Italian Hot Chocolate – Cioccolata Calda

A mug of Italian hot chocolate with freshly whipped cream

TODAY’S MUSINGS:
Yes,  I know, it’s been ages since you’ve heard from me, but I have a legitimate reason for the silence and, no, my “reason” isn’t that I’ve been lazy.  If you are reading this post for illumination on where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing these past three months,  I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m saving that story for another day.  Stay tuned.

Today,  you’ll find me sitting at a dining room table, swaddled in a bright orange down comforter in a chilly, yet cozy cabin just off the main road in Angels Camp, CA.  Outside my window, sun-spattered rolling golden hills dotted with majestic live oaks belie the chilly temperatures outside my door.  Yesterday, an unexpected “bomb cyclone” made for a grey, cold and wet day  – and fevered conversations about hot chocolate steaming away on the camp stove.

Let’s face it,  American hot chocolate is insipid at best – lackluster, brown-colored Swiss Miss® water at its worst.  We are not celebrated for our chocolate beverage prowess in the States.  The Spanish, with their thick chocolate and churros, are world-renowned for their rich, dark, dippable rather than drinkable, chocolate and they stand proudly at the apex of the hot chocolate pyramid of deliciousness.  Not far behind them are the French and their “chocolat chaud,” The rich beverage available for sipping on chilly Parisian streets.  Christmas mornings, my sister combines copious quantities of Ghirardelli Double Chocolate cocoa powder,  a smidge of sugar, and an equal ratio of whole milk to heavy whipping cream in an effort to recall her memories of the decadent beverage sipped in the City of Lights. Her final result?  Satisfying, but not quite mind-blowing.  I must admit, however, until last night,  I was entirely in the dark when it came to Cioccolata Calda, Italy’s version of the drink.  I’ve been fortunate to visit Italy and, during my travels, study, as well as indulge in, its cuisine.  Accordingly,  I’m familiar with Italian espresso, various wines and their regions, amaro, limoncello, nocino, grappa, and the early evening Aperol spritz, leaving nary any room for something as seemingly innocuous as hot chocolate.  Oh, what have I been missing?!

Last night, with my first (scalding) sip,  my hot chocolate world expanded. I could use poetic words like “decadent,” “rich,” “silky,” and “fudgy” to describe this ganache in a mug,  but today I’ve decided to be straightforward – the Italians can call their hot chocolate what they like, but it is, in essence, a mug of warm chocolate pudding before it has been allowed to set – milk, cream, cornstarch and dark chocolate…the makings of a most excellent creamy dessert – and damn indulgent hot chocolate.  It would be made only more satisfying with crisp biscotti for dunking.  This Christmas,  I’ll be taking the reins on the morning beverage; step aside, Sis.

TODAY’S RECIPE:
Forgive the less than professional photo – and the inartfully dolloped cream.  As mentioned above,  my inaugural recipe was created over a camp stove; the cream “whipped” in a vigorously shaken plastic container.  Nevertheless,  the results did not disappoint, possibly even made more delicious by our rustic surroundings. The Spanish may have Chocolate and Churros; we had Patagonia and Cioccolata Calda.

Tip:  You don’t want the hot chocolate to boil (212° F), but you need to heat it to a temperature of 203° F for the cornstarch’s thickening properties to activate.  Don’t rush the process by turning up the heat – be patient, heat it slowly, and stir often.


Italian Hot Chocolate

This ultra-thick, rich and not overly sweet elixir will change the way you think about hot chocolate. This recipe should make two servings, but I find it so decadent (even for me!) that it can easily stretch to 4 servings. With the addition of coffee, this belly warmer also makes a five-star mocha.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole milk, divided
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 4 ½ oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • Tiny pinch salt (optional)
  • Lightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk together ¾ cup whole milk, heavy whipping cream and sugar until small bubbles begin to form around the edges (don’t boil).
  2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the remaining ¼ cup milk and cornstarch. Set aside.
  3. Once the milk is heated, add the cornstarch mixture and whisk for 30 seconds to combine. Add dark chocolate and salt and continue whisking for about 7 minutes until the chocolate has fully melted and the mixture thickly coats the back of a spoon (similar to a thin chocolate sauce). Pour into 2 coffee mugs (or 4 demitasse cups if you want to show restraint). Top with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. Careful – since this hot chocolate is so thick, it holds heat better than your regular brew; sip carefully.

