Hot Chocolate Epiphanies
by Melissa Clark
While growing up, I never much liked chocolate. My birthday cakes were always made from strawberry-pink ice cream, and my candy preferences tended toward caramels, candy corns, and sugared nuts. Aside from the occasional bite sized bar of Hershey's special dark, or a marshmallow-topped cup of Nestle's Quik, chocolate was just not my cup of tea.
This all changed during a college semester in Paris, when a Parisian friend offered me a bonbon from a be-ribboned box holding bittersweet mounds of glossy chocolate truffles. As I chewed, the candy softened into sweet, complex, velvety puddles on my tongue. I was an instant convert, and mourned for the loss of all those non-chocolate eating years. This culinary epiphany clarified my mission in Paris. I wasn't really here to study the likes of Voltaire, Baudelaire, Moliere, and Balzac. I was here to eat chocolate.
Soon, my mission expanded. Not only would I eat chocolate, I would drink quite a bit of it, too. I don't know from where I first heard about Angelina's, a tea salon famous for making hot chocolate from melted chocolate bars, but as soon as I did, I scurried down to Rue de Rivoli, across from the Tuilleries. Having already had one chocolate epiphany through a truffle, I was primed to experience another in the liquid pleasure of hot chocolate, which I had never before tasted in its true form.
Although today the terms hot chocolate and hot cocoa are often used interchangeably, technically they are as different as white chocolate and bittersweet. Hot cocoa is made from cocoa powder, which is chocolate pressed free of all its richness, meaning the fat of cocoa butter. On its own, cocoa powder is not a substance that any child would willingly partake of, unless its harshness is mitigated with warm, soothing milk and plenty of sugar. Undoctored, it is the drink of ragged orphans interred in bleak British institutions, who washed down lumpy porridge with the bitter stuff. Even properly sweetened and adequately milked, in Britain, cocoa is still associated with children and invalids, a fact which renders it less enticing for everyone else there.
On the other end of the spectrum is hot chocolate, made from full-fat chocolate bars melted into cream. Hot chocolate is more in keeping with what seventeenth and eighteenth century European monarchs drank while lounging on velvet settees. It is a rich, decadent drink more appropriate to the hot-blooded seductions of Casanova (who drank a cup of the reputed aphrodisiac every morning) than as the drink of parentless tots in chilly climates.
Needless to say, here in America, we abide by the British cocoa tradition. In my childhood this took the form of Nestle's Quik, with its chocolate-colored rabbit leaning on the yellow tin. And this was what I had in mind when I finally entered Angelina's, and ordered up a hot steaming pitcher of Africain, as their hot chocolate is still called today.
I sat down amongst the Japanese, French, and British tourists and took in a room garnished with all the lavishness of a Rococo palace. The tables were marble ovals resting on top of brightly gilded frames, the carpet was regally scarlet, and there were crystal chandeliers hanging from the astronomical ceiling. This could not be, I thought, a temple to the thin liquid formerly known as hot chocolate. An apron-tied matron took my order with an expectant nod, and then brought a little silver pitcher of thick, melted chocolate frothed with steaming cream. She poured it with a foamy splash into a thick, porcelain cup, then left me alone to savor the treat.
As I sipped, I contemplated why Americans have never really embraced hot chocolate the way people did in France, where it is served, in varying degrees of richness, in every cafe offering coffee and tea. I then thought more about the mirrored opulence of the salon I was seated in. It suddenly made sense to me, this hot chocolate rejection, since it went in step with America's rejection of the decadence of the European monarchy, and was similar to the way we foreswore tea, with its highly-taxed link to the British throne. America is historically a nation of coffee drinkers - a rugged, independent lot who could brew their joe in the open prairie and drink it bitterly black without milk or sugar. Tea was too weak and refined for our robust sensibility, chocolate too cosseted and rich.
Until now, that is. In keeping with the mid-'90s return of the giant T-bone steak, the cheese course, and the cigar, coupled with the emergence of a mochachino brewing cafe in every small town, hot chocolate is now finding its niche. You can watch as it slowly begins to appear on menus both as a beverage along with the other steamed milk drinks, and as a dessert in its own right.
Does this burgeoning hot chocolate trend echo a yearning for the comfort of our mother-made after school snack, fancified by the use of fine imported chocolate? Or is it more like my experience in Paris, where, free to indulge in things that were marginal to my normal life, I was open to epiphanies that I might have ignored in the United States. Probably, it is a bit of both. As we come to the brink of a new millennium, armed with our shiny-new technologies, fabrics and fat-substitutes, we crave the comfort of the past. Hot chocolate, at once exotic, self indulgent, and familiar, exemplifies both our fears and lusts. And that's without the marshmallows.