After months of sipping acclaimed Parisian hot chocolates, I became preoccupied with crafting my own. It wouldn’t be enough to just recreate the greats I had though. No, you have to understand that when I work on recipes I obsess at level 1,000 on the 0-10 scale. No expense is spared. No corners are cut. I live in pursuit of perfection.
My chocolat chaud quest got so crazy that I wound up spending the better part of November and December tinkering, up to 8 times a day, with various combinations of fine chocolates and blending techniques. Tons of obsessive in-print and online recipe searches, chatting with my Parisian contacts, and discussions with State-side chocolate wizards didn’t hurt the learning curve either. Ultimately uncovering the “secret” recipes of Angelina, Jacques Genin, Ladurée, Christophe Michalak and many others – often down to the exact brand, origin and cacao percentage of chocolate used – I learned way more than I ever expected. That wealth of insider information, together with a few hundred experiments, led me to create two core recipes that I’d like to share with you today.
This first recipe, which I call L’Élémentaire, is a fairly straightforward approach that makes it easy to whip up a great cup of hot chocolate. Think of it as a hybrid of the best of Paris, although more technically refined than other recipes you’ll find on the internet or in print. The second recipe, which I’ve named L’Essentiel, is at the bottom of this post. Far more involved, I consider it the perfection of technique and ingredients, which I detail throughout the 2,500 word essay that precedes it. Enjoy . . .
L’Élémentaire Hot Chocolate
makes about 4-5 servings
Ingredients: The following chocolates can be purchased online at cocova.com
This recipe calls for indirect heating of the ingredients. If you have a small double boiler, then you’re set. If not, you can easily just take a 1-2 litre/quart saucepan and fill it with just 250- 500ml (1-2 cups) of hot tap water. Then choose a ceramic or glass bowl that will comfortably fit over the pot without touching the surface of the water.
1. Place your saucepan of water on the stove, set to low. Then add about 150ml (a little more than ½ cup) of your milk to a mixing bowl, and place it atop the pan of water.
2. Weigh out your chocolates. Then break them into 1-2cm pieces, and add it all to the 150ml of milk in your bowl.
3. Occasionally stir the mixture with a whisk, as the chocolate begins to melt. Once the chocolate is almost fully melted, whisk continuously so that your milk and chocolate form a smooth/shiny ganache texture.
4. Increase the burner to medium-low. You never want the pan’s water to boil; it should just lightly simmer. Then slowly add the remainder of your milk to the chocolate, while constantly whisking. Keep whisking until the mixture reaches about 60-65°C (140-150°F).
The final product should turn out quite smooth, so if you notice some grainy/dark cacao solids have come out of emulsion, you overheated the chocolate. Whisk a little more vigorously and be more cautious with the temperature of the water bath on your next go’round.
Serve and savor!
Of course, if you’re ready to move from a really nice recipe and into something obsessively exquisite, then keep reading . . .
After all my research, I wound up very disappointed by the state of Parisian chocolat chaud. There’s a lot of tasty work; don’t get me wrong. But, objectively, it’s not as good as it could be. From the use of sub-ultimate chocolates, to recipe procedures that literally damage the ingredients, there’s too much room for improvement. And if it’s not possible to get a perfectly refined cup of chocolat chaud in Paris, we’re just going to have to do it ourselves.
Preface: I’ve separated this into 5 subsections that then lead into the recipe. You can just skip to the recipe, but the information in the segments that follow helps explain much about how the recipe was created and will elucidate how deeply considered every element of the final process is.
Chocolate: Selecting a choice single origin or divining the perfect blend is key to achieving a sublime end product. Some insist the key is cacao powder from South American beans – preferably Venezuelan or Colombian. Others would assert that a Venezuelan Criollo/Trinitario blend couverture is the best route. Another camp swears by Madagascan couverture. Then there are the Côte d’Ivoire supporters. Yet others believe a nice Ecuadorian and a little milk chocolate together yield something truly special. Even the cacao mass recommendations range from 56% all the way up to 80%. The reality is that there’s no standard among the Parisian shops, other than a seeming preference for single origins.
