This month marks the one year anniversary of our blog. We decided to commemorate this momentous occasion with a story about a food that most people are extremely passionate about — chocolate!
As the weather patterns are readying themselves for winter and are becoming more erratic throughout the country, the temperatures begin to dip rather low. This is a time when many of us struggle to adapt to these changes. Warming foods and drinks are making their way back into our kitchens, beckoning us to invite family and friends to stay awhile.
One of the “comfort foods” so many of us lean on is chocolate, and, during these very cold days, hot chocolate comes to mind. Many of us have fond memories of our first introduction to it, recalling a particular taste, flavor, scent, or even an event that we cherished. When I was little, on special occasions, with all of us grandkids gathered around the table, my Oma (grandmother) used to serve hot chocolate in a little teapot which was shaped like a cat. It looked very similar to this one.
That image immediately comes to mind when I think of hot chocolate. Gathering around grandma’s table, the warmth of her little house, and her serving steaming hot chocolate to all of us. How about you, do you have any special memories around hot chocolate?
Whether you like to nibble on your favorite cacao concoction, or indulge in your favorite chocolate drink, all chocolate creations start with the humble cacao bean.
In our research of chocolate, we learned that the word cacao itself originates from the Aztec language, Nahuatl; the orginal word being “cacahuatl”, which also means “bitter water.”
The Theobroma cacao tree is a relatively small evergreen tree, native to the tropical regions of the Americas, or Africa. It is thought to originate in the Amazon region of the Americas, but today, is widely distributed and cultivated throughout Central America and Mesoamerica. The top ten (in the order listed) cacao producing countries are the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, New Guinea and Malaysia. It also grows wild in the foothills of the Andes, at an elevation of approximately 650 – 1300 feet, throughout the Amazon and Orinoco river regions.
These trees thrive in a rather humid climate with abundant rainfall and rich soil. They prefer an overhead shade canopy. A typical cacao tree begins to bear fruit after about 4 – 5 years. When fully mature, each may grow several thousand flowers in a year, but only produce about 20 pods, or fruit.
When you consider that it takes about 10 pods (bearing anywhere from 300 to 600 seeds) to produce 2.2 pounds of cacao paste, you realize that chocolate is truly considered a delicacy, to be consumed in small quantities. In fact, the word “theobroma” literally means “food of the gods.”
Chocolate, as we know it today, is made from these cacao beans, which have been dried and many times roasted. Some beautiful photographs regarding cacao trees can be found here. If you find yourself in the perfect climate (hot and humid) you might want to entertain growing a tree or two yourself. An interesting guide, as well as additional photo footage, can be found at this site.
The first evidence of a hot chocolate drink, or at least something closely resembling it, can be traced all the way back to the Mayan Empire, around 1100 B.C. The Mayan’s version, made from the paste of ground cacao beans, mixed with cornmeal, chili peppers, water and vanilla bean, was served cold. This drink was prepared by pouring the mixture back and forth between two jars, until a foam formed. The History Channel has a brief video introduction to the cacao drink here. The first Europeans, when introduced to this Mayan chocolate, thought it was an acquired taste, noting that it was spicy and bitter.
The first Europeans’ introduction to chocolate did not come until the 16th century, with the arrival of the conquistadors and Hernan Cortez in South and Central America. Cortez brought the first cacao beans back to Spain in 1528. Chocolate only slowly grew in popularity in Europe, appearing in the court of King Charles V, and then developing into a favorite drink of the Spanish nobility. For centuries, hot chocolate was consumed only by royalty, aristocrats and wealthy merchants.
Because at that time, cacao was only grown in South America, it was very expensive, and sometimes given as part of a dowry. Cacao beans were also used as a form of currency by the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures.
It was not until the 17th century that the sweet tasting chocolate became a popular luxury among the European upper class. It was then mixed with cane sugar and served hot. If you are interested in studying the history of chocolate in greater detail, the beautiful people at What’s Cooking America have written this extensive article on the History of Chocolate. Wikipedia, of course, is a treasure trove of information for anything chocolate and you can read up more on this subject here.
In America, we use the terms “hot chocolate” and “hot cocoa” interchangeably. However, in many other countries, “hot cocoa” is made from cocoa powder, while “hot chocolate” is made from melted bar chocolate and milk.
Hot chocolate was first introduced to North America in the 17th century by Dutch colonists. However, the first shop selling chocolate to a wider audience did not appear until the 1750’s.
Our culture’s fascination with chocolate has not been lost to our movie industry either. Joanne Harris’ book “Chocolat” was made into a movie starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. If you have not seen it yet, rent a copy and check it out for yourself. It is a charming movie taking place in a small French village, telling the story of a chocolatier, played by Juliette Binoche, and her interactions with the locals following the opening of her specialty chocolate business.
Johnny Depp again starred in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, another remake of the famous book by Roald Dahl. Johnny Depp’s performance is without equal. A movie trailer clip can be seen here.
An excerpt from the movie “The Polar Express”, featuring the “hot chocolate dance,” can be viewed here.
It goes without saying that there are many many books on chocolate. Everyone has their favorite one. My own personal favorite would have to be “The Great Book of Chocolate,” by David Lebovitz. He is the former pastry chef of Chez Panisse, and his obvious love and passion for the subject matter is presented with humor and extensive information on how chocolate is made, many tips on buying and storing chocolate, as well as some fabulous recipes for good measure. It comes highly recommended.
The other book that we would recommend is called “The True History of Chocolate,” by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. Both authors are anthropologists and present a comprehensive and well researched book on the history of chocolate. A must read and highly recommended.
Without further ado, this brings us to the simplicity of making our version of gluten free, dairy free hot chocolate.
These ingredients are essential (makes 2 servings, please adjust the proportions according to the number of servings you wish to create):
Dairy Free Hot Chocolate:
- 1 packet of Trader Joe’s Chocolate Callets
- 2-1/2 cups So Delicious Coconut Milk
- Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon powder (optional)
In a double boiler, over low heat, melt 14 pieces of the chocolate callets.
In a separate sauce pan, heat the coconut milk. Add the melted chocolate and mix well. If desired, add the optional ingredients of cayenne and cinnamon. No sugar is necessary, as the callets are already sweetened.
For those who tolerate and desire dairy, the addition of some whipped cream would provide another variation of this recipe.
Enjoy, and keep warm during this holiday season!