An unfortunate trend has oozed its way through New York and other yuppie hubs over the last few years: ultrarich hot chocolate, with a texture somewhere between eggnog and pudding, and a butterfat content somewhere between heavy cream and, well, butter.
Such hot chocolate is superficially alluring but ultimately regrettable. I speak from repeated experience: Occasionally, when it’s very cold out and I’m feeling listless and profligate, I trot down to a gelato shop not far from Slate’s New York office that sells ultrarich hot chocolate in 8-ounce cups for $6 (more if you want whipped cream, which I do). After the first sip comes a fleeting jolt of pleasure, then a long, slow wave of remorse. (Sometimes there’s mild nausea, too.)
Six-dollar, super-creamy hot chocolate is doing a decent impression of chocolate custard, attempting to knock you out with its calorific opulence. But that’s not what hot chocolate should do. It should gently warm you, soothe you, and maybe, depending on your mood and what kind of a day you’ve had, make you a little bit tipsy. The ideal hot chocolate is as comforting and innocent as the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
The basic recipe is as timeless as that album, too: For each serving, use 1 cup milk and 1 tablespoon each cocoa powder and sugar. Some methods call for making a slurry, or thick paste, out of the sugar and cocoa powder before adding the milk, but this is unnecessary if you use Dutch processed cocoa powder, which is milder than the nonalkalized kind and dissolves easily into milk when you whisk them together over moderate heat.
This fundamental formula obviously does not include things you might want to add to hot chocolate, which fall into two rough categories: alcohol and toppings. You can add rum or whiskey to hot chocolate, but I like to use booze with less edge, liqueurs whose flavor melds seamlessly with the chocolate. Frangelico and amaretto are excellent if mild nuttiness is what you like; Grand Marnier yields the intoxicating, liquid version of Terry’s Chocolate Orange; peppermint schnapps has roughly the same effect on Scrooges as a trio of Christmas ghosts. (If you’re making hot chocolate for a younger crowd, you can of course leave out the hard stuff, perhaps adding a few drops of vanilla, almond, orange, or peppermint extract in its place.)
Toppings themselves fall into two much softer categories: whipped cream and marshmallows. The first of these is a creamy cloud that melts effortlessly into hot cocoa, making it foamier and lighter with each sip; the second becomes an engorged, cloying gelatin sponge that bobs on the surface of the hot chocolate uselessly. The superior option is obvious.
Boozy Hot Chocolate
Yield: 2 servings Time: 10 minutes
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons Dutch processed cocoa powder
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons Frangelico or other flavored liqueur
1. Whip the cream with the whisk attachment of a stand mixer (or a handheld electric mixer) until soft peaks form; beat in the powdered sugar and vanilla.
2. Put the milk, cocoa powder, and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until the cocoa powder is fully dissolved and the mixture begins to steam, about 5 minutes.
3. Divide the liqueur between two mugs. Add the hot chocolate to the mugs, and top with the whipped cream. Serve hot.