From the archives: This is an excerpt from an article originally published in 2001, the year the movie “Chocolat,” starring Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judy Dench, played in State College. Stream the movie and treat yourself to a luscious hot chocolate while it is still Valentine’s weekend.
A brisk north wind whisks Binoche and her daughter, wrapped in their red cloaks, into a small French village. Binoche’s character opens a chocolate shop, but it is Lent and the townspeople, under the watchful eye of the self-righteous mayor, are fasting. Eventually, a few lost souls wander through her brightly painted door, sample her exquisite creations and find themselves revitalized. She is an old-fashioned chocolatier; she grinds the cacao beans herself and infuses the rich molten chocolate with a sensual magic that extends back through centuries to ancient Mayan tradition.
Native to the South American river valleys, the cacao tree — Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods” — is an evergreen that thrives 20 degrees north or south of the equator. The Mayans took it north to Mexico before the seventh century, where it became an important part of the Aztec and Toltec diet, because the pods, rich with fat, also contain some starch and protein. Legends brought back by the Spanish conquistadors in 1519 tell of Montezuma quaffing cup after cup of a frothy dark beverage that they called “chocolate” or “bitter water.” The word cocoa is an 18th-century corruption of the word “cacao,” which is the Aztec name for the plant.
The original South American method for making drinking chocolate involved roasting the beans over a fire and then grinding them on a metate, a flat stone with a stone rolling pin also used for bread. With the beans ground into a paste, they mixed in ground red pepper, vanilla and water, whisking to make it frothy with a special wooden tool called a molinet that they rotated in their hands. According to one mid-16th century Spanish traveler who finally tried it, reluctantly, after the wine supplies ran out, “The flavor is somewhat bitter, but it satisfies and refreshes the body without intoxicating: the Indians esteem it above everything.”
By the end of the 16th century, the Spanish had modified the recipe, removing the red peppers and adding sugar and exotic ingredients that were available from the lands of some of their other conquests — almonds, peppercorns, anise seed, powdered flowers. Soon they were shipping chocolate paste throughout Europe, where it was enthusiastically received. Chocolate houses opened in London and Paris that rivaled the then-popular coffeehouses, though by that time all the ingredients except sugar and vanilla were omitted from the recipe.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gastronome who lived from 1755-1826, wrote in his treatise “The Physiology of Taste” about a certain chocolate purveyor/pharmacist in Paris who prescribes chocolate to cure the ailments of his clients, including one powerful version, called “chocolate of the unhappy,” made with grains of amber that is the supreme restorative.
Celebrate this Valentine’s season with a movie and this hot beverage that gives you strength and vigor while it opens a window to a past when passion for chocolate ruled the world and empowered all who drank from its energizing cup.
Hot Chocolate in the Mayan Tradition
Makes about a quart
For the chili puree:
3 ancho chiles
1 cup boiling water
For the cream base:
1 cup heavy cream
1-inch piece of vanilla bean
2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
8 anise seeds
8 dried lavender buds
1 tablespoon of the ancho chile puree
8 roasted almonds, ground in a mortar and pestle or finely chopped
For the ganache:
Strained heavy cream
1/2 cup milk chocolate chips, best quality, pure chocolate
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips, best quality, pure chocolate
1/4 cup of freshly brewed espresso
At serving time:
2 or 3 cups of milk
one half cup heavy cream, whipped
sprinkling of ground chiles, optional
For the chile puree:
Wipe the chile pods with a damp cloth and remove the stem and seeds. Toast the ancho chiles in a dry saute pan for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Place them in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to stand for 30 minutes or so. When the chiles are soft, remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and reserve the soaking water. Place the chiles in a blender and add a small amount of the cooking water until you have a chile paste. You will have more ancho paste than you need for the recipe, but it can be stored in the refrigerator for another use.
For the cream base:
Place the heavy cream in a small nonreactive saucepan. Add the vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, anise seeds, lavender buds, 1 tablespoon of the chile paste and the ground almonds. Scald the cream and then reduce to a simmer for about 20 minutes. When the cream tastes significantly infused with the flavorings, strain the mixture to remove the solids.
For the ganache:
Return the strained cream to the saucepan and add both the chocolates, whisking the mixture until smooth. Whisk in the espresso. The mixture can be made ahead and refrigerated until serving time. At serving time, heat the chocolate ganache base in a heavy saucepan, whisking continually, until the mixture is smooth. Heat the milk in the microwave or in the stovetop until it is scalded. Add the scalded milk to the ganache base and continue to whisk until serving time.
Serve the hot chocolate mixture in chocolate cups or fine china cups. Top with a dollop of heavy cream and dust with chile powder, if desired.