As we drove from the airport up to my parents’ house, sparkling fat snowflakes swirled through the headlight beams and across the road. Sure, it wasn’t ideal driving conditions, but it didn’t matter because everything else about it was perfect. Home for Christmas, a white Christmas, what more could you want? We woke up to a soft, luminous world freshly blanketed in snow. Perfect for snow angels, and skiing, and plain old flopping into snowdrifts. Which was pretty much the entire agenda for the day. And will be the agenda for tomorrow as well. That, and drinking hot chocolate. Oh boy is it ever hot chocolate time!
Being a devoted daughter of Mother Winter and Father Snow, hot chocolate and I go waaaaaaay back. We have an incredibly close and special relationship. A little too close, potentially. I can’t even keep milk around because if I did I would drink far more hot chocolate than my system could possibly handle. I have memories of one of the first times I ever had a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream. I couldn’t have been more than about four, but I remember taking a sip and entering into a reverie as I tasted the warm darkness of the chocolate contrasted by the sweet cool cream, and that amazing, unctuous foam of the whipped cream as it melted. Good hot chocolate is downright other worldly. And in my opinion, it really needs the counterpoint provided by the whipped cream – no one can sell me on marshmallows, I’m afraid – in fact, I keep adding new layers of whipped cream as I make my way down through the mug. That borderland where the flavors and textures mingle is the best part!
When I studied abroad in France, I made it part of my cultural education to spend my time wandering around the city and drinking chocolat chaud at a different cafe every afternoon (thank goodness my dislike of the metro left me walking over 10 miles a day, otherwise I never could have gotten away with it!). The hot chocolate in France was a brand new animal for me, a thick, velvety cup of melted chocolate. So potent and rich, after reaching the bottom of your cup you feel like you’ve had a full meal. It is a cup of chocolate that demands attention and contemplation, not just casual sipping. When I first moved to Boston, I worked at the chocolaterie L.A. Burdick’s, which is famous for their chocolat. There I learned the secret to making hot chocolate in the French style, that secret being 1/3 cup of chopped single-source dark chocolate for every cup of hot chocolate! Oh la la!
But, by then, I had actually already developed my own approach to hot chocolate, one that I like even better. It is a cup of chocolate that balances the richness of the dark chocolate with the refreshing bitterness of some cocoa powder and sets the flavor off with just a hint of salt and vanilla. I discovered it during the year after I came back from France and lived with one of my best friends, who has similar feelings about hot chocolate with whipped cream as I do. We made it very nearly every single night, sometimes laced with a touch of schnapps to really warm us up. And when you make something several hundred times in a row, well I’d say you’re pretty much bound to come up with a formula that gives you exactly what you want. This is a perfect cup of chocolate for when you come tumbling inside after skiing or sledding or playing in the snow. It will warm you up and relax you on a chilly evening or make a satisfying and elegant dessert.
Hot chocolate with whipped cream (serves 2-4 depending on how large of cups you want to have)
- 2 tablespoons good quality unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or you can make vanilla sugar by keeping a vanilla bean in some sugar and then just use that instead and omit the extract)
- pinches (a small one) salt (preferably fine sea salt as regular salt can have a slightly abrasive flavor)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped good dark chocolate (65-70% cocoa solids, at least)
- 2 cups whole milk
- a splash of cognac or peppermint schnapps or your choice of liqueur, if desired
- In a saucepan (with the heat turned off), combine the cocoa powder, sugar, vanilla, salt, and chopped chocolate. Whisk in a few Tablespoons of the milk to make a paste. Whisk in a bit more to make a thinner paste. Then, turn the heat to medium. And cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes until it begins to warm.
- Whisk in the rest of the milk and as it heats, keep whisking to blend the chocolate shavings in as they fully melt. Heat the hot chocolate until it is steaming and is hot to the touch (I just stick my finger in there because I don’t own a thermometer and I figure it’s not going to hurt anyone) but not yet simmering. You don’t want it to bubble.
- Pour the hot chocolate into mugs (and add a splash of booze if the mood strikes you – I do love vacation!), stir, and top each mug with a nice dollop of sweetened whipped cream (see below). Garnish with some chocolate shavings, if desired, then relax and enjoy!
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon cognac, if desired
- Whip all the ingredients together until peaks (that are right in between soft and stiff) form. Dollop on top of the hot chocolate. This will make more than you need, but I find it hard to whip cream in a much smaller amount than half a cup, and I trust that you will find good use for the rest of it.