A Cup of Cocoa
Summer on a Maine island means a host of rainy mornings, even days, spent in front of the fireplace. The gray light in the window, the feathery murmur of rain on the roof, the banshee wail of the fog siren down past Doughty's Landing at the naval station, the resonant splash of rainwater tumbling into the rain barrels--the signs were there the moment I woke up, huddled in a bundle of flannel sheets and army blankets. Not a morning to stay in bed--the fog had seeped through the cottage and into the covers--but a morning for a fire. A quick dash to the outhouse, then logs wrestled from the cache under the stairs, kindling chopped--and a tongue of flame would flicker up, the tang of bubbling resin and salt rising from the driftwood to mingle with the aroma of eggs and bacon frying and coffee brewing.
I would select a mystery from the corner bookcase stuffed with vintage, dog-eared paperbacks, and--breakfast dishes pushed to one side of the fireplace and feet propped up against the other, well-wrapped in a blanket and the rocker tilted to catch some light from the nearest wall fixture--I would hold the book open with one hand while warming the other with a steaming mug of cocoa.
The mug itself--the captain's mug, I called it, for it rippled out at the base to assure firm footing on a suddenly slanting table (years later I learned it was, in fact, a barber's shaving mug)--possessed a rich clear glaze even then old enough to be as shot through with tiny veins as a good piece of Stilton cheese. Hence, it had character enough to be regarded as less an object than a boon companion ... the cocoa was the communion between us.
I would get up periodically through the morning to fill it with a fresh cup, whisked up and poured in steaming hot over a tablespoon or two of Marshmallow Fluff, and return to the fire to enjoy its continued company and that of Gervase Fen, Lord Peter Wimsey, or Father Brown. The Fluff would soon melt and broach the surface of the cocoa, while still remaining maddeningly out of reach. Only when the cup was empty could it be seized: the last swallow was a chocolate-and-egg-white-tasting sweet and luscious mass, the treat's treat. I loved the vulgar stuff, not only the taste but its visual pleasure: thatthick, vivid smear of white swirled into the dark brown sludge that floated at the bottom of the cup.
All this came to mind recently when I contracted a nasty virus that lodged in my chest, filled me with fever, cough, and lethargy, and dulled both mind and appetite. After a few disbelieving hours before the television set, I ransacked my shelves for light reading (current favorites, P. M. Hubbard and Anthony Price) and disinterred the cocoa pot. (The mug still lords it over the other crockery at the Maine cottage. As much as I've always wanted it, it belongs to there, not to me.) Sans mug, then, and--worse--sans fireplace, but there was still the same pleasuring comfort in the cocoa: soothingly warm, rich, subtle-flavored and sweet.
Ordinarily, I'm a coffee drinker: the cocoa pot, dusty and unused for months, was glad to see me. Cocoa-drinking represents a slower-paced pleasure than I usually allow myself. For it is a drink meant to be savored, just like good coffee or tea. But unlike those beverages, whose straightforward stimulation sets us up for a good talk or a day's work, cocoa offers only simple pleasure as its reward. And it's a pleasure that--unless we've just come in from an afternoon of cross-country skiing--seems too full of unjustifiable calories and subsequent guilt. A cup of something like Swiss Miss carries less onus because, though its calories can be equally real, its "instant" banner translates into "made by someone else." The soothing notes of the packaging speak to us as surrogate mother, saying "you look good and tired, dear--let me make you something nice and hot," thus providing comfort while relieving us of guilt. Too bad it tastes like cardboard impregnated with chalk.
Most of these instant mixes actually bill themselves as "hot chocolate" --so much so, I think, that this phrase now summons from most of us a wince and an image of the machines restaurants haul out of storage when the weather grows cold to replace the instant iced tea maker. Time was, however, when just as reliably as cocoa would conjure up Red Cross rescue workers, tugboat captains, and red-cheeked children, hot chocolate would bring to mind courtesans sipping from Limoges china as they soaked in their morning tub, and dandies, throated and cuffed in lace, gossiping over the morning papers and silver chocolate pots.
Hints, in short, of a suspect sensuality. Hot chocolate is the very drink of love: a cup in which a few ounces of Tobler or Suchardbittersweet have been melted in hot milk offers an intoxicating voluptuousness that easily explains chocolate's reputation as an aphrodisiac. And worse, it is an indulgence as sinfully expensive as it is rich. Since there is a lot more in a chocolate bar than chocolate, it takes about an ounce and a half or more to make a cup--or, say, half a $1.75 bar of Tobler Tradition bittersweet to make a cup. But what a cup ... .
