The cover of this month's Gourmet magazine trumpets what we all intuitively know - February is a month when chocolate is not a luxury, but a necessity.
That's especially true of that quintessential wintertime warm-up, hot chocolate. Now that microwaves are ubiquitous and one-cup prepackaged cocoa mixes are readily available, hot chocolate, or at least hot cocoa, is quick and convenient.
In addition to mixes, there is good old cocoa, useful in baking and only a step or two more complicated for making a bracing mug of hot cocoa than a prepared mix. The mixes vary in quality, of course, but whether you're content with Swiss Miss dissolved in hot water or prefer Ghirardelli's Double Chocolate in hot milk, there are plenty of good choices on your grocery store shelf.
Some of them even give the real thing a run for its money. Perhaps you have your own idea of "the real thing," but for now let's define it as old-fashioned hot chocolate - shaved or chopped chocolate melted in hot milk and cream.
That concoction is so velvety-rich, it's more like a full course in a fine meal than a simple beverage. To compare it to beers, it's the difference between a good pilsener and a filling pint of Guinness stout.
Prepared from real chocolate, hot chocolate is thicker and richer than hot cocoa, which is made from chocolate processed into powder. The Dutch first perfected that process in the mid-19th century, which is why a lot of cocoa is known as Dutch processed.
Cocoa is a more useful way of getting chocolate into a wide range of foods, and it dissolves more easily in milk or water. Even so, real hot chocolate is a taste worth trying. If you do, go all-out and add whipped cream - not just for added decadence but also to help buffer the intense taste of chocolate.
I tried a recipe from one of my favorite winter beverage books, Hot Toddies, by Christopher B. O'Hara (Clarkson Potter, 2002, $16.95). The result was a drink that will fortify you for the bleakest weather February can bring.
Serves 10 to 12
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 cups whole milk
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pint heavy cream, chilled, for whipping
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
fresh whipped cream and grated bittersweet chocolate, for garnish
In a saucepan over medium heat, mix the 1/2 cup cream, milk, vanilla and salt, and slowly bring to a boil. Whip the pint of cream with the confectioners' sugar until soft peaks form; set aside. Place chopped chocolate into a small pot or heavy bowl. Melt by pouring the hot milk mixture on top, and whisking until all the chocolate is melted. Pour the melted chocolate back into the saucepan. Stir well, heat until steaming, and remove from heat. Serve immediately with fresh whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top.
Per serving: 394 calories; 7 grams protein; 34 grams fat; 20 grams saturated fat; 22 grams carbohydrate; 80 milligrams cholesterol; 120 milligrams sodium
- "Hot Toddies" by Christopher B. O'Hara (Clarkson Potter, 2002, $16.95)