Okay, let me get this straight. It's Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and you've bellied up to Serious Eats for more? Either you're not an American or you're an exceptionally good one. In any case, winter has almost arrived and with it? Hot cocoa season.
Years ago, my family decided they wanted me to make hot chocolate for dessert on Thanksgiving. It came down to brutal honesty. We will overeat on Thanksgiving. Even so, we know we lack the fortitude to resist dessert. We will not choose between a slice of pumpkin pie, pecan pie and pear layer cake. We will have a some of each, à la mode. And, as we do every year, we will limp around the house in stretchy pants, bemoaning our total lack of willpower.
We conspired to outsmart ourselves with a simple, satisfying dessert: a mug of hot chocolate. The deep chocolate flavor would satisfy our sweet tooth while fluffy marshmallows in holiday flavors would make it special. And if someone accidentally tipped over a bottle of booze, what better way to catch a spill than with a mug of chocolate?
As an eager young pastry girl, wet behind the ears, I wanted to conclude Thanksgiving with the ultimate hot chocolate. I went the extra mile (or twenty) by ordering a few bars of Pralus single estate chocolate and a tin of matching cocoa powder weeks in advance, along with vanilla beans from Tonga. I picked up a half gallon of non-homogenized whole milk from a local dairy and made four batches of marshmallows in assorted autumnal flavors. I began steeping the vanilla in the milk for two days before Thanksgiving. The morning of our feast, I carefully blended the remaining ingredients into the most luxurious, sophisticated drinking chocolate ever known.
I should have suspected, around the table's collective third helping of stuffing, we'd gone off the rails. It became clear that the sight of a sideboard brimming with dessert had kept us in check all those years, changed the way we paced ourselves. Without that safeguard, we held nothing back, abandoned all restraint and reasoned the hot chocolate would find a way through the cracks, like water poured into a jar of pebbles.
Fools, all of us. Perhaps I should have waited not two, but three hours after dinner to initiate my dessert offering. But no. I figured in the traditional spirit of Thanksgiving gluttony, we'd find a way. I stole off to the kitchen, arranged the marshmallows on a tray while the hot chocolate warmed, then carefully ladled out a holiday mug for everyone and came prancing back to the table singing,
"Who wants hot chocolate?" The entire table groaned in pain. My brother made a vomiting sound. My mom averted her eyes. One brave soul took a tiny sip from mug before chocking out, "Oh god—that's rich."
I returned to the kitchen and tried a sip myself. Unparalleled deliciousness. Thicker than any ganache. Richer than a pound of butter. Heavier than a brick. You'd need an hour and a spoon to finish it. I poured it back. And waited. Three hours later, I repeated my call to indulgence, "Who wants hot chocolate?"
I asked again shortly before bed and still had no takers. Even the next morning, our digestion process had barely gotten underway and none of us could even entertain the idea of more. I had made cinnamon rolls, but I think we had dry toast for breakfast, all of us. To this day, for those of us gathered around the table that fateful Thanksgiving, a cry of "Who wants hot chocolate" has come to symbolize the feeling of "I think I might throw up" that only abject gluttony can induce.
I made a damned good hot chocolate that day, but as an unseasoned pastry girl I hadn't considered the circumstances. A cup of drinking chocolate makes a perfect Valentine's day splurge, but during the excess and indulgence of the holiday season, it's just plain overkill. Hot chocolate's a needy child that demands attention. Its intensity leaves no room for anything else. Meanwhile, cocoa is a grandmother whispering, "There, there, dear. All better now. Have another biscuit?"
For most of us, making hot cocoa meant ripping open a foil lined packet from a box. As a kid, I had a special thing for Swiss Miss. But reading the ingredients list now kinda freaks me out (Hydrogenated Coconut Oil and Artificial Flavors, anyone?).
Homemade cocoa mix takes about five minutes to put together and tastes like what you think hot cocoa tastes like, without the creepy stuff. Swiss Miss uses sugar and corn syrup to sweeten and powdered milk (plus chemicals!) for body. You can kill those same birds with one stone: white chocolate. White chocolate's sweetness means using less sugar in the mix and cocoa butter gives the finished drink richness and body without hydrogenation. White chocolate's only there for texture and sweetness, not its signature flavor. A boatload of cocoa powder and ground chocolate steal the show, meaning white chocolate haters will never even notice. A touch of coffee powder keeps the sweetness in check while vanilla bean replaces myriad "artificial flavors" with the one we really want.
A few tablespoons will dissolve into hot milk to make a light bodied drink, not too rich and just sweet enough. An immensely drinkable, comforting cocoa—perfect even the day after Thanksgiving.