In America, hot cocoa is simple. We mix hot milk with refined cocoa powder and white sugar, primp it up with marshmallows or pile it high with whipped cream.
Compared to the hot chocolate served elsewhere in the world, it’s sugary junk gussied up with even more sugary junk. The best hot chocolate in the world dispenses with the trimmings and focuses on what’s important: chocolate.
The state of American hot chocolate is tragic, really. The drink has roots in the Americas. We deserve to be a lot better at this.
The Mayans made the first hot chocolate and called the unsweetened drink “xocolatl” (say it out loud and you’ll know where we got the word “chocolate”) meaning “bitter water.” They toasted whole cocoa beans, ground them with chiles, and whipped them with the hottest water imaginable until they created a frothy drink fit to be served to royalty.
That basic recipe, plus sugar and sometimes milk, is still served throughout Mexico and South Americas. The rough chocolate, spiked with spices like cinnamon and anise, is pressed with brown sugar into blocks or disks and whipped with a wooden whisk called a molinillo. This isn’t a simple Swiss Miss-style sugary cocoa bomb. The final product is a drink with a complex flavor.
In Argentina and Uruguay you can order a submarino, a bar of chocolate placed in a cup of steaming milk that you mix yourself. You can try this at home with any high quality hot chocolate and steaming hot milk.
Parisian hot chocolate blends milk and finely chopped bittersweet chocolate, served ready-blended. Angelina Café in Paris is arguably the finest cup in all of Paris. Their African Hot Chocolate (le Chocolat Chaud à l’Ancienne l’Africain) blends ingredients from Niger, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Served in small cups, the drink is basically melted chocolate whipped into an intense ganache.
In Italy, hot chocolate is so thick you have to eat it with a spoon.
In Vienna, hot chocolate is rumored to be cooked like a custard, with egg yolk or made with pure heavy cream. One of the best in Vienna, at the Melounge Lobby Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton, is made with just hot water and a generous helping of chocolate. The delicious result is as thick as pudding.
The Spanish brought chocolate to Europe in the 17th Century. The Spanish mixed rosebud, saffron and chiles for an extravagantly flavored chocolate drink inspired by the spice blends of the Americas. Their thick, almost sauce-like hot chocolate is served with churros for dunking.
You can make it at home any way you like, of course. Just keep in mind that your recipe can involve more ingredients and ambition than just squirting Hershey’s syrup into a cup of hot milk.