Hot chocolate: warming to make, pleasing to drink

The hotel dining room in my mind's eye had billowy white curtains, but perhaps that was only the clouds of whipped cream floating on top of the steaming hot chocolate.

The European waiter brought us a whole bowl of it along with our elegant chocolate pot that first afternoon, when we children were encouraged to venture forth on our own for hot chocolate and pastries.

First we put a polite spoonful in the cup; later we would add several dollops all at once. By the time we had finished our pot of delicately scented hot chocolate, the bowl of whipped cream was completely empty.

On following afternoons throughout our stay we demonstrated none of our initial hesitation. Our waiter, despite halting English, showed his approval by befriending us.

How satisfying the mellow warmth of liquid chocolate with the cool velvety thickness of whipped cream. I had never imagined it to be so sublime - nor will it ever be again.

Cortez, after Columbus's half-hearted attempt to introduce hot chocolate to Spain, was dazzled by the splendor of Montezuma's court in 1519 where the Aztec emperor consumed huge quantities of the cold peppery drink in golden cups.

For the next century Spain hoarded the new treasure and their knowledge of its preparation. Spanish monks secretly roasted and ground cocoa beans in their monasteries before adding to it that other New World commodity, sugar.

Northern pirates, not understanding how to make the bitter bean palatable, threw shiploads of captured Spanish booty overboard as a result.

But inevitably, inexorably, chocolate spread to other parts of Europe, especially when Spanish princesses married French kings, Louis XIII in 1615 and then Louis XIV in 1660.

The popularity of chocolate in the courts rapidly spread to fashionable society and soon chocolate houses opened in France and England.

The chocolate they drank in those days was very different from ours today. It was high in fat content, thick, and grainy and mixed with many spices, including pepper, and often orange peel.

Tempted by the huge profits, some traders adulterated it with additives unknown to us, such as ground shells and brick dust.

During the industrial age of the 19th century sweeping changes were made in chocolate production. Mechanization brought new methods of refining, as well as the technology to make solid eating chocolate.

Many of the names we associate with chocolate today - van Houten, Nestle, Suchard, and Lindt, to name a few - are those of early manufacturers.

The processing of chocolate is highly technical, with variations at each step affecting the finished product. Basically, the beans from the reddish-brown seed pods are fermented, dried, roasted, and shelled. The ''nibs,'' as they are called at this point, are then ground and heated to liquefy and remove the fat.

The released fat, or chocolate liquor, can be cooled and shaped into cakes, what we know as unsweetened baking chocolate. Or it can be pressed to separate the chocolate butter from the remaining solids, which are then pulverized into cocoa powder.

Cocoa powder contains relatively little fat and can be ''dutched,'' which means to put it through a process that neutralizes the acidity and makes it mellower. It is sold powdered as is, or combined with sugar, dried milk, vanilla , starches, and preservatives to make instant cocoa mix.

Chocolate butter, an unusually stable fat, is often added to chocolate liquor to make a smoother, richer solid chocolate. The European taste prefers this more refined chocolate, which involves further steps in processing.

Eating chocolate, that is the liquor plus butter, is sweetened to varying degrees, combined with powdered milk, nuts, vanilla, and a hundred other flavorings, then poured, dipped, or molded into shape, filled or not. National and even regional tastes and traditions vary widely.

Hot chocolate is properly made from melted chocolate liquor diluted with hot milk. This is basically what the Aztecs drank in Mexico centuries ago and what Europeans continued to drink until they learned how to make cocoa powder 150 years ago.

Today in Mexico and Puerto Rico, hot chocolate is often made from a bar of chocolate made of chocolate liquor, sugar, and spices.

Although it can be eaten like a candy bar, it has a harsh texture and because it contains no extra chocolate liquor, it doesn't melt easily in the mouth.

Here are some hot chocolate and cocoa recipes to try at home during these cold wintry days. Be sure to follow these four pointers:

* Know exactly what chocolate product you are using, so you do not add sugar and spices if they are already in the product.

* If using solid chocolate, melt it in the top of a double boiler to avoid scorching.

* Once the milk is added, do not let it boil.

* Just before serving, vigorously whisk or beat the mixture to a froth to incorporate the chocolate into the liquid.

To serve whipped cream with cocoa, whisk or beat it into soft peaks. You may, if you like, sweeten it to taste with confectioners' sugar and add a couple of drops of vanilla extract.

For a fragrant garnish, grate a little orange zest on top of the cream. Serve in a bowl alongside the hot chocolate so people can help themselves. Hot Cocoa 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa power 1tablespoon sugar, or more, to taste 1/4 cup water 6 ounces milk Twist of orange peel Dash of ground cloves

Combine cocoa and sugar in small saucepan. Stirring to remove lumps, add water. Bring to boil to dissolve sugar and blend thoroughly. Add milk, orange peel, and cloves. Heat, but do not allow to boil. Just before serving, whisk or beat until frothy. Serve in a large mug. Makes 1 generous serving. Hot Chocolate 1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons sugar, to taste 1/4 cup boiling water 6 ounces hot milk 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional

Break chocolate into small pieces with tip of sharp knife. Mix chocolate and sugar with boiling water in top of double boiler. Over simmering water, stir mixture until melted and well combined. Add hot milk and heat up to, but not beyond, boiling point.

Just before serving, add vanilla and whisk, beat, or blend until frothy and well combined. Pour into large cup or mug and serve. Makes 1 generous serving. If you like, add a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg for spice. Hot Spicy Cocoa 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (if sweetened, adjust sugar below) 1/4 cup sugar, or more, according to taste 1/2 cup water4 cups milk 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon gound nutmeg 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice or cloves 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Put cocoa powder and sugar in pot. Slowly add water while stirring to remove lumps and form paste. Bring water to boil and cook, still stirring, until sugar is dissolved and mixture thoroughly combined. Add milk and heat gradually, but do not allow to boil.

Add spices a little at a time to taste. Just before serving, add vanilla and whisk or beat to a bubbly froth. Provide cinnamon sticks for stirring. Serves 4 to 6.

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