One of the enduring symbols of surviving cold weather is a mug of hot, steamy, rich chocolate. It is a marvelous icon for happiness, warmth, and good cheer, a subtle potion of aroma, taste, and memories. After sledding, ice skating, snowman building, or simply on a chilly southern night, it evokes the same magical restorative properties. Called hot cocoa or hot chocolate, it is little changed for centuries. I recently had cause to look at the history and origins of this hot cocoa drink and here are some of the findings.
The original cocoa beverage comes from the Mayans and Aztecs, and was often a mixture of ground cocoa beans, water, wine, and peppers. It did not take long for the Spaniards to begin heating this blend and sweetening it with sugar to suit their tastes.
The English Tudors were next to modify the drink when they added milk. The resulting recipe and method has changed little since the early 1700s. The continental manner was chocolate with water, and the Londoner’s way of adding milk was adopted when Sir Hans Sloane (of Sloane Square in London), while on a trip to Jamaica in the 1690s, found the water and chocolate too bitter for him and added hot milk. He returned to London and his drink made with milk became simply known as “chocolate.” By Victorian times, the firm Cadbury’s sold tins of “Sloane’s Drinking Chocolate” to British households - the readily available tins spread the popularity of the drink (earlier chocolate was sold in “cakes” and was scraped with a knife to shave or break the chocolate off for use). The powdered form of drinking chocolate, so popular today, was a method developed in the Netherlands around the same time.
Hot chocolate is made from a bar of solid chocolate, while hot cocoa is made from cocoa powder. Cocoa is chocolate pressed until it is free of all cocoa fat. It is the former that is far more decadent.
By the late 1800s, English and Americans served chocolate in tall cylindrical pots, most commonly made of porcelain or ceramic. Silver chocolate pots exist and range from elegant to simple. Because silver chocolate pots resemble small demitasse coffee pots they are often confused for coffee pots.
A fashionable chocolate pot requires a muddler. A chocolate muddler is a specific piece made to stir the steamy chocolate from the bottom of the pot. Many of us are aware to some degree of the tea ceremony, the ritualistic serving of tea. While nothing that elaborate exists for hot chocolate or cocoa, certain specific serving pieces have evolved over time in addition to the chocolate pot and muddler. Chocolate spoons are an additional silver utensil used in the art of serving the hot beverage. A chocolate spoon is small, often about 5 to 5 1/2 inches in length. Chocolate spoons also have very round-ended bowls as opposed to the oblong teaspoon-shaped bowl found on similar sized demitasse or after-dinner coffee spoons. Chocolate settles to the bottom of the cup faster than cocoa, and these diminutive spoons, given a stir before a drink, keep the chocolate well mixed. Something about the use of a fine chocolate pot, elegant and beautiful that always makes the hot chocolate seem to taste much better.
We now turn to look inside the cup at the rich chocolate. The first published recipe for a chocolate drink was published in Spain – “A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate” by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma in 1644. The recipe called for 100 cacao beans, 2 chiles, a handful of anise, “Ear flower,” 1 vanilla pod, 2 ounces of cinnamon, 12 almonds or hazelnuts, one pound sugar, and Achiote (annatto seeds to color the drink) to taste. All of these ingredients were boiled together and then frothed with a molinillo, a traditional Aztec carved wooden tool. To us today, this concoction may sound spicy and odd indeed.
A more familiar historical recipe is 3 cups whole milk and 1 cup cream (today we may substitute half and half), 1/2 cup of sugar (white or brown), 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate. In a saucepan over medium heat, add water to fill it 1/3 full. Place a heat-proof glass mixing bowl on top of the sauce pan so that it does not touch the water. In the bowl, add the chopped or shaved chocolate and a tablespoon of water. The chocolate should melt gently over the steam as you stir occasionally. In a second pan over medium heat add the milk and cream, bring it to just under a boil, when it is steaming and hot to the touch. Stir in the sugar. (The sugar may be left out and added to taste when served.) Melting the chocolate separately achieves a creamier and smoother hot chocolate drink. Once the sugar has dissolved and the chocolate has melted in the bowl, stir the milk into the bowl with the chocolate a little at a time. Stir until everything has mixed well. Cool slightly and drink at a temperature of your choosing. To get it frothy, as explained in an 1850 recipe for the “Italian Method,” use a small frothing whisk (replicating the traditional Aztec molinillo) before serving. This is the traditional manner for crafting a great hot chocolate, used for centuries and across the globe. Enjoy!