I’m not quite sure why the pâtisseries/chocolateries don’t place more emphasis on blends. While single origins have a lot of character that can shine through, there are two key arguments one could make against the approach. First, and most obviously, by blending any chocolate with milk products, you mask many of the flavors in the chocolate with the milk fats and proteins. It’s a bit akin to admiring a fine work of art through a pair of foggy glasses. Still beautiful – but muddled. Why not just eat the chocolate instead, to enjoy it pure? Secondly, there’s not too much “challenge” in taking a nice single origin and melting it down in milk products. It’s not too unlike deep-frying a candy bar, as they sadly do here in America. Yeah, you’ve changed its texture considerably and can charge a few bucks for it as a novelty, but it’s still just a Snickers someone else made. Note: I love single origin hot chocolates; I’m just making a rhetorical argument against them.
With the above said, blended chocolates are going to wind up not only fighting against the milk fats and proteins but against one another, as well. In working on my recipe, I found that, at best, I could only do a 2-3 bar blend before individual characters started slipping away. I still worked my way up to experiments with as many as 5 bars, since there’s a lot of custom tweaking you can do to the subtleties, but in mixes like that you can still only pick out one variety clearly, if it’s in great enough supply. So, really, single origin vs. blend . . . it all comes down to personal preference.
One thing I would caution against is taking Jean-Paul Hévin’s preferred approach of using cacao powder vs. bars or couverture. He’s a brilliant chocolatier and his hot chocolate it very well-regarded, but by eliminating cacao butter from the equation, it all basically amounts to chocolate-flavored hot milk. It’s also not hot chocolate if you use powder; it’s technically just hot cacao. I don’t think I’m alone amongst chocophiles when I say I want to experience the chocolate – not fight to tease out its nuances from the dominant fats and proteins of his pasteurized Le Briard lait entier.
If for no other reason than snobbery, also be sure to purchase chocolate that doesn’t contain additive emulsifiers/viscosity-enhancers. Even my hero (regular readers know who), by virtue of using only Valrhona in his work, is playing with the second string of upper echelon chocolates. Great though his couverture choice is – and it truly is – were he to step away from that soy lecithin-laced Valrhona Araguani, he could find a purer and superior Venezuelan.
Liquids: Whole milk is almost universally used – preferably pasteurized or raw (never “ultra-pasteurized”). Monsieur Genin employs it alone, “Ni sucre ni crème (neither sugar nor cream).” Un Dimanche à Paris uses almost all whole milk with just a touch of cream, which is the same approach as Christophe Michalak at l’Hôtel Plaza Athénée. Angelina completely goes for it with 2 litres of cream for every 3 litres of milk in their mix. Others like Hélène Darroze like to incorporate a bit of crème fraiche, to step it up a notch, while Robert Linxe at La Maison du Chocolat blends in a bit of water, to tone the milky elements down.
The rule of thumb with the use of liquids is . . . the more high quality chocolate you use, the less milk fat/protein you want in the mix. If you’re using crap chocolate from the grocery store, you probably want to drown it in milk and cream. Take a step up to something like one of the better Scharffen Berger bars (note: most of them are terrible), and you can cut it down to milk with maybe a little bit of cream. Moving a notch higher, using Valrhona, you could go to 100% milk. Heading all the way into what I call “real chocolate”, and you probably want to cut back on the milk so that water is also part of the equation. However, it gets difficult to use water alone. Unlike ganache, which is principally a very stable emulsion of roughly equal parts chocolate and cream (or water), the Parisian-style hot chocolates we’re discussing have so much liquid that they’re pretty unstable emulsions – on their way to essentially being near-pure suspensions at higher drinking temperatures. Milk helps smooth that out and does add some favorable textural elements that water simply can’t provide.
However much milk or cream you end up using, the key to a top-notch end product is the temperature to which you bring them. Do not even come close to scalding the milk, as essentially every recipe out there tells you to do. Why? I’m about to get all nerdy on you here. It’s because the scalding temperature of milk is 82-85°C (180-185°F), which is beyond the 78°C (172°F) denaturation point of lactoglobulin. When that protein breaks down, the milk starts to form hydrogen sulfide, which is the smell of rotten eggs and “other stuff”. What you want to do instead is heat the milk to around 60-62°C (140-145°F), which is what baristas do, when they whip up lattés. The heat helps convert some of the alpha lactose in the milk into beta lactose, which is more soluble and thus sweeter – allowing you to use higher cacao mass bars, less milk chocolate or additive sugar in the final mix. As an experiment, heat two different servings of milk to the temperature ranges I just detailed, and you can instantly taste what I’m describing. You really don’t want those flavors in there with any chocolate, especially high grade cacao.
