first taste: hot cocoa

Childhood picture books, stories and TV shows that depicted food and dining made a real impression on me. Illustrations of steaming bowls of pasta or a piece of toast smothered in purple jam gave me my first taste of foods I’d yet to try, and are sometimes still the archetypes I hold food up to today. Instead of simply reminisce, I’m going to bring those dishes to life the way I imagined they’d be.

On a dark, stormy night, on her journey to the kitchen from her cold attic room, Meg had time to get down on herself about everything from her mousy appearance, to her IQ level, to her recent scrap with bullies at school. This girl needed a drink! She knew it, and decided on hot cocoa. That this was a romantic choice, for a young girl—chilled, a little scared and a lot bummed out—was only part of the appeal to me as I read those opening pages in A Wrinkle in Time. There was also the accepted adult-ness of the kids in this situation: who should be heating up milk in anticipation of both Meg and her mother showing up in the kitchen in need of some, but the “baby brother” of the family, Charles Wallace, wise and weirdly intuitive beyond any human’s years. He goes on to offer to make Mrs. Murray a liverwurst and cream cheese sandwich and Meg a tomato sandwich, but they had me at hot cocoa.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every page of the popular sci-fi novel and I still do. I just downloaded the audio book read by the author, Madeline L’Engle herself. There were parts that still scared me when I listened before bed. “There is such a thing as a Tesseract!” Still, it was the downright fantasy of the first “scene” that hooked me. That you could wake up in the night and have a luxurious snack, that you could dirty a pan at that hour to boil milk for cocoa! Where to start? Who had cocoa powder at the ready and who knew how to whip it up? Who was even allowed to leave bed? My family’s version was Nestlé Quick and the resulting microwaved chocolate milk. To even dream up a family that would join you instead of chasing you back to bed yelling about the late hour and having to be up early for school and earlier for shift work—that was the real stretch.

Today, as an adult, I can leave bed whenever I please, but that didn’t mean I was ready to whip up hot cocoa. I definitely made chalky mug or two  in trying to transport me to the Murry’s kitchen and their entire messed up, brilliant, multi-time+space-dimensioned adventures. Here’s a couple of ways to do it right.

First, on hot cocoa, CHOW cocurs that while “…hot cocoa is sublime. At its worst, it’s chalky, watery, and too sweet. This version, provided by François Payard, of François Payard Bakery in New York, is definitely in the former category: so creamy, rich, and chocolaty that it’s a suitable stand-in for dessert.

2 tablespoons cocoa powder (such as Weiss)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
Granulated sugar, to taste

Bring chocolate powder, fresh cream, and milk to a boil; stir; and pour in a cup. Add sugar if desired. Note: For a lighter version, use 1/3 cup fresh cream and 2/3 cup skim milk.”

And An Enlightened Palate adds: “Hot cocoa lacks the creaminess and luscious mouthfeel of  a cup of hot chocolate, but it is more concentrated and has a more chocolaty taste…there is less vegetable fat (natural cocoa butter) in the cocoa than there is in shaved chocolate…fat coats the palate and minimizes flavor.” They offer a different method (note the technique):

2 teaspoons dutched cocoa powder ( we prefer dutched process cocoa because we feel that these cocoa powders have a deeper flavor, darker color and a smoother texture that blends flawlessly in hot beverages)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons cream, not heated
6 ounces boiling water
Optional: whipped cream or mini marshmallows for garnish
Place the cocoa powder and sugar into a mug and mix well. Add the cream and stir into a smooth paste. Add the boiling water and stir until the mixture is smooth and well blended. Ladle the hot cocoa into a mug and garnish if desired.

And, though this wasn’t a contest, there is a winning technique in my mind. An Enlightened Pallette’s method resulted in the best cup of cocoa I’ve ever had. The blend-and-pour method made for a deliciously creamy cocoa, and it came together in seconds with water from a kettle and no pot to stand over.

It was perfection with just one tweak that I would add to either recipe……a tiny sprinkle of salt. Charles Wallace probably saw that coming.

I thought of Katherine, whose illustrations you’ve seen here in the past, as soon as I wrote this post. I hoped she would agree to bring Meg and the Murry kitchen to life and I hope you love her illustrations in this piece as much as I do. For more of her delicious illustrations, check out Drawn and Devoured.