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December 27, 2006

Chocolate Holidays

Happy belated holidays!

For the past week I’ve either been scrambling to get ready for Christmas, celebrating with the family, or recovering from all the scrambling and celebrating. The whole time I was trying to figure out just where chocolate fit into the whole mess. It really doesn’t feel like there is a whole lot of chocolate in our holiday tradition. There are cookies and candy canes and eggnog (even eggnog soda) but aside from the odd cookie there really isn’t a lot of chocolate in the mix. We have never had a yule log so any chocolate that gets involved (usually lurking in a cookie, as a present, or in the form of Hershey’s Kisses in stockings) is lucky to do so. The biggest role chocolate plays in our tradition is the presence of York Peppermint Patties which have been a part of Christmas in our family for as long as I can remember. In my experience Christmas just isn’t much of a chocolate holiday.

December 26th, however, is all about chocolate. I don’t know a thing about Boxing Day beyond what I just read over at Wikipedia, but I do know for fact that it is one of MY chocolate holidays. In stores and on websites all across the country all that lovely holiday chocolate is put on sale at half off! That, my friends, is a reason to celebrate. And it only takes a day or two more for the chocolate to drop to 75% off! What could be better than cheap chocolate? Ok, I’ll admit that cheap good chocolate and free chocolate are both better, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. Most of the time, actually.

So in the end while Christmas itself isn’t that much of a chocolate holiday (in my experience), it does usher in one of the biggest chocolate holidays of the year in my book. Go forth and partake of the great bargains. I know I will.

Anyway, I hope everybody had a good holiday, whatever it may have been. I’m still working on a little gift for my readers that may or may not happen. It requires equal parts luck, skill, and memory and I’m sorely lacking in all three.

December 21, 2006

Go Forth And Read!

I'm trying to get my thoughts on holiday chocolate collected (and they are turning out to be few and to the point) but in the meantime I absolutely HAD to share this. I was over at Luxist (looking at things I could never afford ever) and they had a link to this series of looks into a Dallas-area chocolatier and their high-priced single origin chocolates. It's a really interesting piece of investigative journalism and I don't want to spoil the punchline for anybody so I'll keep it at that. Just give it a read.

December 17, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week Wrap-Up

After fourteen days of non-stop hot chocolate you would think that I couldn’t help but learn a thing or two. And you know what? I actually did! I learned that I should never try and do a fourteen day run of straight reviews. Not that I can’t or don’t want to. It was a little stressing, but the real problem is that as things progressed I was much more prone to errors and was really at a loss for what to say. The biggest two mistakes I made (aside from thinking I could make and try six Aztec/Maya hot chocolates in one day) in the process were forgetting about Vosges when ordering in my hot chocolates and not ordering the SPICY Aztec Hot Chocolate from Marie Belle. I think the Vosges and the spicy version of the Marie Belle have a serious shot of giving the Jacques Torres Wicked a run for the money. Ah, hindsight. How you cause me to kick myself.

Errors aside, I also learned what I look for in a hot chocolate. Most of the time when I’m drinking hot chocolate it’s to get warm and relax at the end of the day. For that I tend to like a more liquid hot chocolate and a reasonably large serving size. So most of the time I wouldn’t want something like Wicked, which is a smallish serving of a somewhat pudding-like consistency. Thicker hot chocolates in smaller serving sizes seem a perfect morning starter. What’s better than a shot of spicy hot chocolate first thing in the morning? It’s the sort of thing that will get your day started on the right foot. It's sure to wake you up.

Well, it was an interesting experiment. I’m not certain I want to try something like that again anytime soon, but I can promise that I’m not done with hot chocolate. It should only be a matter of time before I get the Vosges in here. But for the moment I’m going to switch focus a little. There’s a little question of holiday chocolate to be dealt with.

