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Winter Has a Dark Side: What Luck

February 26, 2003, New York Times.

IF ever there was a season for hot chocolate, it has been this one. At its best, a cup of hot chocolate is the ultimate deep-winter pick-me-up, an almost mystical blend of bittersweet chocolate intensity and creaminess. And at its worst . . . well, it's still a cup of hot chocolate.

This queen of cold-weather comfort elixirs seems to be everywhere these days. At Craftbar on East 19th Street, the hot chocolate comes infused with cardamom. At Otto in Greenwich Village, it's cut with hazelnut, a ruff of whipped cream peeking from the top of the mug. At the Gramercy Tavern on East 20th Street, it's an R-rated affair, spiked with peppermint liqueur. And at Beppe in the Flatiron district, Cesare Casella, the chef, sends his lunch patrons back to their offices after a little glass of hot chocolate flavored with cinnamon, black pepper and a pinch of salt.

There's hot chocolate at Blue Fin in Times Square, and at Nougatine off Central Park. That fellow at Rockefeller Center, sipping from a paper cup? He's drinking Swiss Miss from the deli down the street, and enjoying every sip.

Given the seasonal ubiquity of hot chocolate, it's surprising that so many unanswered questions surround it. For instance, what's the difference between hot chocolate and hot cocoa? And who invented hot chocolate? Should it be made with milk and cream, or just water? And what's with all the spices people add to it?

First, a little hot chocolate history. The cocoa tree — from whose seeds, called beans, chocolate is made — is native to the tropical Americas. Ground cocoa beans, which were mixed with cold water and spices, arrived in Europe in 1528, when Hernando Cortés took them back to Spain from Mexico; he had seen the Aztecs drinking chocolate, as they had for centuries. Flavored with vanilla and hot peppers, this drink forms the basis for the Mexican hot chocolate available today in Mexican restaurants all over the city (generally sweetened with sugar and cinnamon).

In the aftermath of Cortés's discovery, sweetened chocolate boiled in mulled wine became the favored court drink of Charles V, king of Spain, and since Charles was also the Duke of Burgundy and the Holy Roman Emperor, it spread throughout the Western world. The British added milk to the mixture in the early 18th century.

Cocoa powder is different from chocolate, though they come from the same source: ground cocoa beans. For chocolate, the beans are roasted, softened into a paste and mixed with cane sugar. For cocoa, using a process developed in 1828 by a Dutchman named Conrad Van Houten, the beans are pulverized and the cocoa butter is extracted, leaving the powder, which contains much less fat and much less acidity than chocolate itself. Cocoa powder mixes easily with milk and sugar and is as easily digested; hot cocoa mixed with milk, or sometimes with water, was a favorite children's drink as early as the mid-19th century.

Shaved chocolate mixed with heavy cream, however, was a decidedly adult confection, one that reached its premodern apogee at the beginning of the last century, in Paris. It was there, in 1903, near the Tuileries outdoor skating rink on the Rue de Rivoli, that Antoine Rumpelmayer opened Rumpelmayer, later to become the legendary Café Angelina, named after his daughter-in-law. Rumpelmayer's chocolat l'africain, which took its name from the origin of the beans, was an intense chocolaty brew, rich and only barely sweet. It was served in a steaming pot with a bowl of whipped cream on the side. Marcel Proust and Coco Chanel were dedicated fans.

The Rumpelmayer name became synonymous with hot chocolate in New York when a Rumpelmayer's opened in the St. Moritz hotel on Central Park South around 1930, serving melted Swiss chocolate bars cut with hot milk in metal pitchers with a ramekin of whipped cream on the side.

Rumpelmayer's enjoyed a long run at the center of New York's hot-chocolate universe, but it closed several years ago — more a victim of age and exhaustion than of a nation's changing tastes. Serendipity 3, on East 60th Street, with its vaunted frozen hot chocolate desserts, sought to fill the void.

But it was an unemployed television producer named Maury Rubin who would really save the day, by opening City Bakery in 1990, in a storefront opposite Union Square Park. Mr. Rubin, who had left a job with the sportscaster Howard Cosell to learn the sweet-tooth trade, developed a hot chocolate of such incredibly creamy richness and flavor as to challenge anything the Holy Roman Emperor could have loved. The menu listed 14 other items; the hot chocolate was the draw.

