The seasons are changing at full throttle now. Where a few short weeks ago there were green leaves, mild breezes and endless daylight, now there are rapidly-baring branches, icy winds and encroaching darkness. Everywhere I go I have to remember my rain protection and high-collared coat, and every night I come home craving big plates of hearty, calorie-rich food. Although you'd think this should be enough to convince me that we're spinning headlong into winter, in reality my seasonal clock is much more specific than that. While other people flip the calendar, break out the long johns and park the ice-scraper in the car, I wait for my one failsafe sign that cold weather has arrived for good. For me all the woolen mittens and frozen noses in the world signal the time of year less than a sudden, unignorable, bottom-of-the-belly craving for hot chocolate.
I have always been a sucker for hot chocolate, though as I grow older I find that for all its apparent simplicity, a really good cup can be hard to find. When I was a kid I drank Swiss Miss by the gallon and loved every tooth-aching drop, but as an adult I find powdered mixes just not up to scratch. I've also had limited success just combining good chocolate and milk. You certainly can, but it never turns out quite right - too little chocolate and the flavor is frustratingly subtle; too much and it's just too rich to drink, an afternoon pick-me-up inadvertently becoming an early dinner. And then there's the consistency. If you've ever been to Spain, you've probably tried hot chocolate there, which comes as thick as mud and is nearly always eaten like soup. As delicious as that is, if it's not sippable it's still not my quintessential cup.
What makes the perfect cup, then? Well, it should carry a heavy hit of chocolate, preferably from both a high-quality bar and a good measure of cocoa for depth. It should be smooth, rich, and silky without the slightest bit of powdery grit. There should be just enough sweetness to take the edge off the bitter chocolate, but not nearly enough to be cloying. There should be a deep milky, creamy flavor without overpowering richness. It also should be quick to whip up, because hot chocolate is meant to satisfy spur-of-the-moment chocolate cravings. This recipe just might have it all. Its basis is a recipe in the highly acclaimed and encyclopedic Secrets of Baking by James Beard award-winner Sherry Yard. What tempted me first was the technique - she builds the recipe around a ganache, which is a brilliantly simple way to assure a complete emulsification and a velvety-smooth texture. Another point in its favor comes from the recipe making a large batch - perfect for storing in the fridge and reheating as the cravings strike. The other great thing about this recipe is that there are customizable elements - if you want it thicker and richer, omit the water and substitute cream for part of the milk. If you want it lighter, you can even dilute it more. The amount of sugar is also up to you - add a few tablespoons when you make it, or let yourself and your guests add it to taste to each steaming, luscious cup.
Is this the perfect hot chocolate? You'll have to be the judge of that. All I can tell you is that for the moment I'm not in a hurry for the warm weather to return.
Perfect Hot Chocolate
Yield: 6 cups of hot chocolate
7oz (200g) bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup evaporated milk
2 1/2 cups whole milk (or 2 cups milk and 1/2 cup additional cream)
1 1/2 cups water (optional)
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
sugar, to taste
freshly whipped cream, to garnish
To make the ganache, chop the chocolate into small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream and evaporated milk to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. Immediately pour the boiling liquid over the chopped chocolate, then let it sit undisturbed for 1 minute. Stir slowly until everything is smooth and blended.
Bring the whole milk and optional water to a boil over medium heat. Add the cocoa powder and whisk until dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the ganache. Let sit for 1 minute, then stir until well combined and velvety smooth. Stir in the vanilla, sweeten with sugar to taste and serve hot, garnished with a spoonful of lightly-sweetened whipped cream.