The word “chocolate” might evoke images of candy bars and desserts to many people, but in Mexico, it will most likely first bring to mind a mug filled to the brim with a steamy and foamy elixir. As I have mentioned before, the cocoa tree was known to ancient pre-Hispanic cultures in Southern Mexico; cocoa beans were so highly appreciated that they were used as currency for trading and tribute payments. The Nahuatl word for the drink was cacahuatl – cacao water, and the Spanish word chocolate (cho-ko-lah-teh) derives at least in part from it, although there are some suggestions that the word might also have influences from Xocóatl – bitter water, or the Mayan chocol – hot. Salvador Novo, Mexico City’s chronicler, quotes Fray Thomas Gage and his book “The English-American, his Travail by Sea and Land: or a New Survey of the West India’s”, published in 1648, describing a fatuous – yet, possibly true – story of how the word came from the Nahuatl word atl – water and the sound “choco-choco-choco” of the thick drink being beaten in a bowl with a wooden utensil, to produce great amounts of foam. The froth was in fact considered by the natives as a very important part of the drink, with spiritual value and curative properties on its own; the plant’s scientific name, Theobroma cacao, from the Greek theos – god and broma – food, originated from the Maya people’s belief that it was a gift from the gods.
The frothy cocoa beverage was originally introduced in Europe as a special beverage drank in the New World by the elite, prepared with hot water, ground cocoa beans, and add-ins such as ground maize, vanilla, annatto and chili peppers. During colonial times in Mexico, many cooks – notably nuns, in convents – started to modify the beverage, preparing it with sugar and other flavourings, such as cinnamon, and substituting milk for some of the water. Throughout all these times, the hot beverage was often prescribed to keep ailments at bay, and today, chocolate is widely recognized for its healthy effects. In Mexico, hot chocolate continues to be a traditional choice to serve with sweet breads or tamales, for breakfast or as a light supper.
The process to prepare cocoa products for consumption involves several steps. After harvesting the fruits of the cacao tree, they are cut in half to extract the pulp and seeds; the empty shells are chopped and left on the rainforest floor, where they will serve as compost. The seeds with the pulp around them are allowed to ferment; after several days, the putrescent pulp is air-dried for a few more days, and then removed. The clean seeds are roasted (or steamed) and ground. From there, the resulting cocoa paste may be used indeed to prepare solid treats, or separated into cocoa, cocoa butter, etc. For the traditional hot chocolate drink, the paste is cooked in boiling water with a sweetener, and add-ins. To produce more foam, there is a utensil called “molinillo” (“small mill”, for nice photos click here), a wooden beater, carved so that it has a wider bottom, and some rings, also carved from the original piece of wood, that are completely free to spin as the tool is turned by hand, while standing vertically immersed in the hot chocolate, to produce as much froth as possible.
Nowadays, hot chocolate powder is produced commercially, as well as tablets, which already include sugar and oftentimes, cinnamon. Some are “instant powders”, meaning that they promptly dissolve in any liquid, but the bricks and tablets are meant to be dissolved in boiling water or milk, and then beaten in the pot with a molinillo, or mixed in the blender before serving.
Mexican Hot Chocolate – Chocolate
Ingredients (amounts for 16 fl. Oz – 500 ml – 2 cups)
2 2/3 oz (approximately 80 g) Mexican chocolate; from tablets (for reduced sugar,use 2 oz of 70% cocoa baking chocolate squares)
1 cup water
1 cup hot milk (or hot water)
Optional add-ins: cinnamon, vanilla extract, annatto powder, etc.
Bring water to boil, add chocolate and stir until fully dissolved. Incorporate milk (or hot water) and add-ins, then beat (by transferring into a blender, or by hand with a whisk or a molinillo) until very frothy. Pour in a mug (or jarrito) and serve immediately:
I had Ibarra™ chocolate tablets (photo below, left), with the instructions to “mix ¼ tablet (22g) with 1 cup (8 fl oz) of hot milk” but that was obviously wrong, since the tablets were 60g each (1/4 would be 15g), and in the form of discs marked into six triangular sections (not four). On the other hand, my husband finds Mexican chocolate tablets too sweet altogether; we have found that using Baker’s™ 70%-chocolate squares (photo below, right) works better for his taste:
After a couple of trial and error batches, I settled for 4 sections (1.3 oz – 40 g) per cup of liquid for Ibarra™ chocolate, to my taste; for my husband, four squares (1 oz – 30 g) of Baker’s™ dark chocolate per cup of liquid was appropriate.
For this post, I made a batch with 8 Ibarra triangular sections (approximately 2.6 oz or 80 g) and two cups of liquid. I always prefer to dissolve the chocolate in water, which forms lots of bubbles when boiling, and dissolves the granulated sugar in the chocolate tablets very nicely; there is even an expression in Mexico, “estar como agua para chocolate”– “to be like water for chocolate” when someone is so angry they feel hot and sort of “gurgling with ire” (scary allegory):
After the tablets are completely dissolved, I add milk, already hot, so the mix keeps bubbling nicely. I do not have a molinillo, but to illustrate the technique, I twirled a wooden spoon between the palms of my hands, to produce some froth (see photo). It is time to add the extras; Mexican tablets usually have cinnamon already, so I only added ½ tsp vanilla.
At this point, if a molinillo is not available, many people transfer the mix to a blender jar and process at high speed to produce foam; others use a regular whisk, and beat by hand; I always use my immersion blender, which works beautifully as an “electric molinillo”:
For this batch, I poured the hot chocolate into a measuring cup to see how much liquid I had at the end of the process, then took advantage of this extra step, and poured the chocolate from a certain height into my jarrito (clay mug), to produce even more foam (a technique used by the Aztecs.) I got almost exactly two cups, which filled my mug, with just a tiny extra for a refill (yummy!), so I would recommend this recipe as a generous single serving:
I got a little curious about adding annatto to my hot chocolate, after writing about it in a previous post, so I mixed three tablespoons of water with ½ tsp of annatto powder sprinkled on top, until uniform, and mixed it with half of my hot chocolate. I frothed each half again before pouring into white bowls, to see the difference more clearly:
The colour was definitely more intense, and copper-like, for the annatto add-in bowl (on the right); I would not say that there was an eruption of great flavour, although it seemed more pleasant with the annatto, for some reason. After pondering for a while, I thought the main difference was the froth; not so much the bubble size, but the thickness; the fine annatto particles dispersed in the liquid would tend to migrate to the surface of the bubbles, making them more stable, and hence, creating a somewhat thicker foam. Mmmmh, colloidal science never tasted so good!