Hot Chocolate

"Oh, and pumpkin pie is out. This year, I want chocolate. Nothing but chocolate." Uncle Max is at it again, ruffling feathers throughout the Kelly family chicken coop. He does love to see the older women grumble about broken traditions, but rich old Max is flying everyone in for Thanksgiving dinner, and he who pays the piper.. . . They squawked when he lined up a slew of stuffed squab -- as far from the usual monster turkey as you can get while still eating birds. They complained about stirring massive batches of risotto instead of letting the electric mixer take care of the mashed potatoes. And asparagus with hollandaise instead of yams? "Why don't we just move to France and be done with it?" asked Aunt Grace. But it's Grandma who's really put out. Every year, she makes the pumpkin pie; it's her signature at the end of the masterpiece that is the Kelly Thanksgiving. Max is smart, I'll give him that. He came to me, because I'm Grandma's favorite. "She won't get mad at you," he surmised. "So I want you to run the hot chocolate bar. Find as many varieties of primo hot chocolate as you can. Be able to talk a little about each, and make sure I get plenty of your personal favorite." So I set off to the shops. Call me a peacemaker.

My friends Mary Ann and Cherie joined husband Patrick and me for the preliminary taste test. First up, Trader Joe's Organic Cocoa powder ( $4.99 for eight ounces), which proclaimed itself fit for either baking or drinking. The recipe called for equal parts of sugar and cocoa to be added to the milk. No one thought the result should be added to Thanksgiving. Cherie nosed out the biggest flaw: "It's got a sour nose and a sour taste." "There's no marriage of flavors," complained Mary Ann. "It tastes like cocoa powder and milk." But the next offering soothed both palate and conscience: the Trader Joe's Conacado Organic Fair Trade Cocoa ( $3.99 for 12 ounces). The cocoa is purchased from a growers' cooperative in the Dominican Republic, which ensures a good wage for the farmers. "I don't generally like too much ethics in my diet," said Patrick, "but this is good. A solid, bitter cocoa bite, and they didn't try to drown it with sugar."

We moved westward for a Mexican spiced cocoa from Mocafe-Azteca D'Oro ( $3.99 for 14 ounces at Whole Foods). All agreed that "spiced" was the main event here. "Overwhelming cinnamon," judged Patrick. "Cardamom," added Cherie. "The chocoholic needs more chocolate taste," quipped Mary Ann.

I steamed another pan of milk and opened the gold retro can of Scharffen Berger's ( $6.49 for eight ounces at Whole Foods). "The can's so stylish," admired Mary Ann. Patrick and I agreed that the flavor was bittersweet, sophisticated, and powerful. But we yearned for a little more body, a slightly thicker texture. That's what we got from the Schokinag European Drinking Chocolate ( $8.99 for 12 ounces at Whole Foods). "This is perfect in every way," hummed Cherie. "It's like I'm drinking chocolate shavings. It smells like pure chocolate." I liked the way it coated the insides of my cheeks and left a rich, earthy finish on my tongue.

Mary Ann preferred the Ghirardelli Premium Hot Cocoa ( $4.49 for 16 ounces at Whole Foods). "It's not front-loaded with sweetness like run-of-the-mill hot chocolate. Instead, it has a really roasted flavor and a long finish. A keeper for turkey day -- oops, squab day."

Our last three candidates hailed from specialty shops around San Diego. Extraordinary Desserts sold Valrhona Cocoa Powder ( $9.95 for eight ounces) and Muscovado sugar ( $2.95 for four ounces) to sweeten the pot. The specialty sugar was thought to pair well with rich flavors like chocolate, thanks to its high molasses content and strong, lingering flavor. But, however appropriate the sugar, the end result didn't give us the fireworks we were expecting, given the price. All agreed that it produced a pleasant, balanced, creamy cocoa, but lacked richness and intensity.

It turned out that you can be too rich. The Mariebelle Aztec Hot Chocolate ( $24 for 20 ounces at In Good Taste in Coronado) was like drinking melted chocolate. (We found it especially surprising, since we had made it with boiling water instead of milk.) "It's an overload," admitted chocoholic Mary Ann. "It sticks to me. Maybe I could take a shot of this, but not a whole cup." I checked the gorgeous tin, and noted that I had prepared it European-style: one cup of mix to one cup of water. Also listed was an American-style recipe: one cup of mix to two cups water. That sounded more like it.

The longed-for fireworks came from the locals at Chuao's (shops in Carlsbad, Encinitas, Del Mar, and La Jolla). They sold two styles: a Spicy Maya and Hot Chocolate Abuela (each $15 for 12 ounces). I liked the slightly spicy-hot finish on the Maya and was especially taken by the chili pepper flavor under the chocolate. Again, the texture surprised us -- rich and frothy, even without milk. The Abuela sent us all into swoons. "It's like hot fudge, only not so cloying," marveled Patrick. "This is the one for Max," I smiled.

"We get our chocolate from Venezuela," said Thomas Pineda, Chuao's director of business development. "Then we grind that chocolate down into powder. It's hot chocolate based on chocolate. Most hot chocolates are based on cocoa powder, and the cocoa is depleted from all that fat and richness of true chocolate. Not to say they're not good; they're just very different. We add nonfat milk powder; that's why you only add water." The spices in the Maya version are a nod to history. "It was a very strong, potent drink, a very bitter drink -- they didn't have sugar. But they did add spices." The Abuela, meanwhile, is a nod to tradition. "It actually follows Michael Antonorsi's grandma's recipe. He's co-owner and head chef." Maybe Grandma will be mollified.

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