Recipe for romance: hot chocolate

Forget the box of chocolates. Woo your valentine with gourmet hot chocolate instead.

I discovered the secret formula for romance at the bottom of a mug.

Well, actually I found the perfect cup of hot chocolate, a concoction so rich that it practically guarantees you'll share some with your valentine. No one should finish a whole cup on his or her own.

Forget what you know about hot cocoa. No pale powder and shriveled marshmallows poured out of a packet here. Not a drop of water in sight.

Instead, the City Bakery in Manhattan serves up a smooth blend of milk, cream, and melted chocolate that tastes like a liquid candy bar.

"I hope I don't combust," my companion said after a few sips. And we didn't even get to taste the bakery's "Love Potion" topped with a puddle of hot fudge that's served only on Valentine's Day.

City Bakery's owner, Maury Rubin, and a handful of other chocolatiers have reinvented hot chocolate over the past decade, giving the drink the same creative attention usually reserved for artisanal pastries or perhaps gourmet coffee.

Just in time for Valentine's Day, City Bakery hosts a hot-chocolate festival every February featuring a dozen different flavors such as chili pepper, ginger, vanilla bean, and banana peel.

All those options sound confusing? That might be why in Philadelphia, the Ritz Carlton hotel employs a "hot chocolate sommelier" to help customers design their ideal version of the drink.

With guidance from Caesar Bradley, guests choose from among five types of chocolate and 10 toppings - including pralines, raspberry, and freshly made marshmallows. Children typically gravitate toward the "Liquid S'more" made with milk chocolate, whipped cream, and marshmallows and served in a mug rimmed with crumbled graham crackers.

"Hot chocolate combines the best of both worlds," Mr. Bradley says. "It's the ultimate comfort drink ... and it also has a real romance to it."

Perhaps that's why the film "Serendipity" featured stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale sharing a soup-bowl-size serving of the famous "frrrozen hot chocolate" from the New York restaurant that bears the film's name.

This specialty (shown in the photo below) has become so sought-after that the Manhattan eatery now sells a kit for making it at home, including the bowl, on its website (www.serendipity3.com).

Hot chocolate is also a draw for real-life romantics at L.A. Burdick, an intimate chocolate shop in Cambridge Mass., where whirring espresso machines constantly churn out fresh batches. Couples sip the signature brew from oversized mugs, each of which is delivered to the table with a miniature whisk.

This luxury doesn't come cheap, though. Prices range from $3 at City Bakery to $7 at the Ritz Carlton. But even without an espresso machine, you can make your own liquid valentine at home.

Chocolatiers disagree whether the key ingredient is the liquid or the chocolate. But definitely use less cocoa powder (which, unlike chocolate, doesn't contain cocoa butter) than real chocolate, and choose some combination of milk and cream over water.

Blend together heavy cream and milk, use half-and-half, or just use milk alone depending on how thick - and fattening - a recipe you'd like. At home, Larry Burdick says he uses 1 percent milk.

It's key to choose the right chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate provides ample sweetness, but you might prefer white or even milk chocolate.

Whatever the ingredients, each serving should contain about two-thirds liquid and one-third chocolate. And the liquid should be scalding - but not brought to a boil.

Burdick's adds a little cocoa powder for texture and some freshly grated additions that include cocoa beans, pepper, nutmeg, and cardamom.

Whisk the hot chocolate while cooking it for enough time to heat up and emulsify, but not too much that it boils. Then pour into your favorite mug and add the toppings of your choice.

Unfortunately, tracking down or preparing the perfect hot chocolate is much easier than finding the right person to share it with.

Burdick's Hot Chocolate

1 cup whole milk (can substitute skim or soy milk)
2/3 cup best-quality chocolate (milk, dark, or white chocolate), grated
1 teaspoon best-quality
cocoa powder
Grated chocolate, for garnish

Place milk in small saucepan and heat to scalding (just below boiling), whisking constantly. Add 2/3 cup grated chocolate and the cocoa powder, and whisk vigorously until chocolate melts and mixture thickens. Do not let the hot chocolate come to a boil.

Pour into a cup and top with a light sprinkling of grated chocolate, if desired.

Makes 1 serving.

Philadelphia Ritz Carlton's Basic Hot Chocolate

4 ounces milk
4 ounces heavy cream
1/2 to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (to taste)
2-1/2 ounces bittersweet best-quality chocolate, broken into small pieces
1 pinch Mexican cinnamon
1 large tablespoon whipped cream
1 pinch cocoa powder (optional)

Over low heat, warm the milk, heavy cream, and sugar in a saucepan. Add the chocolate and the cinnamon, and continue heating - whisking constantly - until chocolate melts. Do not let mixture come to a boil.

Pour into a cup and, just before serving, place the large tablespoon of whipped cream on top and sprinkle a bit of cocoa powder over the top for garnish, if desired.

Makes 1 serving.

A little history

Eating chocolate originated in Mexico with the Aztecs, who used crushed cocoa beans to concoct a hot drink. The chocolate drink that the Spanish conquistadors first tasted was very different from the hot chocolate we know today. Over the years, it evolved from the bitter brew they first sampled into a sweet luxury.

An article in Gourmetour magazine, a Spanish trade journal, revealed great tales of how hot chocolate became so important to and beloved by the Spanish. "It is a traditional story in the northern Spanish region of Asturias that when Charles I visited Spain for the first time as its new monarch in 1517, he landed by mistake in the little Asturian village of Tazones, instead of the Basque coast. The locals, thrilled and awestruck to be the first to encounter the new king, served him the most luxurious refreshment they had: a cup of chocolate....

"The story may be completely apocryphal. Even so, the lack of precise information about when cocoa and chocolate were introduced into Spain makes it possible it might be true."

- From 'All Around the World Cookbook,' by Sheila Lukins (Workman Publishing)

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