December 16, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day FOURTEEN

Tonight we finally reach the end of the road for the sprawling fourteen day Hot Chocolate Week. It’s been a long “week” and I’m really pretty relieved to see it end. It's been taxing. The final review of the week will be of the Marie Belle Dark Aztec Hot Chocolate. It might just be a bit of a short review. Turns out there isn’t a lot of new ground to cover.

Earlier this week I looked at the “normal” Marie Belle Aztec Hot Chocolate and I was quite impressed with the extremely chocolaty drink. Tonight’s entrant is a variation on the original that brings a much higher cacao content to the mix. The normal variety is made with 63% cacao content chocolate and the dark variety steps that up to 72%. Not much else is different. You end up with a cup of thick, dark, hot chocolate, or in this case, thick hot dark chocolate. It hits you like a liquid chocolate hammer. It’s pure chocolate start to finish. The ingredients on the tin are applicable to their entire line of hot chocolates so I don’t know if there are any spices in it or not, but I’m rather doubting it. I’m not tasting any here and I think I need to revisit the other because of this. I’m not sure if the hint of spice I tasted last time was really there or a side effect of having just drank a cup of the Chuao or if some spice transferred on the whisk or something. But the mistakes of the past week are a topic for another day (tomorrow actually). Tonight’s hot chocolate mixes up thick, but smooth and may even be too strong for some. Not for me, though. I like it strong and as such am scoring this at a nice solid 9 out of 10. If you like your chocolate dark, this isn’t likely to disappoint.

Ah, it’s over at last. Tomorrow I’m going to put together a bit of a postlude (or postmortem) for the whole affair and look back at a few of the mistakes I made and look forward to what I’m going to do to fix them. Then it's time to talk holiday chocolate.

December 15, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Thirteen

Tonight is the next to last night of Hot Chocolate Week (a strangely long week) and I am actually looking forward to being able to sit back and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate without having to worry about writing up my impressions of it. I’m not burned out on hot chocolate; I’m just burned out on having to put together a coherent review every night. Soon I’ll be able to get back to more normal blogging, but before I can do that I have a couple of important items to address. The first of those items is European Classic Drinking Chocolate from Chocolat Vitale. This packet of loveliness rounded out the package I received from the good folks at Cocoa Connoisseur (who, by the way, have an amazing selection) and it is an interesting animal.

You can tell a lot about a product by its ingredients and that is certainly the case with this one. The simple list of ingredients is as follows: Belgian and Swiss chocolate, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, vanilla, sugar, and lecithin. It reads like the ingredients of a bar of good chocolate. Preparation is reasonably simple as well. You bring a half-cup of milk to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, add the 1.2 ounces of chocolate in the packet, and whisk until creamy. Given the chocolate to milk ratio it should be no surprise that it mixes up a nice dark brown. One glance makes it clear that you are dealing with a very chocolaty drink. And that’s one of the nice things about this – you can drink it. A couple of the more chocolaty hot chocolates were extremely thick (due to a little cornstarch) and not the most drinkable (but no less excellent for it). This is quite drinkable and very chocolaty. The milk makes it slightly creamy and keeps it from being possibly too strong but doesn’t in any way diminish the taste of real chocolate. It should be no surprise that among the non-Aztec/Maya hot chocolates this one ranks right up there with the Williams-Sonoma as the most chocolate of the bunch. It earns a chocolaty 8.75 out of 10. It’s hard to get more chocolaty than this.

One night left! One hot chocolate left! Then I can start talking holiday chocolate. Plus I’ve got an idea for a little treat to share with everybody. Maybe. We'll see.

December 14, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Twelve

It’s day twelve of Hot Chocolate “Week” and I’m taking the night off from doing reviews and looking back at the Aztec/Maya hot chocolates I’ve covered this week. And the first thing I notice is that there is at least one important contender missing from the lineup: Vosges Haut-Chocolat. The have their own take on Aztec hot chocolate with their Aztec Elixir and it sounds like it’s another winner. They appear to take the thick approach like Jacques Torres and Marie Belle do but they use “maize powder” (which they say is cornmeal) instead of the cornstarch that the others use. I really feel like the entire showdown is incomplete without their offering and I have a suspicion that there are more excellent contenders out there that have just managed to slip below my somewhat limited radar.

