A Spicy Take on Hot Chocolate

I drink hot chocolate just about everyday. I know, this sounds indulgent, but honestly it isn’t. My cup for one is very straightforward: a few teaspoon of Dutch-process cocoa powder, a couple tablespoons of sugar, a pinch of salt, a half teaspoon or so of vanilla extract, and hot water or milk, depending on how I’m feeling. Piping some low-fat whipped cream or floating a marshmallow or two on top makes for a warming, chocolaty treat that only feels extravagant.

Despite my longstanding loyalty to this satisfying recipe, I recently came upon a version of hot chocolate that inspired me to not only think about drinking chocolate in an entirely new way, but to get to the stove and develop a recipe of my own, as well.

It was while watching a recent episode of Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth on PBS that I was first introduced to the Italian elixir known as cioccolata calda. Now, although this term simply translates as “hot chocolate” in English, in reality the beverage itself is quite different from American hot chocolate and, indeed, is as exotic and sumptuous as its name implies. In this particular episode of Ruth Reichl’s TV show, she and her traveling companion, the actress Dianne Wiest, were exploring Venice. At one point, Ms. Wiest wanders into a cioccolateria and within minutes is swooning over a small cup of this dark drinking chocolate. The image on the screen remains with me still. A large copper saucepan filled with thick chocolate simmers gently as powdered ginger, whole cardamom pods, sticks of cinnamon, and bits of vanilla beans perfume and lend complexity to the sweet pool. A flavorful example of Venetians’ penchant for spicy food and drink, cioccolata calda is also prepared in many spicy-sweet variations around Italy.

I have since learned that Italian hot chocolate is usually prepared with cocoa powder, water or milk, and various spices. What makes it truly unique, though, is the addition of flour or cornstarch to thicken the mixture. Just how thick the chocolate becomes varies from recipe to recipe. Some cioccolata caldas are so thick that they resemble hot puddings more than beverages, while others are more akin to very rich custards.

The recipe I have developed is a variation on the traditional Italian drinking chocolate. First, I perfume the milk with a delicate infusion of ground ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon and sweeten it with a bit of brown sugar. I then thicken it with just enough cornstarch to create a thin custard consistency. Next, because I wasn’t able to achieve the deep chocolaty flavor I was looking for using cocoa powder, I turned to bittersweet or semisweet chocolate. This not only easily lends chocolate intensity to the drink, but it also thickens it some more. The result is a thick custard- or crème anglaise-like hot chocolate that gives a satisfying nod to the thick-enough-to-make-a-spoon-stand-up Italian original, but, to my mind, achieves a seductive, velvety consistency that I find easier and more pleasant drink. A final splash of warm, fragrant vanilla extract rounds out and lends depth to the happy trio of milk, chocolate, and spice.

I advise serving cioccolata calda in small cups with a bit of whipped cream or a marshmallow or two. I hope this American version of an Italian classic finds a place in your repertoire—perhaps for the times when my more traditional, leaner recipe leaves you craving a bit more luxury.

Cioccolata Calda

Makes 1 1/2 cups

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Pinch of salt

2 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pour about 2 tablespoons of the milk into a small bowl and pour the rest into a small saucepan. Add the cornstarch to the small bowl of milk, stirring until it is dissolved. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and salt to the saucepan of milk and scald (heat just below the boil) over medium-high heat. Whisk in the cornstarch mixture, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer, stirring frequently, until the milk has thickened slightly, 5 minutes. Add the chocolate, stirring until it has melted completely and the hot chocolate is the consistency of thick heavy cream or crème anglaise (it will coat the back of a spoon). Stir in the vanilla and strain the hot chocolate into a heatproof pitcher.

Pour the cioccolata calda into mugs or heatproof glasses and serve immediately.

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