But guess who goes beyond scalding their milk and all the way into boiling it? Angelina. Yes, the purported “best hot chocolate in the world” is loaded with fart gas. Yum! I’m not saying it’s not a memorable “good” hot chocolate; I’m just saying that it could be much better, if they didn’t damage the milk. The overheating of the dairy products, which are then poured over their humble and heavy-handed Forastero, also separates out some of the cacao solids from the cacao butter. It’s just bad technique through-and-through. If you’re shaking your head, “knowing” in your heart of hearts that Angelina’s is unquestionably the best, you’re wrong, but I can’t entirely blame you. Most of the other shops basically do the same, so how can anyone have a better frame of reference? But the fact remains that they’re doing sloppy, corner-cutting work that results in an unnecessary grain to their finished product, along with the aforementioned fart gas. Sorry. We’ve all been getting screwed for years.
Additive Flavors: Aside from the chocolate choice and milk/cream tonal elements just covered, you also have the option of adding flavors. Jean-Paul Hévin is a big fan of making hot cacao drinks, so he’ll weave in fruit juices, teas, oysters and more. But it’s much more conventional to use such subtle accents as vanilla and cinnamon. Of course, if you want to prepare super authentic drinking chocolate, you can pop in some chili peppers, “ear flower”/xochinacaztli, anise, cloves, pepper, or annatto.
I decided to go conservative in flavoring my hot chocolate – just sticking to vanilla and cinnamon – but soon realized it was absurd to flavor the fine chocolates I ultimately chose for my blend. I wouldn’t add a splash of Coke to a 30-year-old rum, so why would I mix any flavors into what comes to a small $10 cup of ultra-luxe chocolat chaud?
That’s not to say I didn’t experiment and come up with some novel infusion methods for my Veracruz Mexican vanilla pods and Ceylon cinnamon, but those techniques are likely better applied when I’m stuck with a few bars of Ghiradelli and someone expects me to make it taste marginally less like ****.
Process & Temperature: At the end of the day here, we’re working with chocolate, and chocolate is extremely temperature-sensitive. Once you cross the 46°C mark for milk chocolate and 49°C for dark chocolate, cacao butter and cacao solids begin to separate. So we want to get our chocolate near that temperature, before we begin adding our milk that’s been warmed to an identical temperature. By considering temperature in that way, and staging the additions of milk, we can keep the chocolate in a near-perfect emulsion/suspension.
Blending the ingredients together should ideally be taking place in a fairly thick ceramic bowl, which will help both conserve and dissipate heat far more effectively than metal. I use an Emile Henry 7″ over a 1 quart/litre saucepan. Considering how briskly I like to whisk and how “in there” I like to get, I find this bain-marie approach to be a much more flexible setup than using a swank 1 litre copper-ceramic double boiler.
Some recipes call for using an immersion blender to smooth out the end product. That’s because those recipes are ****, written by hacks who don’t know or care what they’re doing. If you follow the directions of the recipe below, a nice silicone whisk is all you need. It’s like we’re stitching an Hermès bag or building a Rolls-Royce here; greatness can only be achieved by hand. Patiently elevating the temperature, while whisking thoroughly and continuously, the end product is smooth and flawless all the way up to the 60-62°C level we’re aiming to hit.
The recipe is also completely metric by weight and temperature, as English units and volume measurements are for animals. Hopefully you have a nice digital scale on-hand. An infrared thermometer is also requisite. I have so many thermometers that it’s crazy, but this new pocket KINTREX IRT0401 I’ve been using is amazing.
My Final Blend: I can’t even count the number of bars and combinations I went through. But I do know my credit card statement shows over $800 in purchases from my awesome chocolate shop here in DC – Cocova. My diet for several weeks was basically just small doses of hot chocolate throughout the entire day, and I wound up testing the entire lines of Pralus, Cluizel, Amedei, Domori, Original Beans, Soma, Bonnat and on-and-on. Some of my tests involved only two bars, while others went up to five. I eventually settled on three. The two dominate ones are Original Beans’ Cru Virunga Congo 70% and Domori’s Porcelana 70%. My best brief description of the Cru Virunga is like a super smooth bitter cherry, while the Porcelana is an even smoother cacao with bountiful notes of strawberry butter. Adding a little more sweetness to the mix, plus some deeper cacao tones, is Cluizel’s Maralumi Lait 47% from Papua New Guinea.
