Its cold and rainy, and we naturally yearn for comfort food and beverage. Top of mind?… a steamy, frothy cup of hot chocolate. So what do you reach for? Instant powdered mix? A small, plastic, vacuum-sealed shot that you slot into your new Keurig’s single cup brewing system? Is new always better? Here’s the argument for making your Mexican hot chocolate the old, old-fashioned way… like they have been doing in Mexico for thousands, yes, thousands of years. Even the word chocolate is believed to have its origins in the Mayan word xocoatl, cocoa from the Aztec word cacahuatl. There is so something so very comforting in reaching back in time and following ancient rituals and traditions, and if anything ever spoke to this; once a tribute, a form of paying tax and an offering to the gods (aren’t you, after all a god or goddess?), it is this: chocolate.
From Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (Note:written by this columnist with co-author Adriana Almazan Lahl):
Cacao beverages dates back to 1900 BCE. The first chocolate drink is thought to have been created around 2,000 years ago by the Mayans, and there is clear evidence of some form of cocoa beverage in Aztec culture by 1400 AD. Recently, Mexico’s National Institute ofAnthropology and History announced that archaeologists have found, for the first time, traces of 2,500-year-old chocolate on a plate in the Yucatan peninsula, suggesting its use as a condiment or sauce as well.
Aside from being an ingredient in food and beverages, the seed of the cacao tree was a kind of currency. All of the territories that had been conquered by the Aztecs and grew cacao beans were ordered to pay them as a tax or, as the Aztecs called it, a “tribute”. Chocolate also played a special role in both Mayan and Aztec royal and religious events. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies. The Mayans sometimes mixed cacao with annatto, the most common food dye of that era, to form a sacred liquid resembling blood with ritual applications. There were several very specific recipes for combining the raw or roasted cacåhoatl with various grains to create many different beverages: some believed to have aphrodisiac properties, others to address health concerns such as “emaciation”, as well as serious illness like dysentery or liver disease. Original texts include warnings against excessive consumption, which the Mexicas believed could lead to numerous illnesses.
In 1519, in a gesture meant to convey a great honor, Montezuma II presented explorer Hernan Cortes with the gift of a beverage made of ground cacao beans, vanilla and chiles, xo- xoatl (in Nathuatl it is called chocaltl). When Cortez returned to Spain, what we know as chocolate, which had been sweetened with sugar, was introduced to Europe.
ADJUST YOUR RECIPE: THIS CHOCOLATE HAS A DIFFERENT FLAVOR
What we call Mexican chocolate has a unique taste. Its texture is also quite different from that of any baking or cooking chocolate found in a typical American pantry.The product comes in hexagonal or round tablets and has a taste and texture quite different from any baker or cooking chocolate found in an typical American pantry; the sugar is more grainy and the chocolate is quite sweet. It is a blend of cacoa paste, Mexican brown sugar, (hence the coarser texture) and cinnamon which results in the signature Mexican chocolate flavor. Recipes using this ingredient conveniently call for however many “tablets” of the product, rather than ounces; which is a good thing since the typical package contains an odd 19 ounces or 540 grams.
Two of the more popular commercial brands are Ibarra and Abuelita. Rancho Gordo sells a spectacular, Stone Ground Mexican Chocolate, “from the beautiful state of Guerrero in Mexico, [where] a cooperative of women grow and harvest their own cacao, toast it on clay comales (pans) and then stone grind it with piloncillo (an unrefined sugar) and canela, the famous soft cinnamon preferred in Mexico.
This special chocolate is the base for Mexican hot chocolate, champurrado (which is basically a mixture of Mexican hot chocolate and atole, and a Mexican breakfast staple found every morning on streets throughout Mexico and in the Mission here in San Francisco, thanks to hard-working señoras with shopping carts and oversized thermoses) and is the chocolate traditionally added to the famous mole poblano.
The authentic, old-school method for making Mexican hot chocolate calls for several kitchen tools that you will want to have if you are accumulating a Mexican kitchen anyway. The first is a Molcajete y Tejolote or traditional Mexican mortar and pestle, which you will use to pound your small block of pure cane sugar and Mexican chocolate into powder form. You’ll also use a molinillo (see slide show, available on-line at MexGrocer.com) or hollow wooden stirrer, which is similar in use to a whisk, but so much more beautiful.
For this recipe (for two mugs of hot chocolate) from Tres Señoritas Gourmet at Private Chefs of the SF Bay, buy piloncillo, cubes of Mexican brown sugar, at Casa Lucas on 24th St. near Florida (or on-line at MexGrocer.com) and ground with the molcajete y tejolote until it is a fine powder. Add 1 teaspoon of the piloncillo powder to 2 1/2 cups of milk that has been warmed over a medium heat with a teaspoon of vanilla added to it (or, preferably, use a couple of vanilla beans direct from the pod, in which case you will want to add when you are pulverizing your Mexican chocolate, the next step, so you can grind the vanilla beans as well). Stir occasionally as you are warming the milk mixture, being careful not to allow the pot to boil (or boil over!) Next, clean the molcajete, and use it to pound a tablet of the Mexican chocolate into a powder, (it will look a bit like cocoa powder). Remove warmed milk mixture from the stove. Whisk all of the chocolate into the milk mixture, taking care not to burn yourself with the warmed milk mixture, rotating the molinillo between the palms of your hands until the hot chocolate turns frothy. Pour into individual clay mugs. Garnish with a stick of cinnamon.
Can all this be accomplished with a whisk and powdered chocolate (sold under the Abuelita label)? Of course, but somehow the experience just wouldn’t be the same! Ice your chocolate for a chilly summertime treat. And for an extra taste experience, experiment with adding just a hint of chipotle (see Chipotles- what are they…).