Wednesday, January 2, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Haute hot chocolate

Special to the Seattle Times

Hot cocoa brings up vivid, warm, winter memories. I can still picture my mom bringing out the Revereware pan with its coppery bottom and filling it halfway with fresh milk. In a colorful blue mixing bowl she combined a few heaping spoonfuls of cocoa powder from the Hershey's tin, then measured sugar from the canister and mixed it in with the cocoa. She added this to the just-starting-to-warm milk and whisked it with a fork until it was frothy. The fragrant mixture was slowly heated till just hot, but not overheated — so as not to scorch it, as this would change the milk's flavor from creamy to that weird boiled-milk taste. Sometimes Mom would add a cinnamon stick or a dash of vanilla for an extra flavor treat.

We sipped our homemade cocoa from large cups with big puffy marshmallows floating on top. This was especially d'lish when coming in from a snowy day of play or while watching a blustery storm! Store-bought cocoa today is just about the polar opposite of how old-fashioned cocoa is made. A scoop of powder and a cup of hot water. These types of mixes range from the mediocre to some very nice high-end ones.

And this brings up a funny story. Remember the severe Northwest snowstorm of 1996? It was a biggie! Well, some neighbor kids came over and I was making them My Mom's "Old-School" Cocoa. So I was standing at the stove, stirring the pan of heating milk, and adding in the sugar and cocoa. They pronounced very adamantly to me that that was not cocoa! Excuse me — what? No, cocoa was from a package, had little tiny marshmallows in it and was not made in a pan — oh my! I explained that old-fashioned cocoa was made this way and that it was going to be yummy. One sip later, they agreed!

Now, with the emergence of boutique chocolatiers and so many exciting chocolates being produced, making a fantastic cup of upscale hot chocolate is easy, and the array of add-ins is limitless.

Local chocolate company Theo produces premium, organic, fair trade and specialty chocolate. Pamela Hinckley, brand ambassador of Theo's, likes her hot chocolate made with their 84 percent bar so it's not too sweet; she also likes the combination of sweet and savory flavors, such as in their limited-edition Sipping Chocolate made with spices and chilies.

Inspired by their 3400 Phinney Coconut Curry Milk Chocolate bar, I created Bollywood Spiced Cocoa, which I made with Theo's 75 percent chocolate bar and whole milk infused with fresh ginger, cardamom and cumin and then finished off with unsweetened coconut milk. This unique cocoa is great as an after-dinner or before-bedtime sip by the fire. It's definitely not for everyone, but those who are adventurous with their chocolate and who enjoy sweet-and-savory chocolate combinations should give it a try.

Hot chocolates are the perfect vehicle for not only warm fragrant spices — from cinnamon and nutmeg to cardamom, allspice and cloves — but also for pungent spices such as smoky chipotle chilies. I like to make up batches of cocoa mix that you can keep around for quick cocoa-making, such as my Cha Cha Hot Chocolate Mix that combines chipotle chili powder, cinnamon and a touch of ground coriander.

And of course hot chocolates are a tasty beverage for adding spirits and liqueurs. I love hazelnut-flavored Frangelico along with raspberry liqueur in white chocolate cocoa — yum! Topped with Frangelico Whipped Cream and drizzled with raspberry liqueur or garnished with a fresh raspberry, my Grown-Up Nutty White Chocolate Raspberry Cocoa makes for a tasty liquid-dessert option!

So get out your favorite mug, whip up some winter-warming cocoas and sip away the winter blues.

Chef Kathy Casey is a food, beverage and restaurant concept consultant and food writer. She owns Kathy Casey Food Studios. Her "Dishing" column appears the first Wednesday of the month in The Seattle Times Food Section.

Copyright 2008 Kathy Casey Food Studios


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