At this point, it's worth pausing to note that a roasted cocoa bean, before processing, is about 55 percent pure cocoa butter--a self-descriptive natural vegetable oil with a melting point of 90°F--or mouth temperature. In its natural form, chocolate is incredibly rich to eat, more like frosting than what we know in the familiar bar, too much for most digestive systems. In the last century, a Dutchman, C. J. van Houten, discovered a way to press out this fat, separating it from the chocolate solids, and later a way to treat the solids themselves to make them less acidic (making them not only more digestible but also more soluble). Cocoa has a cocoa butter content of about 22 percent, whereas a chocolate bar has more like 35 percent, the rest being the cocoa solids, sugar (40 percent in a bittersweet bar), and, in milk chocolate, a good proportion of powdered milk.
Hot chocolate, then, is characterized by a rich, sweet flavor and velvety texture, while cocoa is brisker and thinner, with a cleaner, sharper presence on the tongue. However, the puritan-leaning virtues of cocoa-making can be carried too far. Though a cocoa drinker by preference myself (Droste), I still don't hold with the traditional Yankee way of making it in hot water, tempering it with a splash of milk and a bit of sugar. This may have been more than Yankee thrift at play: older recipes often call for more cocoa and less sugar in the cup, hinting perhaps of a taste for a bitterer brew. The Picayune Creole Cookbook, for example, doesn't even mention sugar at all. In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes a night spent in a doss house where the indigents were given a breakfast of butterless bread and sugarless (and milkless) cocoa--nasty stuff, but perhaps in the warden's eyes no worse than black, unsweetened coffee.
Apart from its caloric wallop, chocolate is not as soluble as cocoa: before modern processing techniques, it wasn't soluble at all. Hotchocolate recipes from countries where chocolate was first introduced often carry over into modern times strategies originally introduced to deal with chocolate as it first was--extremely rich and difficult to dissolve. A traditional Spanish method beats in an extraordinary amount of cornstarch, so much so that a spoon can be stood on end in a cup of what tastes like not-quite-set chocolate pudding. Originally, the cornstarch provided a thickener that kept the chocolate particles in suspension and some starch to balance off the fat. Today, neither is required, and that version is best avoided altogether. Not so, however, the recipes that use either egg yolks or whole eggs as a thickener. They give hot chocolate a glossy smoothness and thicken it only enough to heighten that velvety sensation on the tongue.
Even with the use of such thickeners, the chocolate particles could only be kept in suspension by constant beating (a task often assigned to servants), since the slightest pause would precipitate the chocolate to the bottom of the pot. To prevent this, hot chocolate drinkers carried their own special tool, a tiny beater, some very elaborately and expensively made, called a molinillo by Spanish-speaking peoples and a moulinet by the French. (In strictest accuracy, the term denotes both the beating tool itself and the pot it was used in, but today the reference is almost always to the tool.) The stem is held between the palms of the hands and rapidly rotated until the hot chocolate is topped with froth. The molinillo is most popularly associated with Mexican hot chocolate, a concoction made with flavorings such as cinnamon and crushed almonds, but the tool itself can be used to froth any hot chocolate, adding a dramatic and useful touch, though a regular kitchen whisk does just as well.
The dividing line between hot chocolate and cocoa drinkers seems to cut between the northern and southern European temperaments: you are more likely to be offered cocoa in Norway and Britain and hot chocolate in France, Italy, or Spain. We could draw conclusions from this that would probably prove unwarranted; most likely the taste for a rich hot chocolate was already firmly rooted in countries where chocolate was first introduced by the time cocoa came along. What chocolate has gained in digestibility by being made into cocoa, it has lost in pleasure. A tongue that has acquired a taste for the former may never be swayed into accepting the latter, no matter the interests of the stomach, as you may discover for yourself from one of the hot chocolate recipes shared on the following pages.
Whether we enroll in the party of hot chocolate or cocoa drinkers, the important thing is to squelch the nagging voice that presumes to scold when we take down the cocoa tin without some justifying stigmata such as frostbite or fever's ague. Try slipping cocoa back into your life. Nothing is nicer, coming in out of the cold and damp, than standing over the range with that rich, creamy smell of hot milk warming the nostrils, chilled fingers beating smooth that heaping, pleasuring spoonful.
Because it has only a hint of caffeine to tingle the nerves, cocoa is a morning drink for children--except on that rare morning when you yourself have time to linger, watching the steam patterns frozen on the windowpanes, as you sit, lazy, quilt-wrapped, in the easy chair, sifting through the paper for the crossword, brain purring on idle. This is where it comes into its own, our special cocoa recipe, with its grating of cinnamon or vanilla bean or twist of orange peel, the dab of whipped cream or shameless gob of Marshmallow Fluff.
