Imagine you have a cup in your hands, filled to the top with hot chocolate. Against your lips, it is liquid velvet, its intoxicating steam caressing your face in sumptuous indulgence. Rich darkness flows over your taste buds, and bitter embraces sweet like a lover, melding with a flash of heat over your tongue. In one extraordinary moment, the poetry of creamy smoothness heightens all senses; your heart beats faster, thoughts become more acute, a giddy sensation washes over your body. In this moment, it seems like anything can happen, because in that cup of hot chocolate lies centuries of history. You have imbibed the drink of emperors and the aristocracy, and swallowed the symbol of power, abundance and love, sip by bittersweet sip.
To truly understand the allure of hot chocolate, one must travel back to the ancient South American civilizations. The Olmecs were the first people historically noted to consume chocolate, as early as 1500 BCE. Eventually, growth and cultivation of the cacao tree filtered to the Mayan & Aztec civilizations, where the 40-60 foot cacao tree was revered and thus botanically named Theobroma cacao, or “food of the gods.” It was held in such high esteem that the cacao bean was often used as currency between the two peoples. The original drink adapted by the Aztec, xocoatl (sho-ko-aht-l) was actually a cold drink made from ground cacao beans, water and chilies. Aztec Emperor Montezuma referred to it as “The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this drink permits a man to walk a whole day without food.” He was reputed to drink up to 50 cups of it per day, and frequently noted to drink it before visiting his harems, thus lending chocolate its reputation for being an aphrodisiac.
The power and virtues of xocoatl eventually spread to Europe through Hernando Cortez on his forays to and from Spain in the early 1500s. The enticing elixir was quickly modified to Spanish tastes, as chocolat, where it was heated and mixed with vanilla, sugar, cinnamon & other spices. It was a closely guarded Spanish secret for nearly 100 years, until in 1585 chocolat became a traded commodity. The intoxication with hot chocolate became widespread over Europe, and chocolate houses hit a hey-day by the 1700s, thriving in equal popularity as coffee houses. As the 1700s drew to a close, so did the immense push for chocolate houses, though its medicinal uses were touted for hundreds of years to follow. Even Thomas Jefferson cited the values of hot chocolate, stating in a letter, “The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.”
Today, the drink that most closely resembles what most people consider to be “hot chocolate” can be largely attributed to a Dutchman by the name of Hendrick van Houten. In the early 1800s, van Houten devised a method to press ground cacao beans to extract cocoa butter. The remaining cake was then cooled and pulverized, and eventually an alkali-potash was added, to neutralize the acidity of the resulting powder. This process, known as “Dutching,” gave rise to what many refer to as “dutch chocolate” in modern day cocoa circles.
But enough about the history, let’s get enticed by what hot chocolate can do for you! The big element of cacao itself is its bitter alkali component, theobromine. Theobromine is what makes hot chocolate (and chocolate in general) so mentally and physically stimulating. It is used as a natural mood booster, a diuretic, a heart stimulant and a vasodilator, which widens blood vessels.
Hot chocolate is also packed with a very powerful brain chemical called phenylethylamine (aka, the love chemical), and tryptophan, both of which stimulate production of the powerful brain neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, respectively. These neurotransmitters are important in alleviating depression, elevating and controlling moods, sleep regulation, sex drive and metabolism.
Admittedly, hot chocolate is not without its hazards. One of its mood boosting components includes sugar, which contributes to bursting energy rushes and can be unhealthy if overall sugar consumption is not regulated. But a modest cup of hot chocolate, or even a single serving of a high-cocoa chocolate (ideally 65% or higher), can be very beneficial each day for a person’s overall well-being.
If you have been seduced into wanting to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and have your own love affair to break the cold of a long winter, the following recipe might be a decadent cup of comfort. It is truly one of my favorites, and is almost like a hot chocolate pudding. A must try for any beverage adventurer!
- 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Mix the cocoa powder and sugar together in a small saucepan. Stir the 1 1/2 cups milk into the saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Place over low heat; slowly bring the mixture to a low simmer.
Whisk 2 tablespoons of milk together with the cornstarch in a small cup; slowly whisk the cornstarch slurry into the cocoa mixture. Continue cooking, whisking continually, until the hot chocolate reaches a pudding-like thickness, 2 to 3 minutes.
If you’re needing a bit more spice in your life, try this authentic Mayan recipe from the Hecho de Mano Store. If you really want a special journey of taste, pair it with your date night watching the movie “Chocolat”:
- 3cups boiling water
- 1 to 2 cinnamon sticks
- 8 ounces bittersweet Maya Kakaw or Xocoalt (chocolate paste, both available on
Amazon.com online) or 8 ounces of a high cocoa content bittersweet chocolate
- 2 tablespoons of wild pure honey, or raw sugar to taste
- 1 pinch of dried red chili; this is what makes the difference so try it!
- 1 dried organic grown vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- · l tablespoon roasted peanuts, ground extra fine (optional Aztec hot chocolate taste)
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, add the cinnamon sticks to boiling water. Cook until liquid is reduced to 2 1/2 cups. Remove cinnamon sticks; add the vanilla bean and lower the heat a bit, wait until bubbles appear around the edge to reduce heat to low and drop the chocolate pieces and wild pure honey, mix well and whisk occasionally until chocolate is melted. Turn off heat, remove vanilla bean. Whisk vigorously to create a light foam effect, sprinkle the dried chili pepper and serve; and for an Aztec hot chocolate taste, sprinkle the roasted peanut powder.
Don’t have time to make your own creations? If you’re out and you need a pick me up, Liquid Planet offers many unique, signature cocoas, including a version reminiscent of the thick, bittersweet hot chocolate served at Angelina’s Café in Paris. Also available are bags of Crio Brü, 100% roasted cocoa beans that you can make like coffee. With all of the infinite ways to make it, you can enjoy all of the benefits of cocoa without the added calories and sugar. There is sure to be a hot chocolate for every adventurer ready to explore the exotic flavors of the Americas and the richness of Europe.