Beginnings are difficult. In cooking, taking up the violin, finding a job that doesn’t suck your soul out, running. I was never good at beginnings anyway, so I always procrastinated my way out of them. It took me years to stop scolding myself for that, and here we are.
Now, we start from the middle.
In two-thousand-and-I-don’t-know-when, I got a great Christmas gift (and I hate Christmas gifts). A 511-page book on coffee and chocolate. It is heavy, glossy, intimidating. I loved it, and, due to my aversion of beginnings, I never started reading it. I only opened it with awe every now and then, marveled at its extravagant photographs and meticulous recipes, and quickly closed it again before a beginning could shape up. Silly.
Fast forward to 2019 when I finally summoned the courage to begin. The book, a new chapter of my life, stuff, things.
Did you know that chocolate, in its original recipe as a drink accompanying religious rituals of the Maya and the Aztecs was actually vile? It was utterly bitter, sour, with pieces of cacao bean husks floating within, and a horrendous foam on top that was thought to have near-magical properties. None of that give-me-type-2 velvety treat that we know and adore.
It is perhaps for that reason that it took Europe some time to warm up to it. Even the Spanish pioneers first only treated it as a valuable currency and a curious import. Others were even more resistant: Dutch and British pirates who plagued the Spanish ports and shipping routes frequently threw boatloads of cacao beans overboard in disgust, unaware of its value, Germans treated it for centuries merely as an unpleasant medicine, and some Catholic priests deemed it diabolical.
The Spanish, though, quickly fell in love with the cocoa. They managed to create a beverage palatable to the average Spaniard, of course, jam-packed with sugar and spices, with zero cocoa husks, and so thick that a spoon would stand in it. Chocolate quickly became part of everyday life – and still is.
Something else from the first chapters of the book caught my attention. Apparently, chocolate, even in its blasphemous sugary self created by the Europeans, had incredible medicinal properties. It was believed to cure a whole range of diseases, which Europe had no shortage of back in the day, to boost sexual appetite, and to revive one’s vitality. Cortés even boasted that only a cup of chocolate could keep his men going through the day, and monks and nuns similarly relied on it to survive the lengthy periods of fasting and to cure themselves from various ails.
So there I was, nursing my fifth flu of the winter, unbothered to cook an actual meal, and with the most intense chocolate craving.
‘Time for a science experiment!’ Yeah. Science.
The book provides a recipe for a Mexican hot chocolate that faintly resembles the original Aztec xolocatl, minus the froth and husks and bitter magic. I was still hopeful, though: science was en route. I was about to discover the magic of making chocolate, or a version of it anyway. And you can, too.
First of all, we need a mug. The mug is the gods’ vessel for carrying the blessed beverage into our ravaged bodies. We need a mug big enough so we can wrap hands around it like in a Christmas scene of a Netflix-produced atrocity of a romantic comedy, yet small enough so we don’t ‘accidentally’ give ourselves diabetes. This is crucial.
Then, we measure the milk in the mug we’ve committed to. Think one cup per person. If you’re not making this only for yourself as a
tragic imitation of a lunch scientific experiment or a well-deserved treat, multiply by the number of people. And you thought all those years of high school maths would be for naught. (Yes, they were).
We turn to the stove to heat the milk. A crucial tip acquired during the years of making my own yogurt (a story for another time) is to first pour a spoon or two of water in the pot, followed by the milk. That way, there is a barrier between the heat and the milk, preventing it from burning. We do not want burned milk.
Then we add the chocolate. 25-50g per cup. How much is that? Buy a damn scale. Or, you know, eyeball it. Also, use real chocolate. I used to eat Milka as much as any 90s kid, but it’s time to face the music and start eating the real stuff with more than 60% cocoa. Anything else you may reserve for your 7-year-old nephew who still has too many taste buds to palate bitter foods. You can, though. And you should.
You see, chocolate is like wine, or coffee, or even olive oil. There is not one chocolate, like there is not one wine. Each variety has unique depth and flavour depending on the variety of the raw materials, where they were grown, how they were processed. To enjoy and appreciate this complexity and the story of the final product, you need to let it shine without suffocating it. In the case of chocolate, the moment you add too much sugar, nuts, caramel, or any other preposterousness, you bastardize it and lose out on its unique voice. Eating a Milka is the equivalent of ‘enjoying’ a quality chardonnay with Fanta.
Time to spice things up a notch. Or a thousand.
Spices are a very complicated story. Let’s keep it breezy here. First, no matter what, add a pinch of salt. No questions asked. Then, if you struggle with hot, spicy foods, stick to non-offensive-yet-rewarding spices that will elevate your hot chocolate: cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, clove. Then, if you’re brave and you enjoy the weird smoky whiskys from the Scottish islands, add smoked paprika. (I did and I lived to tell the tale). And finally, if you’re a real one and order the spiciest curry much to the chagrin of your companions, then heroically power through it, sweat, snot, tears and all, then go ahead and add some cayenne pepper and black pepper, or any other spicy pepper you have.
The goal here is not to make the chocolate so spicy it’s undrinkable, or to make it taste like a Christmas candle. Rather, it is to accentuate its natural flavours and add some depth and complexity; i.e. don’t go bananas with the spices.
With this spice combo in, we start whisking gently. There is something therapeutic in stirring a hot chocolate over the stove as if in a 1960s chocolate commercial. The antidote to modern busyness and the never-ending rush to nowhere is, I dare say, watching chocolate boil. Try it for yourself.
Once the chocolate has melted into the milk, some of the water from the milk has evaporated, and the spices have steeped in for a bit, we return to our select mug. If we’re feeling fancy or living anywhere with temperatures below freezing, pouring hot water in the mug first will keep it nice and toasty to ensure the chocolate stays warm for some extra minutes of indulgent immortality. Discard the hot water and pour the chocolate. As a final touch of extra-ness, whipped cream, a spoon of mascarpone, or a light stream of heavy cream on top could find their way into the mug.
My experiment was a remarkable success. Of course, it was an excellent hot chocolate, no doubt. But more importantly, I felt warm and happy and full until dinner (6pm in Eastern Europe but nevertheless). My mood was elated, as it always is when I discover something new and fantastic, and strangely enough my sinuses were somewhat relieved. Don’t quote me on that, though. I call placebo. Either way, the results have been conclusive: hot chocolate can, in fact, be an actual lunch. Broccoli for dinner next.