Thanks to Bob Zemeckis, we have a new addition to the Cathey seasonal holiday menu.
My daughter, Kate, pointed out recently that â€œwe can't watch â€˜Polar Express' without hot chocolate.â€
Why? Because Zemeckis' 2004 film does for hot chocolate what â€œSpanglishâ€ did for fried eggs on sandwiches. And because we have to watch â€œPolar Expressâ€ â€” a good film, based on one of the great Christmas books â€” we're now in the hot chocolate business. I have a feeling many of you have or will be watching this movie, and have had or will have the same urge for a hot cup of cocoa fairly early in the voyage on the Polar Express.
So, let's talk about hot chocolate.
First, you can thank the Mayans and Aztecs. About a decade after the first Easter, chocolate was truly the gold standard among the South and Central American peoples. They used it for any and everything they could think of including currency and, yes, beverage.
By the time a lot of erstwhile European voyagers bumped into the shores of the Aztecs, cocoa had become the Coca-Cola of the 15th century in the land of stair-step pyramids, secret codices and human sacrifice.
The civilized piracy and colonization that ensued globalized chocolate and the practice of melting and drinking it. But the Aztecs took their hot chocolate black. It took another couple of hundred years before anyone thought to blend it with other ingredients. A chap by the name of Hans Sloane, who dabbled in medicine and science, happened over to Jamaica and got his first taste. He found it pretty gross, so he added milk, according to the Natural History Museum of Great Britain website.
It was a century and a half later when a Dutchman named Coenraad Johannes van Houten conjured up a powder that could be easily mixed with hot milk or water. He then added alkaline salts to improve mixing. When you see â€œDutch chocolate,â€ this means it has been alkalized. The result is a darker, milder chocolate. When you're making your own hot chocolate, the Dutch process is preferred as it was first conceived with this beverage in mind. Gradually, the Dutch learned that by reintroducing their powder to cocoa butter, rich and smooth bars of chocolate could be mass-produced. The mixes we use often have powdered milk and sugar mixed in, so if you want to make your own you'll need to buy the ingredients separately.
In other countries, hot cocoa and hot chocolate aren't as synonymous as they are here. Cocoa, in some cultures, is simply the pure cocoa powder mixed with water or milk, while hot chocolate is made of shavings melted into milk. In some parts of Europe, cornstarch is added to create an extremely thick result.
In Belgium, a country that is to chocolate what France is to bread, â€œwarme chocoladeâ€ or â€œchocolat chaudâ€ is a cup of steamed milk served with a small bowl of bittersweet chocolate chips for dissolving.
In the motherland of hot chocolate, Central and South America, the beverage still is extremely popular and has evolved since Montezuma's day. In Mexico, hot chocolate includes semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla.
And then there's the issue of marshmallows. Well, it's a little like beans in chili for me â€” serve them on the side, and let the lips to be pressed against the saucer say yea or nay.
With Christmas around the corner, be sure to leave Santa a cup of hot chocolate with his cookies. If you do, I'll bet he'll leave you a nice pouch of cocoa mix in your stocking.
Watch the Food Dude's visit to Coco Flow for fresh hot chocolate:
For more recommendations for hot chocolate around the city, go to the Food Dude blog