Zhadi's Den

Random essays on wine, writing, moving to San Francisco, surfing, cats (exotic and otherwise) and zombies...depending on my mood.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hot Chocolate

I'm currently a member of an online novelist critique group. My contribution for reading has been, of course, Murder for Hire, my recently completed mystery novel.

One of the comments that I received was about the numerous and lovingly detailed descriptions of food and drink in the story. One reader told me that after reading one particularly sugar laden paragraph describing cinnamon rolls and white chocolate mochas, she felt her diet slipping away.

Which, in my opinion, is just as it should be.

After all, as a writer, you want your audience to respond viscerally to what you're writing about. So I feel it's my duty to provide as much detail as possible, to inundate my readers with images so real they can smell, hear, taste, feel...


Who am I kidding? I just like to write about food. I like to read about it too. I especially like to read about it while I'm eating or drinking. I'm an equal opportunity reader-eater. Savory or sweet, wine or water. But (and this is true of my writing as well), I especially like to enjoy a good cup of hot chocolate or cocoa while reading about the same.

Those of you initiated in the Way of the Cacao Bean might be confused as to the difference between hot chocolate and cocoa. First I'll give you my definition of the two. And we're talking homemade, mind you. Not those packets of sugar, artificial flavors, and preservatives. Although I do have a soft spot for them. Many's the poor man's mocha that I've made with half a packet of Gourmet Raspberry Cocoa and rocket fuel work coffee.

But back to the real thing.

Both are made with milk (or heavy cream, depending on how decadent you want to be). And chocolate is a key ingredient. Cocoa, however, is made with powdered bitter cocoa and sugar. Mo and I used to drink it all the time, at first heavily sweetened. But as our tastebuds grew more sophisticated and wanted more flavor as opposed to sweetness, the ratio of cocoa to sugar increased until the sugar was almost an afterthought. My mother, a staunch champion of milk chocolate, swears I'm not her daughter. Sure I am, Mom! I'm just so-phis-ti-cated!
Hot chocolate, on the other hand, is made with solid bittersweet chocolate melted into the milk or cream, stirred constantly with a whisk to insure the right frothy texture.

Both cocoa and hot chocolate can be tarted up by adding cinnamon, peppermint oil, grated orange peel, Kahlua, Baileys, or the liqueur of your choice. They can be topped with marshmallows (I prefer the mini ones, but Mo prefers the large 'roast over the campfire' size) or whipped cream. Homemade whipped cream, barely sweetened, is preferable, but there's nothing wrong with the real thing in a can either. The only downside to the latter is that my cats are all addicted to it. The sound of compressed air being released is a siren song foretelling creamy delight and they won't leave me alone until they get some.

Historically any beverage made from the cacao bean was simply called chocolate, no matter how it was prepared. For instance:

'Before chocolate was a sweet candy, it was a spicy drink. Some of the earliest known chocolate drinkers were the ancient Maya and Aztecs of Mesoamerica.They ground cacao seeds into a paste that, when mixed with water, made a frothy, rather bitter beverage.'

'The Spanish didn't like the bitter flavor of chocolate. At first, Cortes and his men weren't thrilled by chocolate's taste. To spice up the brew a bit, they began heating the beverage and adding a variety of ingredients.Once the drink migrated to Europe, someone eventually got the idea to add sugar, cinnamon, and other spices to the mix, and sweet, hot chocolate was born.'
(For a contemporary example of Spanish chocolate, buy some Ibarra, which is a coarse, sweet chocolate with the cinnamon and spices already added. )

European style hot chocolate, my preferred choice, was, and still is, made with milk (or cream) and bittersweet chocolate. A cup first thing upon rising was thought to be good for one's health. Guess they were right, as it's since been proven that bittersweet chocolate in moderate amounts IS good for one's health.

I had my first cup of European style hot chocolate at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. They were hosting an exhibit on the history of chocolate and were serving hot chocolate in the Museum cafe. I ordered a cup even though it was a hot summer day. The woman behind the counter warned me that it was 'awful thick and rich.' And it was. Deliciously so. And topped with some of the best whipped cream, thick and flavorful without being too sweet, that I've ever had. One sip was all it took to hook me. I had to make my own.

I've tried various brands of chocolate (I've even been known to use chocolate chips in a pinch), but my favorite brand is Callebaut. It's Belgian and it's yummy. The resulting hot chocolate is smooth, rich, and decadent. Second choice is Trader Joe's Belgian Bittersweet, the bar with the brown wrapper.

Ironically, the cup of hot chocolate that I remember most clearly, was in England, at a little cafe below the Tower of London. The weather was cold and foggy, and there was hardly anyone else out and about at that time. It was our first day in London and everything seemed extra special and kind of magical to me. The hot chocolate was made from Cadbury's powdered mix, pre-sweetened and probably heavily dosed with preservatives. But I swear, rarely has anything tasted quite as delicious as that first sip.

I can't wait to taste my first sip of European style hot chocolate in a Paris cafe.


  • At 3:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    But milk chocolate by See's is as good as it gets, says I----

  • At 7:57 PM, Blogger Peter said…

    When you get to Paris, be sure and get a hot chocolate at Angelina's.

  • At 7:58 AM, Blogger zhadi said…

    Angelina's, hmm? I will definitely take your recommendation! After looking at your blog, I figure you wouldn't steer me wrong about food!

    And AnonyMom, I do love See's Candy...but not milk hot chocolate!


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