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Variations on hot chocolate

Hot chocolate is great for dessert, or as comfort on a cold evening. One of my favorite chocolate drink experiences was at Ladurée in Paris: Just barely sweet and thick, slowly and happily relished. My opinion of hot chocolate mixes here in the United States has ranged from kinda interested to very disappointed. It can be expensive but not perfect, like Vosges’ Aztec Elixir, which has a nice spicy flavor, but the never-dissolving cornmeal granules weird me out. Often the mixes are disappointing due to the overuse of sugar, or (my main chocolate pet peeve) using coconut oil as the enriching agent. Why don’t these makers realize that coconut adds such a strong flavor? (Sure, it’s for cost-effectiveness, but still.) Unless they’re specifically aiming for a South Asian or South East Asian style, that additive destroys so many desserts and drinks.

Okay, so much for my rant. The point of this article is to explain how I correct such drink bugs. 🙂 My experiments aren’t quite perfect, but they’re often tasty. I haven’t tried thickening agents like cornstarch or eggs, yet, but perhaps I’ll test that later on.

What follows are more guidelines than strict procedure. Have a hot chocolate recipe you love? Submit a link or description in the comments!

My main tools are a medium non-stick (Calphalon) sauce pan and a silicone whisk. The latter won’t scratch surfaces, yet works well for mixing and producing froth. Such a whisk costs from US$10 to US$20, the best ones having stainless steel (not plastic) wires and metal handle, where the wires have been seamlessly coated in silicone. You can find them at Crate and Barrel or Bed, Bath and Beyond.

The amounts are for two servings.

Primary ingredients

  • 1 1/2 to 2 ounces (40 to 55 grams) of excellent quality chocolate, the amount depends on how rich you want your drink. I prefer bittersweet over semisweet, if I can find it, and I’m much more partial to Guittard or Valrhona, over Scharffen Berger or Ghirardelli —but hey, I am picky that way. 😀 Mexican chocolate tablets like Ibarra are a great alternative, but I usually use 1/3 of a disc (1 ounce, or 30 grams), plus some bittersweet to counter the some of the sweetness. The total weight should still be somewhere around 1 1/2 to 2 ounces.
  • 2 1/2 cups milk. I manage fine with using lowfat (1%). For a luxurious cuppa, use whole milk instead. Or add a dollop of whipping cream or crème fraîche. For a vegan option, I’ve tried rice milk, hazelnut milk and almond milk —although almond milk can impart a bitter tone. I haven’t tried soy milk since I dislike the bean flavor in drinks.


  • 1 or 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar, if the chocolate seems too bitter
  • 1/2 to 1 stick of cinnamon
  • 1/2 of a star anise
  • a few cardamom pods, broken open
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons curry powder, especially Mary Anne’s Sri Lankan mix, which is reminiscent of Vosges’ Naga flavor
  • 1 or 2 dried chilies (e.g., Serrano or Guajillo), crumbled. I include the seeds, but omit the stems.
  • 2 teaspoons espresso powder or dried coffee granules
  • 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier liqueur
  • 2 tablespoons cream sherry
  • 1 tablespoon Japanese or Chinese style sesame seed paste. For example, kuro goma would work, but tahini would not.


  1. Place the milk and chocolate in the sauce pan. Turn the heat onto medium high.
  2. Add your flavorings. Choose one or a selection from the above list. You’ll find that some combinations work better than others. For example, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon go well together, but Grand Marnier works best as the sole addition.
  3. Whisk frequently, so that the melting chocolate becomes incorporated into the milk. You’ll know it’s ready when the specks of chocolate literally smooth out. It’s okay if the milk becomes scalded during the process, but avoid a rapid boil.
  4. Pour into mugs, cups or glasses. Filter through a fine sieve if your flavorings contain seeds or sticks.
  5. Options: Spin the whisk in each mug to produce a froth. Or, top with a bit of whipped cream.

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