Because I want the bars to shine through as much as possible, the milk to water split is about 60/40. That gives us enough of the textural benefits of milk without having its flavors actually be obvious. By weight, these liquids are in a 2:1 ratio to the chocolate. That makes for a fairly rich hot chocolate – but one that still straddles the line between thick and thin. You can easily shift that ratio up or down for a thinner or thicker cup. Keep in mind that less than 1.5:1 would likely be gauchely thick, while 4:1 is the classic upper limit for even the thinnest preparations.
You might also be wondering, “How is it that you got the ratios of everything just right, in your mind?” Well, the first couple hundred I made for myself I assessed as follows: “That tastes like ****”, “Disgusting.”, “Who would drink that?”, etc. When I finally got down to the three bars in the final recipe, the ratios were still off, and I’d walk away from my experiments feeling that they were too sweet or too weighted in favor of the Porcelana. Then, one day, I used the ratios you’ll see below, and I knew I’d achieved the ‘perfect’ blend, because drinking a cup of it made me angry. Almost all those others I’d had before in Paris were just crude approximations, and I realized I’d been cheated out of not only money but cheated out of anything close to the experience I was enjoying at that moment. It’s the same way I feel when I eat Monsieur Genin’s lemon tarte and think about how disappointing all others were that had come before.
So let’s get going on the recipe, which I’ve named L’Essentiel. I feel this is the essential hot chocolate recipe, from the perspective of a hyper-controlled technique – a springboard for you to explore the use of single origins, blends, and more, while not mistreating ingredients in the way essentially all other recipes instruct us to do. After nearly 400 years of being completely bastardized, chocolat chaud finally has the respect it deserves.
All of the bars can be found at Cocova here in DC or by visiting them online at cocova.com.
Chocolat Chaud L’Essentiel
Makes two 150ml servings or three 100ml servings
It’s all about temperatures, process and the balance of ingredients. I recommend the pan/bowl bain-marie method vs. an actual double boiler; it gives much more control. Either way, the end product is a delicate, vaguely sweet, and beautifully expressive celebration of cherry and strawberry accented cacao.
Pre-Step: Whether you’re pouring the finished hot chocolate directly into cups or into a chocolate pot or pitcher (whatever vessel you’ll be using to serve your hot chocolate), pop them into a warming drawer or keep them in a water bath around 55-60°C.
1. Fill your water pan with about 300g of hot tapwater. Then place it on the stovetop burner – set to medium-low so that your water very lightly simmers around 83°C.
2. Weigh out your chocolates and break them into chunks (no bigger than 2-3cm) by hand. There’s no need to chop it up with a knife.
3. Place your chocolate pieces in a 1½-2 litre ceramic or glass bowl and partially immerse that in a 43-45°C water bath. The chocolate will safely melt as you work on the next steps.
4. Combine your milk and water in a separate 1½-2 litre ceramic or glass bowl, and place it atop your heated water pan. Stir occasionally until the milk/water reaches 60-62°C. You can also very carefully microwave it, heating and stirring every 5-7 seconds until it reaches 60-62°C. If a skin forms on top of the milk, you overheated it, so start over. Then pour the liquid into a glass measuring cup (e.g., a 250-500ml Pyrex) that will later allow you to easily pour it into the chocolate. What we’re also aiming for in this transfer is starting a slow drop in temperature to 41-45°C.
Over the next 10-20 minutes, your chocolate will warm and your milk/water will cool. Make sure to stir the chocolate lightly, every few minutes, to ensure all the pieces get fully melted. Then, with the chocolate all melted, you’re ready to continue.
5. Once you milk/water mixture has cooled to 41-45°C, place your bowl of melted chocolate atop the stovetop water pan. Then add about 100-110g of the milk/water to the chocolate. Whisk briskly until you have a glossy, well-emulsified and thoroughly incorporated ganache.
6. Pour another 60-70g of milk/water into the chocolate and whisk until incorporated. Then pour the remaining milk/water in, while continuing to whisk.
7. Continuously whisk your mixture until it reaches 60-62°C. Then it’s done and should look as smooth as silk. Pour your mixture into the serving vessel you pre-prepared – or pour directly into your pre-warmed cups – and enjoy immediately. In the event you’re seeing a bunch of specks of cacao solids that have come out of emulsion, feel dejected, because you did something wrong.
If you ever attempt the recipe, please let me know how many tears of joy you wept after your first sip. For the rest of you, you’ll just have to believe me when I say it makes Angelina’s seem as raffish as a packet of Swiss Miss. You can also now appreciate knowing exactly how OCD I truly am. Bon appétit.