Then, and in the evening, late, when we want to be warmed and filled and soothed before we slip off to bed, stimulated only just enough for sleep, or some other tumble into bliss. Since I began by evoking the solitary pleasures of a cup of cocoa, it is fitting to close by remembering its connubial ones. Cocoa, in more innocent times than ours, was considered a mild aphrodisiac, Cupid's nightcap, warming cold fingers and stimulating sweet thoughts on chilly nights.
A Cup of Cocoa
1 cup milk 1 heaping teaspoon Dutch process cocoa 11/2 teaspoons sugar
Pour the milk into a small, thick-bottomed pot. Add the cocoa and sugar. Over low heat, whisk the mixture together, being sure to clean the side of the pan of any cocoa that sticks to it as it heats. When the mixture begins to steam (do not let it boil) remove it from the heat and whisk it vigorously until the mixture foams. The process of whisking not only helps keep a skin from forming over the top of the cocoa but also brings out more of the cocoa flavor. (Variations: A twist of orange peel--never use extract, which is too potent; a tiny dropof vanilla; a large dollop of whipped cream or Devonshire cream; a sprinkle of well-chopped toasted almonds or hazelnuts; a marshmallow or heaping tablespoon of Marshmallow Fluff.)
Scant pint of milk 13-ounce bar imported chocolate (either milk chocolate or semisweet)
Pour ¼ cup of the milk into a small, thick-bottomed pot. Break the chocolate into small bits and add to the milk in the pot. Over very low heat, let the chocolate melt, then pour in the rest of milk, bit by bit, whisking well with each addition. When the chocolate is melted and the milk faintly steaming, remove from the heat, beat vigorously with a whisk until frothy, and serve. (Variations: A small amount of chocolate-based liqueur, such as Cheri-Suisse, Vandermint, or Droste Bittersweet is liked by some. Other options appear in the following recipes. Of course, unsweetened baking chocolate can be used instead. Use the same proportion: 11/2 ounces of chocolate per cup of milk and sweeten to taste.)
French Hot Chocolate
2 cups milk 1 3-ounce bar imported semisweet chocolate, broken into bits 2 egg yolks
Prepare the hot chocolate as directed in the recipe above. Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. When the hot chocolate is ready, remove from the heat. Take a teaspoon of the hot chocolate and beat into the eggs. Mix in a few more teaspoonfuls the same way, and then mix the egg and chocolate mixture into the hot chocolate in the pot. Whisk vigorously until frothy and serve at once. With a croissant for dunking, there is no better breakfast.
2 large egg whites at room temperature 2 cups heavy cream ¼ cup confectioners' sugar, sifted ¼ teaspoon vanilla 4 cups milk 2 tablespoons Dutch process cocoa
Beat the egg whites in a bowl until they hold stiff peaks. Beat the cream to soft peaks, then add the sugar and vanilla, and continue beating until the cream also holds stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the whipped cream and divide the mixture evenly among 6 large mugs. Heat the milk in a saucepan, whisking in the cocoa until the cocoa is dissolved and the milk hot (do not let it boil). Pour the cocoa into the mugs and serve at once.
Swiss Hot Chocolate
¶ This recipe cannot be given exactly, but it is simple enough to make if you have the required paraphernalia. Although the Swiss treat it more familiarly, you will probably want to reserve this for a very special breakfast treat.
Set 2 or 3 small heat-resistant pitchers on a rack in a pot and pour water around. Break a different 3-ounce chocolate bar into each of the pitchers, using one milk chocolate, one semisweet, and (if a third pitcher is used) some other solid, flavored bar, such as mocha, nut, or even white chocolate. Gently heat the water but do not let it boil, stirring the chocolate in each pitcher with a small spoon to help it melt. Heat milk in another pot and pour into a larger pitcher. Each person makes a personal cup of hot chocolate (in demitasse cups) by mixing the different chocolates together to taste and stirring in the hot milk.
4 cups milk 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate 1/2 cup piloncillo (dark brown sugar) or 2/3 cup honey 2 or 3 cloves or pinch of ground cloves 1/3 cup sliced almonds 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
Pour the milk into a thick-bottomed pot. Over low heat, melt the chocolate in milk. Stir in the sugar or honey. Crush the cloves and almond slices with the cinnamon in a mortar and mix with the hot chocolate. Whip the mixture with a molinillo, a whisk, or with an egg beater until the mixture is well blended and frothy.
Spanish Egg Chocolate
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate 2 cups milk Tiny pinch salt ¼ cup sugar 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 egg
In a double boiler gently cook the chocolate and milk together to a velvety consistency. Keep stirring as you add the salt and sugar, then finish up with the cinnamon and vanilla. Remove the chocolate from the heat. In a chocolate pot or other pitcher beat the egg until frothy. Slowly pour the hot chocolate into the pitcher, stirring. Froth it well with a whisk or molinillo and serve at once. (A piece of real vanilla bean, split open and heated with the milk and chocolate, makes this even better.)