Brew me a cup for a winter's night.
For the wind howls loud and the furies fight;
Spice it with love and stir it with care,
And I'll toast our bright eyes,
my sweetheart fair.
~Minna Thomas Antrim
It's a perfect day to be inside by the fire--mid December with freezing temperatures and snow flurries. We endure winters in the Northeast Georgia mountains by the grace of a woodstove and Tom's tenacity. Times enjoying the merits of a cozy fire are his reward for long hours of chopping, splitting and carrying, dilligent attention to the state of the fire, and much other manful work needed to provide blessed heat.
We like our winter comforts, Tom and I. He makes bread every few days and we both concoct soups this time of year to team with complementary sandwiches--like soothing potato and leek soup with spicy muffalettas or zesty pesto tomato soup with gooey cheese sandwiches, grilled on homemade pecan bread.
Cocktails on a winter's night are a treat--drinks like a juicy fresh orange or grapefruit spritzer, or bourbon and OJ over ice with a dash of bitters showcase the season's gift of citrus. A soothing hot milk punch, beautifully spiced, can make the coldest evening convivial.
Tom roasts our coffee all year long and takes great pleasure in having several cups a day, often in front of the woodstove. Winter does not slow his progress through pound upon pound of brewed beans. It's excellent coffee and a tot of something, from Drambhui, Bailey's, Irish whiskey or Amaretto can turn it in the direction of lovely liquored libation.
I often yearn for the beverage of a different bean, though. Come winter I feel the caffinated chocolate pull of the Mayans. From its earliest cultivation in what we know today as Honduras, circa 1100 to 1400 BC, the gratings of the flavorful bean have been made into delectible drinks. Montezuma, the last great Mayan king, consumed more than fifty cups a day with the members of his court right up there with him. That's an impressive caffeine jones in any culture.
The cocoa plant has travelled far from Mesoamerica to find other habitable climates since its Pre-Columbian days. From Indonesia to the Ivory Coast it is a major crop, far overshadowing the production in Mexico, Central and South America. Yet it is still grown in the lands of its origin.
I have several chunks of pure chocolate crafted by indigenous Carribean people in the Panamanian province of Bocas del Torro. A Peace Corps volunteer who helps a remote tribe's economic venture rows his loaded boat for an entire day before he gets to the main island of Colón to trade the chocolate. The Indians still use the ancient ways, by hand, to make the dense aromatic blocks.
The molinillo is a highly specialized wooden hand tool, made up of intricately carved rings. It is used to whisk the chocolate into a froth. Place its handle between your palms and rub them briskly back and forth, just like you would to warm your hands. An ordinary whisk is a workable substitute. If you have no whisk use a fork to vigorously froth the mixture. Don't skip whisking--it prevents unappetizing milk skin from forming.
Although cocoa wasn't traditionally served sweet by the Mayans, several ancient flavor additions--vanilla, cinnamon and chili pepper--appeal to the modern palate and are used by the finest artisanal chocolatiers. I start with a basic recipe that uses cocoa powder, sugar, milk and vanilla. If I were using the pure chocolate, I'd grate it with a micro grater until I had enough for the recipe.
Hot Chocolate--makes one serving:
- 12 ounces of milk, whole or 2 per cent as preferred
- 2 tablespoons white sugar, or to taste
- 1/4 cup cocoa powder
- pinch salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 or 2 drops pure almond extract
- Whipped cream or marshmallows, as desired
In a small bowl blend dry ingredients together until thoroughly mixed.
Place milk in a small saucepan at medium temperature and whisk briskly as it heats.
When the milk just begins to steam remove the pan from the heat and add a tablespoon to the dry mix to form a paste. Stir until no lumps or dry spots remain. Blend in another tablespoon or two to further smooth the paste, then stir all the paste into the milk.
Return to the heat and bring the cocoa to the scalding point, i.e. very tiny bubbles just begin to form around the edges of the pan. Whisk vigorously to form a frothy topping. Stir in vanilla and almond extracts and remove from heat. Taste at this point to see if you like a sweeter brew and add sugar if needed, stirring well until completely dissolved.
Pour into a cup and spoon on whipped cream or plop in a marshmallow or two if you like. Or add a splash of deep-flavored coffee and voilá--mocha!
THE PERFECT ACCOMPANIMENT
Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.
Crispy buttered toast slices or even better--cinnamon toast points--partner beautifully with the aromatic creaminess of cocoa. I make mine from a simple loaf or brioche when I'm feeling decadent, but use raisin bread if you are so inclined. A shakerful of sugar and cinnamon is always handy in my pantry but it's simple enough to sprinkle the buttered bread twice.
- 2 slices fresh bread, white, mixed grain, whole wheat or raisin
- 1 tablespoon soft butter
- 2 teaspoons white or brown sugar
- Good sprinkling of ground cinnamon
For a toaster oven: Butter one side of each bread slice, then top with sugar and cinnamon. Place in toaster oven on "toast" and cook until sugar gets slightly brown and bread is toasted but not burnt.
For a regular toaster: Mix butter, sugar and cinnamon together. Toast plain bread slices, then butter with butter mixture.
The basic recipe, great for kids or grownups, can be easily transformed into a decadent adult wintertime libation with a few simple and judicious additions. Adjust seasonings and sweetness to your taste.
Maple Mocha: Omit white sugar from the recipe, and add 1 tablespoon B grade maple syrup instead. Proceed with recipe. Pour 2 ounces of strong coffee into the cup before you add the cocoa. Stir in 2 tablespoon of good quality chocolate syrup and an ounce of Kaluá. Top with unsweetened whipped cream and drizzle on a little maple syrup.
Cacao del Diablo: Add 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper and 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or to taste) to the dry ingredients. Continue with the recipe. Pour in one ounce Kaluá, top with whipped cream and grate a dash or two of fresh nutmeg on top.
Spiced Cocoa: Use half and half instead of milk and brown sugar instead of white. Add a scant 1/8 teaspoon each of cinnamon and ground cardamom, 2 or 3 peppercorns and 1 or two whole cloves to the milk as you heat it. Finish the cocoa as directed but allow it to sit in the pan for a couple of minutes. Give it another good frothing and strain into cup. Add one ounce dark rum and stir well.
Candy Cane Cocoa: Make as directed, then add one ounce white creme de menthe and one ounce creme de cacao. Top with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkle crushed peppermint candy, then drizzle lightly with chocolate syrup. Use a candy cane for a swizzle stick.
Scads of great, unusual, or unexpected pairs have recorded this Frank Loesser classic, but I found this one surprisingly satisfying. Snuggle up for a sexy little rendition of Baby, It's Cold Outside, featuring Ann-Margaret's flirty little baby-doll style teamed with Al Hirt's wolvishly suave deep-voiced delivery. Add a bit of that notable New Orleans trumpet and we have a winner.