Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mexican Hot Chocolate

We had friends over a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo which has become an increasingly popular occasion in the United States. As I’ve described previously on this blog, this is a holiday I regularly celebrate.

At our dinner party, we served quesadillas, guacamole, green salad, Mexican chicken salad, and Spanish rice. For dessert we fried churros, Mexican doughnuts that are traditionally served with a spicy hot chocolate. I decided to make this sweet beverage for the first time.

Hot chocolate originated over 2,000 years ago with the Mayan culture which made a cold chocolate drink from cocoa seed paste, water, cornmeal, chilli, and other ingredients. When the Aztecs gained control over Mesoamerica, they created a bitter and frothy version that also included water, vanilla, and achiote seeds. Xocolatl, the Aztec word for this drink, is the likely origin of our word ‘chocolate’. In Aztec culture, chocolate had medicinal properties, sacred uses, and divine associations.

During the Spanish colonization of Mexico in the 16th century, xocolatl became a favorite of the conquistadors. Later it was introduced into the court of Charles V and became a popular drink among Spanish nobility and the European elite. By this time it was sometimes served hot; the Europeans removed the chilli and added cane sugar, cinnamon, and other spices.

At this time, drinking chocolate was the only form in which chocolate was consumed. In the 19th century, the Dutch created a press to separate cocoa butter from cocoa seeds. This allowed for the creation of solid chocolate which led to the manufacture of bar chocolate. The world has never been the same since!

This hot chocolate recipe uses a variety of spices to provide a rich and complex palette of flavors. Cornstarch thickens the mixture and approximates the consistency of the hot chocolate served in Spain and Mexico with churros.

Serves 4 to 6

5 or 6 cups milk
2/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
6-8 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in a little water (optional)
3/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon cloves
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon crushed cayenne or other chilli powder
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
cinnamon sticks (optional, for garnish)

1. In a large saucepan or pot, heat first eight ingredients over medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Do not boil and be careful that milk does not burn on the bottom of the pot.
2. Once the sugar has melted, remove from heat and steep spices for 30 minutes.
3. Return mixture to heat and simmer. Add cocoa and vanilla and stir vigorously until cocoa has dissolved.
4. Decant into mugs. Garnish with cinnamon sticks.