Sit. Sip. Savor. This Valentine’s Day, the love is in the cup.
Thought of getting your honey the proverbial box of chocolates? How mundane. Why not stir up some lovin’ with a hot cup of cocoa? You know, that stuff your mom used to make to take the chill off your frozen nose?
Hot chocolate is, well, hot. Again. In our everything-old-is-new-again world, hot chocolate is the retro redo of the recession. For less than a box of Russell Stover’s, you and your sweetheart can sip your way to romance.
But take heart, so to speak: There’s a world of history in that cup of cocoa.
Europeans didn’t come across silky-sweet nougats and chews straight from Willy Wonka when they discovered chocolate in the New World. What they discovered was hot chocolate — a drink considered so potent by the Aztecs that it was reserved for royalty and religious ceremonies. (Montezuma purportedly used it as an aphrodisiac and as, ahem, an old-world Viagra.)
The first people most likely to have cultivated the cacao tree were the Olmecs, from the Southern coast of Mexico, according to food writer Harold McGee. From there it spread to Mayan and Aztec cultures; the latter roasted the beans and ground them for use in hot chocolate. They made a paste of the roasted beans, then added spices and hot water.
Numerous accounts of the drinking of cacahuatl (the Nahuatl, or Aztec, word for hot chocolate) abound: foaming broths mixed with human blood, golden cups filled with froth and spices such as vanilla (another New World discovery), wild honey and red achiote.
The Spanish took the drink back to Spain, and for nearly 200 years did little to expand on it, other than add sugar, cinnamon, chiles, saffron and orange. By then they had adopted the Native American custom of making a paste of the roasted beans and cocoa butter, then drying it on leaves to make tablets. Native Americans used the tablets by adding hot water or atole (a kind of hot gunk made of maize) — the first cocoa mix, so to speak.
By the mid-1600s, hot chocolate had spread from Spain to France and England, where new, innovative “coffeehouses” were selling the drink to droves, especially when someone — and no one really knows who — decided to start making it with hot milk instead of water.
Can you imagine that first taste of hot, foaming froth? The first sip, so hot it almost burns your lips, passing the bittersweetness over your palate until it moves to your belly, where it warms and satisfies like no other drink on earth. No wonder the Aztec and Mayan cultures prized it so much.
Modern versions of hot chocolate stem directly from these early renditions, and coffeehouses from Starbucks to local spots such as the Chocolate Bar in Decatur serve it in style — from mint mocha madness to chile-laced chocolate chai. But it’s basically two recipes from which all this derives: hot cocoa, made from cocoa powder, sugar, milk (or cream) and flavorings; or hot chocolate, made with ganache (a mixture of chocolate, hot cream and butter). The former smacks of memories in front of the fireplace, cup in hand, with marshmallows melting to make a hot foam. The latter is a rich indulgence perfect for adding spices such as vanilla, saffron and chiles.
About those marshmallows — they’re even better when you make your own, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to whip them up, literally.
It might be too late to order those flowers. But a cup of hot chocolate is right on time.
Classic Hot Cocoa
Hands on time: 15 minutes Total time: 15 minutes Serves: 4
3 1/2 cups whole milk 1/2 cup half-and-half 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch processed) 3/4 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean (optional; if using a bean, split the bean in half lengthwise and add it to the liquid. Then scrape the pulp into the mixture and remove the bean.)
In a medium saucepan on high heat, bring the milk to a boil. Make a slurry in a large bowl of the half-and-half, cocoa powder and granulated sugar, creating a paste until the mixture is lump-free. Remove the milk from the heat and pour into the paste slowly, whisking constantly. When combined completely, add the vanilla. Return the mixture to the saucepan over low heat to keep warm.