidants are released more effectively when it is heated."

On her chocolate walking tour here, she always pops into Capogiro, home to a darkly wicked chocolate gelato and also an Italian-style hot chocolate so thick you can almost stand your spoon up in it. Beck also loves R2L's hot chocolate and the molten refresher served at Cake and the Beanstalk, a cute little café on Locust Street owned by pastry chef Daniel Klein and his wife Jennifer.

Around the corner at McGillin's Olde Ale House, order an Ol' St. Nick, for a mug of cocoa spiked with a shot of Black Velvet Caramel Whiskey topped with whipped cream, or a Drury Sleigh Ride, named after the little street the pub is on. That's hot chocolate with half a shot of white cream de menthe and half a shot of Ryan's Irish Cream, a winning combination.

Barclay Prime gives the Mayans a nod with its Spiced Hot Chocolate, made with cinnamon, star anise, cloves and cayenne pepper. For added fortification, ask for the grown-up version made with a half ounce each of Fernet Branca and Cognac.


Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. Read more at unchainedtravel.com.

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