My Favorite Drinking Chocolate

January 07, 2011
By Holly Jennings

I’m passionate about drinking chocolate, so much so that I finagled a way to work it into the theme of Dowdy Corners Cookbook Club. For each DCCC cookbook pick, I will challenge myself to come up with a new drinking chocolate recipe inspired by the subject of the book. The first step, before spinning off into exotic riffs, is to give you my recipe for basic drinking chocolate, and an overview of my approach to making the drink, which can be modified to your taste.

I’ll try to brief, but I have a lot to say about drinking chocolate. It’s been my most constant source of pleasure in the kitchen for the last several years: I love the process of making it, experimenting with different sweeteners and flavorings, and drinking it, especially with my boyfriend, Mike. (If our relationship has a food theme, it’s drinking chocolate.)

You may be wondering why I use the term “drinking chocolate” when familiar terms like “hot cocoa” or the even more ubiquitous “hot chocolate” already exist. After years of experimenting, first with cocoa, then chocolate, and finally with a combination of the two, I’ve come to realize that my favorite version uses both cocoa powder and chocolate, a drink described by neither term. As is, there is so much misuse of the term “hot chocolate”—it’s often used to refer to the lesser, childlike by comparison, sister drink, hot cocoa. And I often enjoy drinking chocolate beverages hot and cold.So why not use a different term altogether?  For these reasons, and the fact that hot cocoa and hot chocolate are, particularly in this country, thought of as children’s drinks—something my concoctions definitely are not—“drinking chocolate” makes sense. Plus, Mike urged me to consider using it, and, as my partner, encourager, and taster in chocolate consumption, his suggestions are always seriously considered.

Back to the story. Before discovering true hot chocolate—made with good quality dark chocolate—I had a pivotal moment mastering hot cocoa. When I was about thirty, a friend of mine made hot cocoa for us. Instead of combining all of the milk and cocoa at once, as I’d always done, she poured just enough milk in the pan to create a paste. She then stirred the cocoa and milk together over a moderate heat, and when the cocoa and milk had formed a smooth paste, she gradually added the rest of the milk. Genius! What a simple but transformative technique. No more undissolved bits of cocoa powder in my hot cocoa. Perhaps I’m the only fool who struggled for years to make a cup of lump-free hot cocoa. When I mentioned to my boyfriend, Mike, what a revelation this moment had been for me, he said he had made hot cocoa for himself this way as a child. “How did you learn how to make it that way?” I asked. “The directions were on the box.” “Oh.”

It was Mike, in fact, who turned me on to adult drinking chocolate, starting with the hot chocolate served at a Mexican burrito place in Brooklyn called Uncle Moe’s: It was rich, creamy and chocolaty and thickened to an almost puddinglike consistency. We’re now nearly seven years into our drinking chocolate odyssey, which has included drinking gobs of the stuff in Spain and France. (Seen in the photos below is the decadent hot chocolate served at Angelina’s, a famous Parisian tearoom.) I’ve experimented with different types of chocolate, cocoa, flavorings, and sweeteners. The general trajectory has been to use increasingly less sugar. I like to see how bitter I can go, retraining my palette to accept less and less sugar. What I have discovered is that some amount of sweetener is necessary to bring out the flavor of chocolate, and to round it out.

One of the things I like best about making drinking chocolate is its forgiving nature. Here are some fixes I’ve learned over the years:

  • If the flavor isn’t chocolaty enough, add more chocolate or make a cocoa powder paste and incorporate it
  • On the other hand, if its flavor is too thin, lacking depth or lingering chocolate notes, add more chocolate rather than cocoa powder
  • If the flavor is too intense, dilute it with milk, cream or water
  • Too sweet, add the darkest chocolate you’ve got (with a high cacao percentage) or make a cocoa powder paste and incorporate it
  • Too bitter, add more sweetener

Making drinking chocolate can be very creative. You can experiment with spices and herbs, liquors and liqueurs, or sweeteners to create a unique drink. You can thicken it, using cornstarch or another thickening starch, for a luxuriant texture. And it’s easy. It doesn’t involve special skills, like tempering, it’s basically full-proof, unlike baking, and uses only one pan (maybe two if you’re getting fancy). And yet, when I’ve used a nice quality chocolate, and have gotten the balance of flavorings and sweet to bitter right, I feel I’ve created a truly wonderful, homemade chocolate treat.

My basic recipe for drinking chocolate combines Dutch-processed cocoa powder, for a sharp, bold, immediate flavor, with good quality chocolate, for depth of flavor and rounded, lingering chocolate notes. Pure hot cocoa, compared to my chocolate-cocoa powder combo, has a flat, thin, one-dimensional flavor (and a thin mouthfeel because it’s missing the fat in cacao solids present in chocolate). Pure hot chocolate, while incomparable to hot cocoa for its richness and depth of flavor, doesn’t have the decided two-part flavor sensation created when Dutch-processed cocoa powder is combined with chocolate. And by the way, it’s important to use Dutch-processed cocoa—natural (unalkalinized) cocoa powder doesn’t have the same robust flavor and will not result in the same rich dark color. (Dutch-processed cocoa is what’s used to make dark chocolaty Oreos.) If you only have natural cocoa, I suggest using a little less sugar and upping the amount of chocolate by a half-ounce.

