Although we’re in the midst of British summertime, heavenly hot chocolate deserves our year round attention.
This is a subject as dear to me as you are. So as I sit enjoying a truly hot chocolate in London town, my mind wanders back to when my husband proposed over one. Normal engagement scenarios conjure up Champagne and flowers. Not for us. It was a cold December day and there couldn't have been a more fitting tipple. It featured in the wedding speech and we've even set up an inter-family challenge to see who makes the best. Believe me, winter nights are long in the country.
When at home, there are some guidelines to play by if you want a fabulous chocolat chaud:
1) Avoid buying big brand 'drinking chocolate' at all costs. You may as well be consuming sawdust. Instead buy cocoa or dark chocolate (Lindt 85% is my favourite). The pure type that you might bake with is best. Cadbury's Bournville brand is widely available and Green & Blacks also sells it. There's no added sugar in these – cocoa is made by removing the sweet cocoa butter - so you can adjust the sweetness to your taste. Also try Peyton & Byrne’s beautifully packaged hot chocolate for a treat.
2) If you're intent on proper chocolate and don't mind splashing the cash, try Charbonnel et Walker. They say that traditionally hot chocolate was made using only water but admit that most people today like it with milk for a richer texture.
3) Whole milk makes the ultimate hot choc but if you're dairy free just use hot water (they did in the old English chocolate houses). Or if you're watching your weight use semi skimmed instead. I even buy takeaway skinny hot chocs where I know they use the real deal, somehow less fat in the milk makes the bitterness more pronounced.
4) The Europeans do appreciate a better chocolate – the Spanish even have their own accompaniment for it, try cheeringly satisfying ‘churros’, while the French drink it in bowls. The Brits are slowly getting better though, see Willie’s Cacao for inspiration.
5) I remember seeing Jamie's ideal hot chocolate recipe on TV, which featured cornflour to thicken it, give it a try.
6) Use dark brown sugar for extra depth of flavour.
7) As you're at home, serve in a china mug if you have one (I think I'm turning into my mother). It definitely tastes better and the whole ritual feels more decadent. Or make like les francais, go for a bowl a slurp ‘til your sole’s content.
8) Remember, it's all about the paste. Pop two teaspoons of cocoa into your mug, cup or bowl. For a sweet tooth add 2 tsp sugar, not so sweet just add one.Warm your milk until it's steaming hot. Add a couple of tablespoons of said milk to your cocoa and sugar mix, then stir it into a paste so that when you add the rest of the milk there's no cocoa floating waywardly in the top of your cup.
Same paste rules apply for the proper chocolate. Just make sure your milk is hot enough to melt the set chocolate. Fill up half a cup and stir until melted, then add the rest of your milk.
9) If you're looking for sheer indulgence, add whipped double cream/marshmallows/chopped hazelnuts/cinnamon/vanilla, or all of the above and enjoy.
Here's a fussy eating guide to the best UK takeaway hot chocolates. Always happy to hear your views too, this is just from my experiences and you may have another opinion, in which case I'd love to hear from you.
THE HOT CHOCOLATE CHARTS
Leon. Sounds obvious but you can actually taste chocolate, not just the sweet gloop that mass market hot choc can become. It's slightly bitter, not too sugary and when you get to the bottom you can see the melted chocolate. Add that to organic milk and for me it’s major brownie (excuse the pun) points thank you very much. 10/10
Phillpots. This quick stop sandwich chain is in many regional cities and again offers a bitter, not too sweet, dark hot chocolate. Proper job. 8/10
Pret a Manger. Good for using organic milk which is a plus for anyone trying to help out their immune system. Also smaller cups are available if you so wish, unlike Starbucks (tall= small anyone?). 7/10
Starbucks. Good but would be so much better if they ditched even more of the sugar so you could taste more of the chocolate. 6/10
Caffe Nero. Sorry but that sugary powder mix just isn't doing it for me. Good coffees and chai lattes though. 5/10
Not bad on a freezing cold day but too watery so not good either.
Preaching to the converted? Tell me your hot chocolate likes and dislikes and your favourite times to drink it. This is personal.
In another post I may do a 'best places' list for a 'drink in and sit around for a while' hot chocolate. Do tell me your favourite places, UK and worldwide.
More hot chocolate reading here, with a guide of chef's recipes by Felicity Cloake at the Guardian's word of mouth blog.