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World History through 5 Hot Chocolate Recipes

About two decades behind Third Wave coffee, Third Wave hot chocolate is now moving into the mainstream. 

Third Wave hot chocolate aficionados appreciate their bean’s origin -from flavor profile, to the farmer's wellbeing, to the sustainability of farming practices- and its point of sale -especially the knowledge of the barista and the artisanal heart that is put into the drink’s preparation.

But to be true Third Wave hot chocolate enthusiasts, we must also understand the history and evolution of the drink set before us. 

And so we look at world history through the lens of hot chocolate…

and try five historic recipes along the way!

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But first, a quick note on terminology: cacao vs. cocoa vs. chocolate

Cacao can refer to the whole or chopped seeds (commonly called "beans") found inside the fruit of the cacao tree. Cacao powder, then, is made from seeds that have been dried, chopped and cold-pressed to remove the fat (aka cacao butter), and ground into a powder.

Cocoa, on the other hand, does not refer to the seeds of the tree. Cocoa is cacao that has been roasted at a high temperature, then pressed to remove the cacao fat/butter.

With the exception of cold- vs. heat-pressing, cacao and cocoa seem very similar. It should be noted, however, that the temperature difference leads to another important difference: cacao powder retains its natural nutritional benefits and antioxidants, which are lost to cocoa through its heat-pressing.

Chocolate typically refers to cocoa that has had sweeteners, cacao butter, and other ingredients (e.g., often stabilizers, flavors, etc) added.


Mexico

Cacao had been enjoyed by the peoples of Mesoamerica for almost two millennia before European contact. It is thought that the Olmecs (of modern-day southern Mexico and Guatemala) were consuming fermented cacao drinks as early as 1500 BC; some sources claim even earlier.

It is unknown how or why the Olmecs first decided to ingest the cacao seed. Presumably, its somewhat repulsive natural state -covered in a sort of slimy, papery layer and encased within a fruit resembling a papaya crossbred with a ridged football- would have lent it more naturally to be discarded when the fruit itself was consumed.

A favorite legend posits that the unwanted, bitter seeds of the fruit were one day haphazardly tossed onto a fire, and the resulting aroma was enticing.

No matter how it was first discovered as edible, the cacao seed’s popularity spread throughout Mesoamerica. And as it did, it rose in status. Mayans and Aztecs, Mixtecs and Zapotecs; tribe after tribe adopted cacao as a an important element in ritual sacrifices, as a form of currency (which it remained in remote regions even into the 1850s), and of course, as staple ingredient in drinks.

The original cacao drinks of Mesoamerica would have been very different from today’s hot chocolate: grainy, fermented and rarely sweetened, with just herbs, chilis and possibly vanilla added to offset the bitterness; and served at ambient temperature. The following recipe for xocolatl (the word for cacao in Nahuatl, language of the Aztecs) might be as close as we modern imbibers can get to the original drink.

 
 

approximation of an ancient XOCOLATL RECIPE

Note: This recipe is presented for the purpose of experiencing an ancient cacao beverage. It is likely that most modern westerners will not love this taste; rather appreciate it for its historic significance.

Yield: 4 servings 

You will need:

  • 1-1/2 C  water
  • 2 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate bar, broken into chunks (Look for a baking chocolate bar that is 100% cacao, with no added sugar, oil, etc. These are typically sold in 4 oz. bars, so use 1/2 a bar.)
  • 1  small jalapeño, chopped

In a medium pot, simmer water and chopped chili, including seeds, for 10 minutes.

Strain out and discard chili products, retaining water. Bring water to a simmer.

Add chocolate. On a low simmer, stir until the chocolate is dissolved.

Let cool to room temperature to enjoy at a reasonably historically accurate temperature.


Tip: If you find it difficult to finish this bitter drink, consider returning the mixture to the stovetop and adding 1 small piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar, about 6 oz.) and 1 tsp vanilla, stirring until the piloncillo is dissolved. This version will still be close to the original, but more palatable for those expecting hot chocolate to be sweet.

 

Spain

On his last voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus was offered cacao beans. According to his son's journal, Columbus neither accepted the beans, nor even tasted the bean's drink. Thus, he missed the opportunity to be the first to introduce cacao to the Old World.

Although somewhat debated, it is typically accepted that 16th century Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés was the first to export cacao beans to Spain in 1528.

Back in Spain, monks were tasked with processing the cacao imported by the Conquistadors. The monks adjusted the drink to Spanish tastes, adding cinnamon, nutmeg and cane sugar, and omitting chilis. And they began serving the drink hot. 

Their original recipe might have been something like:

 
 

approximation of an early CHOCOLATE A LA TAZA RECIPE

Yield: 4 servings

You will need:

  • 2 C  water
  • 4 oz.  bar unsweetened baking chocolate, broken into chunks (As above, look for a baking chocolate bar that is 100% cacao, with no added sugar, oil, etc.)
  • 1/4 C + 2 TBS  sugar
  • 1  small cinnamon stick
  • several good gratings of nutmeg

In a large pot over medium heat, combine water, chocolate and sugar. Whisk constantly, until chocolate is dissolved.

Add cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly until chocolate mixture begins to bubble.

Reduce the heat and cook for 2 minutes, whisking, until thick. Serve warm.


Tip: for more authenticity, serve with a glass of water; a Spanish custom in chocolate-drinking since the 1700s.

