It’s Valentine’s Day. Time for the obligatory dark chocolate fix. I have just the thing.
I first encountered European-style hot chocolate on a cold July day in St. Petersburg, towards the end of my summer abroad there. Classes were done for the day, and I was wending my way back through downtown towards the dorms. It was the height of the White Nights, and Nevsky Prospekt was choked with tourists. I ducked down a side street, looking for a quiet spot to kill some time before dinner.
After a little wandering, I came across a rather sterile-looking cafe–obviously part of a chain. The decor was spare and oppressively beige, but it seemed inoffensive enough, and there was a long but briskly moving line of customers. I went in and scanned the menu for something warm and familiar-sounding. Bingo: горячий шоколад. Hot chocolate. I ordered and claimed a seat at the window.
I was expecting a big steaming mug of what we Americans call “hot chocolate,” but is really hot cocoa: light and milky and just the tiniest bit grainy, meant to be consumed in great desperate gulps. Instead, a surly girl in an apron came to my table and plunked down a tiny cup on a tiny saucer with a tiny spoon. In the cup was a thick espresso-colored elixir, quivering like pudding. When I took a sip, the chocolate clung to the rim and to my lips. The flavor was deeper and bolder than any hot cocoa I’d ever had. I sat at the window, lapping chocolate from the side of the cup as slowly as I could, until it was gone. And then I made it my mission to consume as much hot chocolate as possible before the summer ended.
In the years since, I’ve had really good European drinking chocolate only a handful of times, and never cheaply. Recently my friends and I stumbled across a hip new chocolate shop in the Mission district, where I had a barely-espresso-sized cup of drinking chocolate that was perfectly rich, bittersweet and elegant–and cost nearly $6. That spurred me to look for a homemade alternative, and I’m happy to report that European hot chocolate is dead simple to make. All it takes is whole milk, top-quality chocolate (I’m a Scharffen Berger girl, but use whatever you like), and a few focused minutes of whisking. Et voila, a decadent chocolate treat for four–which is especially convenient if, like me, you’re grappling with a Valentine’s Day that snuck up behind you and pounced.
European Hot Chocolate (makes 4 demitasse cups, or 2 small mugs)
Adapted slightly from David Lebovitz
Chop or break 3.5 oz semisweet or dark chocolate (the best you can find) into small pieces. In a medium saucepan, heat 1 1/4 cups whole milk over medium heat until wisps of steam start coming off the surface. Whisk in the chocolate all at once, stirring until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is hot. Let the hot chocolate come to a low boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, whisking constantly, for about 3 minutes, or until it’s thickened to your liking.
Pour the hot chocolate into demitasse (espresso) cups or small coffee cups; if desired, sprinkle a few grains of flaky sea salt on top. Serve warm. You can also let the hot chocolate cool, press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface, and refrigerate for up to 3 days. It’ll get more richly flavored as it sits.
Variation: For a delicious Swedish twist, add a heavy pinch of ground cardamom to the milk as it heats, then serve the finished hot chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream. (Thanks to Veronika for the tip!)