Ignoring the shortcomings of my selection I have got to say that I have gotten to try some fabulous hot chocolates and these Aztec and Maya styled ones have been some of the very best I’ve had to date. But now I’ve got a problem. I promised a “showdown” and I’m therefore somewhat obliged to deliver on that promise in at least some manner. Honestly, each of the Aztec and Maya hot chocolates that I tried are excellent in their own way. The Green & Black’s Maya Gold, Dagoba Xocolatl, and Lake Champlain Spicy Aztec are all easy to make and the Chuao Spicy Maya, Marie Belle Aztec, and Jacques Torres Wicked deliver serious chocolate. In the end, though, I have to give Jacqus Torres the top spot in the showdown. All of the hot chocolates I’ve tried have been great, but Wicked is an experience.

So my Hot Chocolate Week has run twelve days now. I think that this late in the game it would be a crime to not take it out to a full two weeks. I’ve got a few things held in reserve that are deserving of my time (and it’s not like I wasn’t going to drink them anyway).

December 13, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Eleven

At long last I’ve reached the end of the list of Aztec/Maya hot chocolates that I had foolishly thought to review over the course of a single day. This last one is another that I’ve had around the apartment since last winter and have enjoyed on more than one occasion. Up for review tonight is the Aztec Spicy Hot Chocolate from Lake Champlain Chocolates.

Lake Champlain take a reasonably traditional approach to the Aztec hot chocolate with the inclusion of hot peppers but taking a look at the ingredients we find it strays a little by being the only one of the hot chocolates in the showdown that has no chocolate in it. This one is made of sugar, cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. No chocolate, but do I love a nice, simple list of ingredients like that. You always know exactly what you’re dealing with. And what we’re dealing with tonight is a hot chocolate that is very easy to make. Since there is no chocolate to melt microwave preparation is very reasonable and they do include instructions for it. Not that I used them. No, I opted for the stovetop again. I followed the normal instructions and put 8 ounces of milk and a heaping tablespoon of mix in a pan and started heating it up. It mixed up to a very attractive deep, dark brown and held a good bit of froth when attacked with a whisk. Flavor-wise it’s pretty mellow. The cocoa is nice and not overly sweet and doesn't seem to suffer from not having actual chocolate in it. The spices are nice and the cayenne adds flavor but no heat. It makes for a really nice, comfortable hot cocoa that is great to just sit down and enjoy at the end of the day. It’s quite good and easy to make and as such it earns a 8.75 out of 10. It also goes great with a couple of snickerdoodles.

Woo hoo! That’s the end of the long list of Aztec/Maya hot chocolates (excluding the other Marie Belle I have yet to try). Now all that remains is a nice wrap-up post. And once that’s finished I have another couple of hot chocolates to push things out to a full two weeks.

December 12, 2006

More Hot Chocolate Fun!

Well, it looks like the Oregonian has got the hot chocolate spirit going today. They have a series of six separate articles on hot chocolate including recipes from The Essence of Chocolate (by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg) and the best-named cookbook ever, Chocolate Obsession (by Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage). Loads of great content to be read so head on over and check it out.

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Ten

At long last the end is in sight. I am pleased to say that tonight is the next to last review in the Aztec/Maya showdown. Tonight’s selection is Maya Gold Hot Chocolate from Green & Black's Organic. I bought this last winter and have been enjoying it since then when the weather allowed. I’m not sure I have another hot chocolate review in me, but I’m going to give it a shot.