Note: It may be surprising to see cinnamon in a Spanish hot chocolate recipe and not in the Mexican recipe, as hot chocolate with cinnamon is considered a Mexican drink in today's cuisine. However, cinnamon did not actually arrive in Mexico until 1565, by way of Spain's colonies in the Philippine Islands. Cinnamon had been in the region we know as Spain some 800 years earlier, thanks to invasion by North African tribes.

 

Italy

Because transatlantic shipping made cacao from the New World expensive and in limited supply, Spain took pains to keep its existence a secret from the rest of Europe for decades, closely guarding the scarce beans. However, Tuscans eventually “discovered” cacao for themselves, and not through interactions with Spain.

At the dawn of the 17th century, Florentine merchant and hobby traveler Francesco Carletti made contact with the Maya near present-day El Salvador/Guatemala, “discovering” cacao anew. He was likely the first to carry this newfound treasure back to what we know today as Italy.

Just more than a century later, Caffè Florian was established in 1720 in Venice, and is now considered the spiritual home of Cioccolata Calda. (The Caffè is also renowned for being a favorite hangout of Casanova, conceivably because it was the only gathering spot of the era and area that permitted women.)

Caffè Florian's Cioccolata Calda recipe (adapted, below), like any respectable modern Italian hot chocolate, almost requires a spoon to indulge in its pudding-like texture. In this adaptation, we also include an homage to early chocolate drinks of the region, through the addition of jasmine, as recorded in the first known Florentine recipe from the 1660s.

 
 

a modern CIOCCOLATA CALDO RECIPE with an historic twist

Yield: 2-3 servings

You will need:

  • 4 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 C  whole milk
  • 2 TBS  sugar
  • 1 TBS  jasmine extract (This can be difficult to find. Be sure to purchase extract and not essential oil!)
  • 1/4 tsp  cornstarch
  • whipped cream

Heat, but do not boil, milk in one pot.

Over low heat, put chocolate in a second pot and gradually add 1/4 of the hot milk, stirring constantly.

When the chocolate is melted, add remaining milk, sugar and jasmine. Stir until combined.

In a small cup, dissolve cornstarch in a few tablespoons of water.

Add cornstarch to chocolate mixture, stirring constantly until liquid thickens.

Continue stirring over low heat for 20 minutes, or longer for creamier drink.

Pour into a mug. Serve whipped cream on the side, or top the mug with whipped cream.

 

Haiti

Hot chocolate again escaped the stranglehold of Spanish secrecy in 1615. When Anne, the daughter of the King of Spain, was married off to King Louis XIII of France, she brought cacao with her to her new palace. French royalty fell for the drink, and when France took control of parts of Haiti in 1684, they quickly established cacao plantations there, thus amassing their own direct supply of the beans.

As happens when colonizers and locals begin intermarrying, their foods and tastes do, too. Haiti's hot chocolate became a creolization of the Spanish-French drink and local taste preferences.

 
 

CHOKOLA AYISYEN RECIPE

Yield: 6-8 servings

You will need:

  • 1 C  water
  • 1/2  lime rind
  • 1  cinnamon stick
  • 2  star anise
  • 1  vanilla pod, split
  • 1/2 C  cacao/dark cocoa powder
  • 1/4 C  brown sugar
  • 2 C  coconut milk
  • 1 C  whole milk
  • pinch of salt

In a large pot, bring to a boil the water, lime, cinnamon, star anise, and vanilla. 

Reduce heat to a simmer and add cacao. Stir until dissolved. 

Add brown sugar, coconut milk, milk and salt. Stir until sugar is dissolved.

Strain to remove the spices. Serve hot.

 

West AFrica

Cacao didn't arrive in Africa until the late 1800s. At that time, Portugal was sensing its colonization of Brazil was at risk of ending. So Portugal brought cacao beans in from its New World colony and established plantations in West Africa; the first time cacao was grown outside of Central and South American and the Caribbean. The Netherlands and Belgium quickly followed suit.

Today, West African nations produce 70% of the world’s cacao, with four of the world's top five producers located here.

While not much of the product stays in West Africa (as noted in this 2014 video where a life-long cacao farmer tastes chocolate for the first time -spoiler alert: he likes it!), hot chocolate is gaining a little traction in the region.

Note: In an ironic twist, while much of the first 200+ years of cacao production in the New World was done by Africans enslaved by Europeans, today some plantations in Africa itself have been found to use slave labor of fellow Africans. For this reason, we recommend always seeking fair trade/direct trade cacao products.

 
 

CHOCOLAT CHAUD RECIPE

Yield: 3-4 servings

You will need:

  • 2 C  milk
  • 1/2 C  cacao/dark cocoa powder
  • 1 TBS  wildflower honey (Wildflower honey has a stronger taste than clover honey. We think it's worth the few extra cents it costs, especially in this recipe.)
  • 1 vanilla pod, split
  • 1 cinnamon stick

In a large pot, heat milk and vanilla to a simmer. Add chocolate. Stir until dissolved. 

Add honey and cinnamon. Simmer, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved and mixture thickens slightly.

Pour into mugs, straining out vanilla and cinnamon. Serve hot.

 

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Have you found amazing hot chocolate in your travels?

Tell us about it in the comments!

Pin this post for your next hot chocolate night!

SOURCES: “The Book of Chocolate,” Newquist, HP. 2017., “Hot Chocolate,” Turback, Michael. 2005., “The True History of Chocolate,” Coe, Sophie D & Coe, Michael D. 1996., https://www.conservation.org/projects/Pages/Producing-native-cacao-in-Mexico.aspx, http://thelatinkitchen.com/how/ingredients/a/mexican-chocolate-short-history-recipe , https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/#ximJ5IvsLX4ljP0H.99


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