New Year’s Mulled Wine

Today’s Musings:

 “Hush, hush, keep it down now, voices carry…” – Aimee Mann

My subconscious, whispering in my ear, played that loop over and over.  How foolish I was to disregard the implications.
I will not be silenced.

Siblings, secreting our history, provide a whitewashed version.
I will not be silenced.

Lovers, patronizingly deciding they know better, advise me not to post it.
I will not be silenced.

Confidants, with murky glimpses of my tale, admonish me for whom I tell.
I will not be silenced.

Childhood memories, keenly recall the consequences of talking back.
I will not be silenced. 

I will speak my truth, I will write my story, I will shout at the top of my lungs, because, finally, whether you choose to believe me or not, I will not be silenced. 

Today’s Recipe:


New Year’s Mulled Wine

I’ve been making mulled wine for years, but my family declared this particular recipe “the best” ever.


Ingredients

  • 2 cups apple juice
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 orange, thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 24 whole allspice berries
  • 12 whole cloves
  • 3 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
  • 2 whole star anise pods
  • 1 bottle dry red wine

Directions

  1. Combine apple juice, sugar, orange, lemon and spices in a medium pot. Simmer until sugar has dissolved and spices have steeped, about 15 minutes. Do not boil.
  2. Add wine and heat until hot.
  3. Pour through a small sieve into mugs with an orange slice or cinnamon stick in each.

Bakewell Alexander Cocktail

Two Bakewell Alexander cordials
Sunday, my guy and I binge watched five hours of Better Call Saul, not leaving the couch, not getting out of our PJ’s – entirely guilt free. This is the new normal in the midst of COVID-19 and a shelter-in-place quarantine.

Another result of my self-quarantine is creative recipe concoctions using only on-hand ingredients. Friday, during lockdown, I cleaned out my liquor cabinet and found a number of bottles, barely used, from last year’s various cooking and baking recipes (How did I accumulate THREE different kinds of Sherry?). I gathered up the most promising flavors, experimented a bit, got tipsy in the process, and came up with this winner.

Stay healthy everyone!


Bakewell Alexander Cocktail

  • Servings: 1 cocktail
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Rich and creamy chocolate almond cherry cordials – taste like dessert in a glass.


Ingredients

  • 1 part whole milk or cream
  • 1 part chocolate liqueur (such as Mozart brand)
  • ½ part almond liqueur (such as Disaranno)
  • ½ part Kirsch
  • Good-quality maraschino cherries (such as Luxardo)
  • Freshly-grated nutmeg

Directions

  1. Pour a bit of the syrup from the maraschino cherries in the bottom of a glass.
  2. Combine milk, chocolate liqueur, almond liqueur and kirsch in a shaker with crushed ice. Shake well and strain over cherry syrup.
  3. Garnish with a maraschino cherry and freshly grated nutmeg. Serve.

Summertime Sangria

Red Sangria

I have no issues leaving family behind for most holidays, traveling to far-flung destinations (Christmas in London anyone?), but there are two holidays that keep me home each year. The first is Halloween, which guarantees a few hundred local kids banging on my door, screaming “trick or treat” through the screen. It gives me instant flashbacks to my own unsupervised childhood wilding nights of All Hallows Eve a few decades ago.

The second is July 4th, a day and night punctuated with a cacophony of illegal fireworks that makes neighboring Disneyland’s nightly display both superfluous and ineffective. It’s a surround sound and visual extravaganza that reminds one of a middle-East war zone.

This 4th, I combined forces with my neighbors for a street party BBQ. For libations, Don and Carlos brought 4 flavors of homemade limoncello, Susie made white sangria and I brought out my go-to red version packed with oranges, lemons, apples and strawberries.


Summertime Sangria

  • Servings: 12-14 glasses
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During the warmer months, this is my fruity and refreshing go-to alcoholic beverage to quench a thirsty crowd.