Green and Black’s take a less spicy route than some of the Aztec/Maya hot chocolates I’ve sampled but they bring a nice shot of orange to the mix and wrap the whole thing up in organic and Fair Trade certifications. On top of that it’s an easy one to prepare (put 4 teaspoons of mix in 9 ounces of hot milk) and one that can reasonably be made in the microwave. And the ingredients are almost as simple as the preparation: cocoa, chocolate, powdered orange peel, orange flavoring, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper. The first thing I noticed is that there are no chilies in it like the other Aztec/Maya style hot chocolates I’ve tried this week which is a nice change. To prepare it I opted for heating the milk on the stovetop (of course) and soon had a steaming cup of lightly orange scented, mellow brown hot chocolate. The chocolate is smooth, creamy, and easily drinkable and has a nice current of orange flavor lurking just beneath the surface. The cinnamon and nutmeg are more background notes to the flavor, but they’re there and a nice complement to the chocolate and orange. It’s a very mellow and relaxing hot chocolate that is a nice treat after a long day. I’ll give it a 8.75 out of 10 and put this review to bed.

These reviews are getting progressively more difficult to do. You have no idea how glad I am that I only have one left before I can wrap things up. Of course I’ll probably have to find something else to post to stretch it to complete the second week.

December 11, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Nine

I’m getting close to the end of the long list of hot chocolates I set out to try just over a week ago and I’m beginning to feel a little bit burned out. Or maybe it’s just my throat. Tonight, to continue the woefully prolonged Aztec/Maya showdown, I mixed up a cup of Dagoba’s Xocolatl Hot Chocolate - and it’s some potent stuff! Not only is it potent, but it’s organic and Fair Trade Certified - bonus!

Unlike the hot chocolates of the last couple of days that are almost entirely chocolate this one has cocoa and chocolate. The full list of ingredients is evaporated cane juice, cacao powder, unsweetened chocolate, chilies, cinnamon, and of course, love (their words, but I take them at their word). The cane juice, cacao, and chocolate are all certified organic (their website says that the chilies are as well – my canister is a little old so it may have changed). Now I have to say up front that I did NOT have instructions for this. There might have been instructions in the Limited Edition canister when I got it but if there were then I've somehow managed to lose them (it's the sort of thing I'd do). I did, however, find the right proportions on the mighty interweb. So I heated up a cup of milk and added three tablespoons of the Xocolatl mix. It looks beautiful and doesn’t smell too spicy, but there is a bit of bite to the taste when you take a sip and when you go to swallow… well, it steps up to be more than just a bit of bite. You feel every sip in the throat. But between each toasty swallow there is a lot of very nice flavor. The chilies are more the stars than the spice in this one but both are wrapped up in a lovely chocolate flavor that can't help but steal the show. It’s a very nice combination and earns the Xocolatl a 9.25 out of 10. You just have to watch out for that burn.

One more down and only two more to go. Odds are that triple-overtime won’t get it done, but I'm thinking that quadruple-overtime should get us there. It’s beginning to look a lot more like a Hot Chocolate Fortnight than of a mere Hot Chocolate Week.

December 10, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Eight!?

Ok, so Hot Chocolate Week is moving into overtime. I have a pretty decent array of Aztec style hot chocolates still waiting for my attention and I’m finding I can’t handle trying all of them in one day – it’s just too much. Even I have limits. But tonight I am going to manage sampling two of them. I had to do both of these at the same time if only because the cans are so similar. The two hot chocolates on deck are Chuao Chocolatier’s Spicy Maya Hot Chocolate and Marie Belle’s Aztec Hot Chocolate.

Chuao: Chuao is a SoCal chocolatier that I was unaware of until my most recent trip to Jungle Jim’s (yeah, I’ve been lax in posting the Safari info – there were a couple that were really pretty much non-events). I was checking out the hot chocolate section to see if there was anything that would be a good fit for Hot Chocolate Week and there was their Aztec hot chocolate begging me to buy it. I’m weak willed so into the cart it went. All that background stuff aside, lets get to the review. The ingredients are simple enough: chocolate, sugar, dehydrated milk, chilies, and spices. You put three tablespoons of mix (they give you a little spoon for it - thoughtful!) into a half cup of boiling water, get it back to a boil and whisk it for 30 seconds. It’s thick, but liquid enough to drink without the need of a spoon. And it’s spicy. The chilies give it a nice kick of serious heat and help balance the other spices. Overall it’s really good though some might find it a little on the hot side. I’ll give it a 9 out of 10 and have to say I am looking forward to trying some more of their products (I have a bar of their chocolate waiting for me on the kitchen counter).

