It seems that hot chocolate should be encoded in our DNA. It’s been around since before the Mayans (who drank it cold), and it became Montezuma’s drink of choice and once it made its way to Spain, was kept a big secret for over 100 years. But it’s hard to keep a secret as delectable as this and when news of this glorious decoction spread to the rest of Europe it became the rage. A new laborious European method of making hot chocolate emerged; it involved shaving the solid chocolate, and cooking it in milk then steeping it for a long time (sometimes overnight) to yield a rich, concentrated, dizzily overwhelming hot chocolate experience.
The world changed forever (and hot chocolate makin’ sure got easier) in the early 19th century when Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutchman, invented a cocoa-powder-making machine that made it commercially viable to extract and market cocoa powder. With the advent of cocoa powder, you could just heat your cocoa powder for a brief period of time with a little milk, add sugar, and bingo! You had hot chocolate (which some call "hot cocoa"). There was only one problem, then and now: this cocoa-powder version of hot chocolate usually does not have the richness and depth of hot chocolate that's made the old-fashioned, chocolate-shavings way.
Skip to 1935: This time through the ingenuity of Americans — specifically the folks at Carnation — hot chocolate preparation reached the pinnacle of easy preparation. Carnation, perceived that the busy, modern housewife did not even have the time to boil her milk, add the cocoa powder, measure the sugar, and whisk it all together. So Instant Hot Chocolate Mix (complete with cocoa powder, sugar, dried milk powder, and other substances designed to thicken and stabilize the product) was invented. Hot chocolate became an absolute snap: Stir the mix with hot water. Serve. Drink.
Carnation had made it easy for millions to enjoy hot chocolate, by popularizing a "mix" that needed no other ingredients. On the down side, however, Carnation's product taught millions of Americans not to expect anything like the palate-assaulting, mind-bending treat that the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, and, later, the sophisticated Europeans, had come to expect
Then, very recently, the hot chocolate world changed one more time — and this change, to me, and to every home consumer of hot chocolate, may well be the most important one of all. The "new wave" of hot chocolate has arrived. The secret of these "new wave" mixes is in the ingredients. Many of the mixes are blends of cocoa powder and finely chopped bits of chocolate. Others are all chocolate, or almost all chocolate — pre-shaved for you, shelf-stable, cut so that the chocolate's ready to cook up quickly. Some have thickeners and other substances added that enhance the hot chocolate's texture, sometimes turning it to velvet, sometimes boosting the foaminess. And you'll also find major-league flavors in some of these chocolates, drawn from high-quality ingredients — everything from the traditional chocolate mix-in of vanilla, to much more exotic additions
These hot new products are sophisticated, concentrated, jazzed-up riffs on the Carnation formula: They are super-mixes that require you to add nothing more than liquid, and the best of the new mixes yield hot chocolate that is up there with that all-time great, the old-fashioned, hand-shaved, European-style hot chocolate. What a time to be a hot chocolate-lover!
The cosmic, life-changing hot chocolate:
L.A. Burdick Hot Chocolate, Dark:
-Price: $11.00 for a 12 oz. bag with small whisk
-$24.00 for a 2 lb. refill bag
-$58.00 for a 5 lb. refill bag
This is ultra-ultra beyond-fabulous, mind-blowing chocolate!
The L.A. Burdick Hot Chocolate, Dark mix is made from chocolate alone, nothing else —gorgeous curls and shavings and bumps of ultra-premium chocolate. If you prepare it with water, you will be staggered by the amount of cosmic chocolate flavor in here: It tastes like fruity, highest-quality South American chocolate — winy, equatorial jungle mud, with lots of acid and lots of astringency, exactly like a liquid version of Platonic eating chocolate. It's only lightly sweet, and some may find the water version too austere. My favorite version, in fact, is made with milk — exactly as the package recommends (the ratio is expressed by weight, but remember that 3 oz. of the mix equals about 1/2 cup). I don't know why the following happens, with no other ingredients in the mix, but the milk-made hot chocolate becomes seductively thick and creamy. The milk, of course, cuts the chocolate astringency and acid, but most will find that cut to be a good thing, because there's so much concentrated chocolate flavor in this mix that plenty of the real flavor (just the right amount, in fact) still comes through in the milk version.
There are only two downsides here, which I must dutifully alert you to. For one thing, Burdick says "no two batches are exactly the same" — the risk you always take with artisanal production, so I have no guarantee that your mix will be exactly the same as mine. (I'm planning to re-order endlessly, if that tells you anything). Secondly — and more seriously — not everyone will hail this as the ultimate cup of hot chocolate. It is not a "classic" hot chocolate, if you grew up with Carnation, Nestle's, et al. It is, in fact, the only hot chocolate I tasted that has nothing whatsoever to do with those products. One taster called it "a three-star restaurant chocolate sauce masquerading as a hot chocolate, " and I think that's just about right.
Producer: L.A. Burdick
52-D Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
(For complete tasting notes and ordering information on the other hot chocolates and cocoa powders David Rosengarten discusses on "Today," please visit his Web site at: www.davidrosengarten.com)
How to Make an Old-Fashioned Hot Chocolate from Scratch
I'm a big convert now to the new wave hot chocolate mixes, but one of the things that sparked my interest in hot chocolate was travel through Europe. There, amazing cups of old-fashioned hot chocolate, made by grating the chocolate, can be had in many places. So I couldn't finish this story without giving you a way to make your own traditional, European-style hot chocolate at home. The next big question is: which chocolate to use? I tried a number of different "block" chocolates in researching this recipe and found that my old favorite for eating and baking, El Rey from Venezuela, is my favorite for hot chocolate as well.
David Rosengarten is editor-in-chief of The Rosengarten Report. For more information you can visit his Web site at: www.davidrosengarten.com