I like drinking chocolate that is lightly sweetened; you may increase or lessen the amount of sweetener used to your taste. When making drinking chocolate, you may use chocolate with any percentage of cacao solids that you prefer. I often use 68 or 70 percent bars, or up to 85 or 90 percent, and sometimes a mixture of different percentages depending on what I have on hand. Just remember that the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the more sweetener you will need to add to counter the inherent bitterness of chocolate, and vice versa. If you like bittersweet drinking chocolate, like me, but only have chocolate with lower cacao percentages about, you can use cocoa powder to up the chocolate flavor without adding sugar. (It’s one of the reasons I like have cocoa powder around.)

In the following recipe, I’ve used chocolate with 52 to 55 percent cacao content, based on the assumption that this range will be easier to find and not require a trip to specialty shop. One of my standbys for making drinking chocolate is Callebaut’s reasonably priced “Dark Chocolate.” It has a cacao content of about 52 percent and is available in bulk form in most food co-operatives, natural foods stores, and gourmet markets. I’ve recently discovered that Guittard—a very good chocolate maker—sells semisweet chocolate chips with 55 percent cacao content. (Look for the Guittard chocolate chips in Whole Foods and specialty markets.) The terms semisweet, bittersweet and dark chocolate aren’t used with consistency in the industry; the best guide to bitterness or sweetness is the cacao percentage, if listed, and your taste buds.

Vanilla is a natural complement to chocolate; if you look at the list of ingredients on chocolate, you will find that it is often included. It is not a necessary ingredient, but is added because many people, including myself, find that it enhances the flavor of chocolate. You may decide not to use it or to upgrade with vanilla bean. If using vanilla bean, you could either simmer the split bean in the milk over low heat for 20 to 25 minutes to infuse its flavor into the milk, or you could make homemade vanilla sugar and introduce the flavor of vanilla bean via the sweetener.

Salt is another nonessential ingredient. I began adding it to drinking chocolate after trying salted caramels and salted chocolate bars (and appreciating them highly!), and after learning about the importance salt plays in baking and in some sweets by enhancing flavor and introducing a subtle, unidentifiable counterpoint.

Makes four 6-oz servings

4 tablespoons Dutch-processed (alkalinized) cocoa powder

1½ tablespoons sugar

3 cups whole milk

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (52 to 55% cacao), evenly chopped*

Pinch of sea salt

¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Cornstarch slurry: 1 tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in an equal of amount cold water (optional)

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the cocoa powder and sugar. While stirring vigorously, over medium-low heat, gradually add ¼ cup of the milk, a tablespoon at a time. Stir until all lumps of cocoa are incorporated and the mixture is quite smooth.

Add the chocolate and reduce the heat to low. Gradually add another ¼ cup of the milk, stirring, and heat until the chocolate is melted. Add the remaining 2½ cups of milk in a steady stream, while stirring. Increase the heat to medium and bring to the gentlest simmer, stirring frequently. (If you don’t have a heavy bottomed saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat.) As soon as the first bubbles appear, add the salt and vanilla. Stir and remove from heat.

The drinking chocolate can be served now or, if you’re very patient, after allowing it to cool to room temperature and rest for a couple of hours before gently reheating, while stirring. As liquid chocolate cools down and has a chance to rest, the texture is enhanced—it becomes super silky and velvety. Whereas I generally don’t have the patience to do this myself, I always make more drinking chocolate than I can imbibe in one setting, which means I get experience the silky, velvety stuff the next day—either cold or reheated. Drinking chocolate will keep in the refrigerator as long as milk keeps. (Note: Ideally, cornstarch should be added just before serving because it has a tendency to break down upon reheating, loosening its thickening properties.)

To thicken with cornstarch, pour the slurry into the hot or reheated chocolate drink while stirring vigorously to avoid lumps. Gently heat over medium-low heat for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently. (Do not let come to a boil.)

*Note: Better quality chocolate with higher amounts of cacao solids tends to be available in block form, necessitating chopping. To make sure the chocolate melts at an even rate, chop the block into small, similar-size pieces. I like chopping chocolate; however, if you can find what you want in pistoles or chips, this will eliminate a step.

2 Comments to “My Favorite Drinking Chocolate”

  1. Holly,
    What? No marshmallows?
    Great information on making hot chocolate. I love using the the thick Mexican chocolate wafer infused with sugar and cinnamon for making my drink. I have a decorative carved wooden stick called a molinillo used to wisk the hot milk and melted chocolate into a frothy cup. You roll the thin end of the stick back and forth between your palms while the thick end churns up the liquid.

    Here is a challenge for you for you next hot chocolate drink – – what do you think about making a matcha hot cocoa? Pairing a piece of chocolate to eat as a sweet with a cup of the frothy bitter matcha tea is both fashionable and delicious.

    Gambatte ne!

  2. Ah hah! I would never have thought of pairing matcha with chocolate. That’s a worthy challenge. Is pairing a morsel of chocolate with matcha trendy in Japan or here, or both? I envy you for having a wooden chocolate stick (it’s fun to say that). I’m looking forward to aquiring one when we one day do a Mexican cookbook.


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