Marie Belle: Like Jacques Torres, Marie Belle is one of the places I really wanted to visit in New York (I’ll get there eventually) so when it came time for me to do the whole Hot Chocolate Week thing it was a natural for me to order some from them. The ingredients are, like most of these hot chocolates in the endgame, relatively simple (and multi-purpose – they use one can for their various Aztec hot chocolates). It’s got chocolate, cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, milk, cornstarch, soy lecithin, and natural flavorings (which may include coffee, chipotle, ancho chile, cinnamon, and nutmeg). The primary instructions (there are two alternate preparations on the can) call for you to add one cup of mix to one cup of boiling water. Yes, that’s a full 1:1 water to chocolate ratio. Even without the cornstarch in it this would be thick stuff. And it is thick stuff. Very like the Jacques Torres (which also had cornstarch) in terms of thickness so it was more suited to eating with a spoon than drinking. Any spices in it are much more subtle than the Chuao or Torres offerings so the experience is more chocolate with maybe some spices along for the ride. It’s excellent stuff and a more laid back approach to Aztec hot chocolate than some others. It’s wonderful enough to also get a 9 out of 10 and has me looking forward to trying the dark chocolate version of their hot chocolate (which I happen to have as well).

So that’s two more down and only three left (four if I include the other Marie Belle and don’t try any alternate preparation methods). Luckily the remaining hot chocolates should all be a little thinner than what I’ve had these last two nights and I should be able to tackle them in short order.

December 9, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Seven

All right, I can admit when I’m wrong. I bit off more than I could chew.

I decided that I would give up my aim of hitting all six (seven actually – nine if you count different preparation methods I wanted to try) of the Aztec/Maya hot chocolates I have lined up and shoot for three. I could do two separate rounds of tasting and then write up a separate post summing things up. It was a nice simple plan and like most simple plans it was doomed to get complicated.

The first hot chocolate I picked to try was one that doesn’t declare itself as Aztec or Maya but falls firmly into that same group based on the spices involved: Jacques Torres Wicked Hot Chocolate. This is one of the things I most wanted to try in New York. I’ll allow the description from the Jacques Torres web site to speak for the chocolate and it’s ingredients:

Try the Wicked Hot Chocolate that features allspice, cinnamon, ground, sweet ancho chili peppers, and smoked, ground chipotle chili peppers!
You will notice that cocoa is not mentioned and the simple reason for that is that Jacques Torres hot chocolate “is made with real chocolate – never cocoa powder.” This is serious stuff. The instructions make the seriousness of the product all the more clear. They call for a half-cup of milk and a heaping quarter-cup of chocolate. It sounds like a small serving, but it's like a meal. It mixes up THICK. It’s the sort of hot chocolate that you eat with a spoon. The chilies don't add a ton of burn but do impart a good bit of heat and flavor and the spices are a nice addition as well. It even stands up to my usual standard of balance. All of the spices add something to the chocolate but nothing overpowers anything else. But, like I said, it’s somewhat like a meal. I might, in a few hours, be able to manage another hot chocolate, but this has me satiated for now. I’ve hit my chocolate limit. So much so that I nearly forgot to try and rate it I was so overwhelmed. So, ummm... yeah. It’s excellent stuff and quite a fine treat. So fine a treat that I’m calling it a full 9.5 out of 10 and it only misses a 10 because I'd have trouble eating cookies with it (I like a little snackage with my hot chocolate).

So, where does this leave the rest of the showdown? I’m not sure. I’ll add more as I can, but I don’t quite know how long it will take. A number of these look like they’re similar to this one so it could take a while.

