Proper… hot chocolate

Categories: Expert guidance

From the ultimate bacon sandwich to the best-ever hot cross buns, in this new series Daniel Tapper consults experts to reveal how to master six classic comfort food dishes. First up: hot chocolate

In pre-Columbian America, the Maya and Aztecs considered hot chocolate to be so profoundly important, it is said to have been used to anoint newborn babies in a ceremony not unlike a Christian baptism. Noblemen, meanwhile, would throw elaborate banquets to showcase their wealth, with hot chocolate taking centre stage.

Sadly, these ancient civilisations would no doubt consider today’s mass-produced abominations not only an affront to their taste buds, but also deeply offensive to their gods. Why? Because as anyone who has experienced hot chocolate in pre-powdered form will surely know, it is a watery, lifeless and lacklustre version of its former self.

But it isn’t all bad news; spurred-on by the trend for bean-to-bar chocolate, a growing number of cafes and artisan producers are reviving the real deal. Made with little more than milk and high-grade single origin cacao, these drinks have more in common with fine wine than the stuff that comes from sachets.

Better still, it can easily be made at home, says Louise Anderson, head chocolatier at Borough Market’s Rabot 1745, which serves-up some of the best hot chocolate in London. “Anyone can make a hot chocolate, but what really sets a good one out from the crowd is the quality of your ingredients,” she says. “And your priority has to be the chocolate.”

Oak, smoke and whisky
While most recipes call for generic ‘plain chocolate’ or cocoa powder, Louise insists on single-origin dark chocolate, the theory being if you’re going to dilute it with a liquid, you need something that is intense enough to hold its own in terms of flavour. “My first choice is 70 per cent, dark St Lucian Rabot Estate chocolate,” she adds. “It’s grown on our own estate and has a deliciously nutty character, with strong citrus notes. However, you may want to go even higher in terms of percentage, especially if you like flavours of oak, smoke and whisky.”

The next most important ingredient to consider, of course, is the liquid. The Aztecs used water; milk was purportedly introduced to the drink in the 1700s, when Irish botanist Sir Hans Sloane visited Jamaica and was offered a “nauseous” tasting chocolate drink that he asked to be diluted with milk in order to make it palatable. In truth, Jamaicans were probably enjoying the drink with milk long before Sloan turned up. One historian, James Delbourgo, says Jamaicans were combining cacao, cinnamon and boiled milk as far back at the 1400s.

“If you want to be a purist, use water,” says Louise. “But at Rabot 1745, we always opt for milk. Skimmed is great if you want a lighter texture, but I personally go for full fat. As for sugar, I’m a firm believer that you don’t need it because the chocolate should be doing the talking. That said, if you do have a sweet tooth then go for something neutral like caster sugar, which won’t mask the flavour of the chocolate. If you use demerara, for example, you’ll end up introducing notes of molasses.”

As with many of the world’s best—and most heavily debated—foods (I’m looking at you bread, beer and pizza), the difference between an average hot chocolate and one that is truly exceptional is not only the quality of the ingredients, but the way in which they are wielded. In other words, while top quality ingredients are the heart of any hot chocolate worth its salt, the whole thing can be ruined by a shoddy method.

Common mistakes
The most common mistake people make is burning the chocolate in a microwave, which is why Louise suggests gently melting the grated chocolate over a bain-marie, before gradually introducing it to a pan of simmering milk. The key here, she says, is to whisk with wild abandon—not only to make sure the chocolate is fully emulsified, but also to aerate the mixture, which will give you a silky smooth texture and frothy head.

Finally, if you really want to take your hot chocolate to the next level, then you might want to follow in the indulgent footsteps of chef, food writer and fellow Borough scribe Ed Smith, who adds a dollop of dulce de leche to his. “It’s a creamy caramel sauce made with cooked sugar and condensed milk,” he says. “I buy mine from Porteña, the Argentinean street food stall at Borough Market. It’s really delicious if you stir a teaspoon through your hot chocolate right at the end.”

And he’s certainly not wrong.

The recipe
Bring an inch of water to boil in a saucepan, then place a heatproof bowl in the mouth of the pot, making sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom. Transfer 60g finely grated, 70 per cent dark chocolate into the bowl and stir until it melts into a smooth paste, with no bits.

Bring 200ml whole milk to a gentle simmer in a pan. Gradually add the chocolate paste to the milk, whisking as you go. Continue until the liquid is frothy, and velvety smooth. Pour into a mug and stir through the dulce de leche.