Ingredients

  • 1 – 1 ½ oranges, cut into ¼ inch slices and then cut crosswise into chunks
  • 1 lemon, cut into ¼ inch slices and then cut crosswise into chunks
  • 1 apple, cut into chunks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¾ cup fresh orange juice
  • ½ cup Triple Sec or Cointreau
  • ¼ cup brandy
  • 2 bottles red wine
  • 1 ½ cups frozen strawberries
  • 1-2 cups lemon-lime soda (7-up or Sprite)

Directions

  1. Combine orange, lemon, apple, sugar, orange juice, Triple Sec and Brandy in a large container. Stir for a few minutes until sugar is completely dissolved. Add red wine and refrigerate for at least six hours and up to 12.
  2. Add frozen strawberries (to act as ice cubes) and lemon-lime soda and serve over additional ice, if needed.

Homemade Vermouth

Sure, I’m familiar with vermouth…it’s that mixer in the green bottle pushed to the back of the liquor cabinet that plays a supporting role in martinis and manhattans. The alcohol that, along with Galliano, has a shelf life longer than Twinkies. The perpetual cocktail bridesmaid – never the bride.

How very wrong I’ve been.

Bottles of homemade vermouth
I discovered vermouth – real vermouth – a few months ago at Amar Santana’s Vaca restaurant. He’s managed to elevate this non-descript mixer into something sublime – it’s house-made, poured from the tap, served on the rocks and garnished with a thick slice of orange zest. And it tastes like…well…on my first sip, I proclaimed it tasted like, “Thanksgiving and Christmas all rolled into one.” His version is redolent of warming spices – cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, slightly sweet with hints of vanilla, and tertiary notes of herb (sage? thyme?) and orange.

Thus began my quest to make my own vermouth at home. Vermouth, I’ve discovered, is aromatized, fortified wine; wine that has been infused with herbs and spices (aromatized) and has alcohol (in this case, Sherry) added to it (fortified). The sweet version of vermouth also has caramelized sugar added. My final version below is a world away from Vaca’s recipe ( I can aspire!), but still quite tasty; similar to higher-end bottled vermouth I’ve sampled in recent months – like an Amaro – a bit sweet, a bit bitter, and loaded with spices and herbs.

The first thing you’ll notice is there’s a daunting list of ingredients. But don’t be deterred, the actual hands-on time is about 30 minutes total once you have your supplies. My recommendation is to order your herbs and spices online from a reputable retailer (I bought mine from Monterey Bay Spice Company) and the remaining ingredients can be purchased from a well-stocked grocery store.


Homemade Vermouth Recipe

  • Servings: about 4 cups
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The perfect aperitivo – a bit sweet, a bit bitter and loaded with spices and herbs. Play with the proportions to highlight your favorite spice.


Ingredients

  • 5 green cardamom pods
  • 7 whole cloves
  • 2 star anise
  • 6 juniper berries
  • ½ teaspoon coriander seeds
  • ½ teaspoon wormwood
  • ½ teaspoon chamomile flowers
  • ¼ teaspoon dried sage leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • Entire zest of an orange, peeled using a potato peeler
  • 2 strips of zest from a lemon, peeled using a potato peeler
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • ½ vanilla bean, seeds scraped out
  • 1 bottle light white wine such as Pinot Grigio (I use Tesoro della Regina)
  • 1cup sugar
  • 1 cup sweet Sherry (I use Osborn Cream Sherry)

Directions

  1. Crush cardamom pods, cloves, star anise, juniper berries, and coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle. Scrape them into a medium stock pot. Add wormwood, chamomile, sage, nutmeg, orange zest, lemon zest, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla bean and seeds. Pour white wine over ingredients, bring to boil, remove from heat, cover with lid and let steep for 24 hours.
  2. In a small pan, make a caramel by combining sugar with 2 Tablespoons of water. Cook over medium heat, without stirring, until caramel is dark golden. Carefully add sherry to caramel – the caramel will bubble and splash. If the addition of Sherry causes the caramel to harden, return to stove to re-melt the caramel.
  3. Strain and squeeze the wine mixture well through a coffee filter or two layers of cheese cloth. Add the Sherry mixture and stir to combine. Serve on the rocks with an orange zest.