Aztec/Maya Showdown Round 1 Results – Jacques Torres: 1 - Me: 0

December 8, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Six

It’s night six of Hot Chocolate Week! Only one more day to go and… I don’t know if I’m going to be able to pull off tomorrow’s big finish. But that’s something for me to worry about tomorrow. Tonight I have Williams-Sonoma Hot Chocolate to hold my attention and let me tell you – it is very worth the attention.

So I went to the mall to get some Godiva hot chocolate mix. I wanted something to round out the week and figured that would fit the bill nicely. But I can’t go to the mall without sticking my nose into Williams-Sonoma to look at all the pretty toys I would so love to have in my kitchen. And what do I see as I walk in the store? Hot chocolate of course. It was about then that I remembered that I had been carrying around a W-S gift card since my birthday and just never got around to using it. Well, that changed quickly enough. A big can of hot chocolate mix and Gale Gand’s new cookbook, Chocolate & Vanilla, went home with me and I ended up not setting foot one in the Godiva.

Not that it wouldn’t have gone home with me without the gift card. One look at the ingredients is all it would have taken. They are, in their entirety: bittersweet Guittard chocolate, soya lecithin, and pure vanilla. Oh, my. It’s virtually all chocolate. How wrong is that? There’s no hope for microwave instructions for this one. The can says to heat a cup of milk and whisk in 5 tablespoons of chocolate mix and stir until it’s all dissolved. What you are left with is a beautiful deep brown with a nice chocolate aroma with not a hint of sweetness. The taste is, as one would expect, deep chocolate. The milk softens the bittersweet chocolate a little and makes it very smooth and mellow without making it any less rich. This is some darn good hot chocolate and I’m calling it an 8.75 out of 10. I have a suspicion that if I substitute cream for some of the milk it could be even better.

That’s six nights of hot chocolate down and one BIG night left. I have six hot chocolates on deck for the grand finale. I’m not really sure I can manage to knock off six hot chocolates in one day. Time will tell, I suppose.

December 7, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Five

Wow, this week is just flying by! It’s already day five of Hot Chocolate Week – a mere two days left after this! I’ve only got a limited amount of time to kick up the chocolate content and see just how chocolaty things can get. So tonight I’m going to be trying King’s Cupboard Dark Chocolate Chunk Hot Chocolate, another one that the nice people at Cocoa Connoisseur sent my way, and it is loaded with big fat chunks of chocolate.

The ingredients are pretty attractive featuring lots of chocolate and cocoa and when you tear in you find that they really weren’t kidding about the chocolate chunks. This mix is chock full of big fat chunks of chocolate. In spite of that it still has microwave instructions on the can. All you have to do is heat six ounces of milk and add two and a half tablespoons of mix and blend until the chunks are melted. It sounds so simple! And, for the most part, it is. I nuked my milk until it was too hot to touch and dumped in my hot chocolate mix (which was kind of difficult to measure because of the chunks) and started stirring. And I kept stirring. A whole five minutes I stirred and still the chocolate chunks weren’t all melted. This is why I use the stovetop. My issues with the microwave aside this was absolutely excellent stuff. It’s dark and chocolaty without being too sweet and is excellent without needing any extra whipped cream or marshmallows. It’s smooth and tasty and tastes like chocolate. What more could I ask for? It gets a healthy 8.5 out of 10 points. Darn good stuff and definitely worth a taste.

Tonight’s hot chocolate had a lot of chocolate in it, but it still had its fair share of cocoa. Tomorrow night I’m cracking the can on one that has but three ingredients, and none of them are cocoa.

December 6, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Four

It’s day four of Hot Chocolate Week and up until now I’ve only had “hot chocolate” that really wasn’t much more than cocoa and sugar. Tonight that changes as we turn our sights to one of the most well established brands of premium chocolate in America, Ghirardelli, and their Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa.

Yep, tonight’s selection has real chocolate in it. The full list is sugar, cocoa, unsweetened chocolate, soy lecithin, and vanilla. So we get both cocoa and chocolate. While I’m looking at the back of the packet it’s a good time to check the instructions. It turns out that this is another hot chocolate that’s easy to make. The instructions tell you to add the contents of the packet (it’s also available in big cans) to six ounces of hot milk. Easy peasy, no? As usual I put the milk on the stovetop (the old standby) and got it good and hot then ripped open the packet. The contents smelled a bit sweet, but I was pleased to see that the chocolate in it is in little bitty bits that are perfect for melting in the hot milk. As expected they dissolved almost instantly and I ended up with a half-mug of nicely dark hot chocolate. The finished product is smooth and tasty, though a little sweet. Personally I like to add sweetness in the form of whipped cream or marshmallow but that would probably be too much for me in this. Sweetness aside, though, this has the taste of real chocolate to it and is a nice addition to the cocoa I’ve been trying so far. It’s still not the homemade stuff I made on Saturday, but it’s got a touch of the good stuff to it. Pretty good hot chocolate to the tune of an 8 out of 10. The serving size was a little small (note: the serving size for the big can of the same product is eight ounces) but the hot chocolate was pretty good stuff.

Tomorrow night we get to see what happens when you take big chunks of chocolate and try and melt them in a cup of hot milk. If my previous experience is any indication it’s going to be an argument against microwave hot chocolate preparation.

December 5, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Three

It’s kind of funny that I’m up to day three of Hot Chocolate Week and none of the products I’ve tried so far have contained actual chocolate – just cocoa, sugar, and assorted other things. Tonight won’t change that much. But tonight’s selection does bring something new to the table that the others didn’t have: mint! Tonight I’m trying some all-natural Omanhene Peppermint Hot Cocoa that was sent my way by the nice people at Cocoa Connisseur (who have a really impressive selection of hot chocolate and drinking chocolate).

This is another product that is simple to make and includes microwave instructions that are reasonable to use. Preparation calls for putting two tablespoons of the mix in eight ounces of hot milk. When I cracked open the can on this one I was hit in the face with a nice cocoa aroma with strong minty overtones. When you get it all mixed you have a very light brown cocoa that is pretty easy to froth (froth is fun). It’s interesting that with as strong a mint aroma its flavor is very light – neither the mint nor the chocolate is very strong but the two are perfectly balanced with each other and the milk. It was very smooth and went down quickly. Overall another good and easy selection, but one that is maybe more suited to a specific mood or those who like their cocoa a little less chocolaty. I’m typically pretty open minded to varying levels of chocolate so I still enjoyed it a lot. I’ll give it a solid 7.5 out of 10. It’s some tasty stuff and well suited to the holiday season with its lightly minty flavor. I think I'm going to give this another try with a little Chocolate Mint Baileys in it (yum!).

And with that we reach the end of the products that are strictly cocoa. Starting tomorrow the hot chocolates will contain actual chocolate (what a concept). Most have a combination of cocoa and chocolate but some have little more than pure chocolate in them. This is where things start to get interesting.

December 4, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day Two

For day two I decided we’d take a step up in terms of quality and a small step back in terms of convenience. But any losses in terms of convenience are completely made up for by the fact that tonight’s selection is both organic and Fair Trade certified! Tonight we take a taste of Lake Champlain Organic Hot Chocolate!

Preparing the Bellagio cocoa from yesterday was as simple as adding hot water. Tonight’s hot chocolate calls for hot milk but includes microwave instructions so it really isn’t any more difficult to make (I still opted for the stovetop instructions). Even better, the ingredients list is brief and beautiful. All that’s in the can is sugar and cocoa and, of course, it’s all organic.

When you peel back the silver freshness seal on the top of the can you are greeted with a very nice chocolate aroma. The instructions say to add one heaping tablespoon of the mix to 8 oz of milk and heat until it’s hot. The mix dissolved completely with no nasty lumps to deal with and yielded a nice mellow brown hot chocolate. The taste is nice and chocolaty, lightly creamy and not too sweet. It smells darn good, too. It’s nice and smooth without having a grainy mouth feel. It’s quality stuff, easy to make, and comes with the added benefits of being organic and Fair Trade certified. As such, it earns a big fat 8 out of 10. Very nice stuff.

We’ll look at more Lake Champlain in our Azetc/Maya hot chocolate showdown at the end of the week. Tomorrow: things get minty!

December 3, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week: Day One

We’re going to kick off Hot Chocolate Week with the ultimate in convenience: instant hot cocoa. And for our instant hot cocoa selection we have Bellagio Chocolate Truffle Gourmet Hot Cocoa. All you have to do is add the contents of the little packet to six ounces of hot water and mix well. What could be simpler?

So what do Bellagio bring to the table? Well, opening the packet it smells sort of like cocoa, but sweet and with a strange edge to it. It might be the non-dairy creamer that is the first ingredient in the list that gives it that edge, but I have no way of being sure. Mixing is easy. It dissolves easily and completely in the water with no sludge in the bottom of the mug and no lumps floating around in it. Taste is pretty decent. It reminds me a lot of the hot cocoa I had as a child but a bit more chocolaty. And it's really pretty smooth which you don't always get with these mixes. Considering how simple it is to make it really is pretty decent. I'll give it a 6.5 out of 10. It’s definitely not my first choice, but if I only had water and a microwave (and no tea) then I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. It sure doesn't hurt that it takes all of a minute to make.

Not a bad way to start things but I'm looking forward to what the rest of the week holds. The quality goes way way up from here.

December 2, 2006

Hot Chocolate Week Prep Work

I figured that before I went and reviewed a stack of hot chocolate mixes I should first establish a standard for comparison. My belief is that most things are better homemade so I figured I would make a quick and simple hot chocolate myself and use it for my benchmark. This is the recipe I used for a basic hot chocolate and a little fresh whipped cream to top it off with.

2 oz high quality dark chocolate finely chopped
8 oz heavy whipping cream
6 oz whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Cinnamon, other miscellaneous spices
Liqueur of choice

Note: Fresh and high quality ingredients make all the difference in the world. Skimping on the ingredients will yield an inferior result. I used cream fresh from the store, quality Mexican vanilla, and El Rey Bucare for my chocolate.

Put the beaters from your electric mixer in a mixing bowl and throw them in the freezer while you gather your ingredients.

Put the milk and 2 oz of the cream in a non-stick pot over LOW heat. We want it to get hot but not boil.

Put the remaining 6 oz of cream, the confectioners’ sugar, and ½ teaspoon of the vanilla in the now super-cold mixing bowl and attack with the electric mixer. When it’s almost stiff taste to verify you have it sweet enough for your tastes and, if necessary, add more confectioners’ sugar. Then finish whipping until it holds peaks.

By now your milk will hopefully be starting to steam a little. Add the remaining ½ teaspoon of vanilla and any spices (like cinnamon) that you like or a little bit of liqueur (or both ^^). Whisk the chocolate in bit by bit until it’s all melted and smooth. Feel free to whisk it up to as much of a froth as it will hold (or you can use one of those hot chocolate frothing sticks after you get it in your mug). Put it in a mug and put a dollop of whipped cream on top. Drink it!

It’s not the finest hot chocolate you’re ever going to taste and should really be made with a vanilla bean in the milk, but it is good and pretty easy and not overly sweet. The thing it has going against it is that it requires time – it takes a good 10 minutes to make it and I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually have heavy cream around the apartment (though you can get by without it) and most people won’t have high quality bulk chocolate laying around. That’s why we have hot chocolate mixes in the first place. In theory they don’t take as much time and usually don’t call for more than a little milk or water.

So the way I’m going to be approaching the hot chocolate mixes I’ll be trying this week is to see how they stack up to my simple homemade hot chocolate in terms of both quality and convenience. Some of these I expect to be much lower quality (especially the hot cocoas in the selection) and some I expect to be very high quality, but nearly as much work and time as homemade.

Tomorrow: Hot Chocolate Week begins! Woo!