Mr. Rubin's hot chocolate, then as now, is an arteriosclerotically thick, delightfully rich concoction that is far more complex and yet homier and more American than anything served at Café Angelina or Rumpelmayer's (restaurants Mr. Rubin claims never even to have visited.) Mr. Rubin has never divulged the recipe, but when pressed he will admit to using three kinds of chocolate, milk, cream and one other, unnamed, ingredient.

Not helpful.

But what is no mystery is the effect Mr. Rubin's hot chocolate had on the city's hot chocolate landscape. He opened the floodgates for the sea of serious hot chocolate contenders that exist in New York today.

Some stalwarts, of course, still maintain the old Café Angelina tradition. Indeed, when Maribel Lieberman opened Mariebelle in SoHo in 2000, she was planning to serve Angelina chocolate, still made in France. But when a problem arose in importing it, she decided to create her own hot chocolate recipe, inspired, of course, by the original. Ms. Lieberman uses Callebaut chocolate, whole dry milk and a tad of cornstarch. Her confection comes in regular, dark, mocha and spicy flavors, the last flavored with ancho and chipotle peppers, cinnamon and nutmeg. And unless otherwise requested, she makes it with water.

"When you make it with water you really taste the chocolate," she said. "When I make it with milk, I find the fat in the milk actually cuts the intense chocolate flavor."

After tasting both versions, I am surprised to say that I agree with her, though the water doesn't give you the same velvety consistency of Mr. Rubin's hot chocolate.

But beyond the European tradition, there are many others.

At Kitchen, a Mexican food shop and takeout place in Chelsea, the owner, Dona Abramson, makes satisfying, child-friendly hot chocolate from Ibarra chocolate, which has cinnamon in it, and steamed milk. She leaves the chili peppers out. It's much sweeter than any of the serious Mexican-inspired hot chocolates around town. In fact, without the cinnamon, it would taste very American.

In Brooklyn, the famed chocolatier Jacques Torres combines European richness with Mexican verve. "When I decided to get into hot chocolate I went to Oaxaca and watched all this chocolate being made," he said. "They were using dark chocolate and cinnamon and ancho chilies." Mr. Torres now makes two kinds of hot chocolate — one inspired by Mexico, with cinnamon, chipotle and ancho chilies, and one decidedly French, with no spices at all.

Still, the best hot chocolate is often the one you have when you need it most. I drank my most satisfying cup in a hut 30 miles outside Quebec. I had just driven a dog sled for two hours through snowy woods in temperatures well below zero. I'm sure the mixture had come out of a packet; it was made from cheap cocoa powder and lots of sugar. But it went down as satisfyingly as any of the fancy-pants hot chocolates mentioned above and in the accompanying listing. Chocolate is like that. It's never a fair-weather friend.

Cup a Day Keeps Cold Away

SINCE the onset of winter I have kept warm with at least one cup of hot chocolate a day. Here's a list of my current favorites.

The hot chocolate that Maribel Lieberman serves for $3 to $6.75 at MARIEBELLE is so intensely flavored that most customers take it only in demitasse cups. Ms. Lieberman makes her brew with hot water instead of milk, a practice that proved to be right on the money even when I made it at home using the mix she sells in gorgeous tins. 484 Broome Street (West Broadway); (212) 925-6999.

Jacques Torres of JACQUES TORRES CHOCOLATE in Brooklyn also sells tins of hot chocolate mix, in which he uses a slightly less full-flavored chocolate than Ms. Lieberman. He makes up for it by brewing the chocolate he sells in his shop with milk instead of water and serving it in full-size cups ($2.50). A delightfully spicy quasi-Mexican version is also available. 66 Water Street, Brooklyn; (718) 875-9772.

At the LUNCHBOX FOOD COMPANY , Shawn Glenn, the chef, makes a lovely Mexican-influenced cup with Guittard chocolate shavings, cinnamon, milk and cream ($2.75). Mr. Glenn says it's the same hot chocolate he makes for his children at home. (Nice to have a chef for a dad.) 357 West Street (Clarkson Street); (646) 230-9466.

Thirteen years after he introduced the city's first designer hot chocolate at CITY BAKERY , Maury Rubin continues to make a sublime cup of molten chocolate lava ($3), at 10 ounces one of the city's most difficult to finish. Savvy City Bakery customers know he also sells a demitasse portion for $1, the best serious hot chocolate buy in the city. (It's best to tell the person at the counter to skip the shake of cocoa powder used as garnish. The chocolate doesn't need it.) 3 West 18th Street; (212) 366-1414.

The Italians are generally not known for their hot chocolate prowess, but OTTO'S pastry chef, Meredith Kurtzman, makes a wondrous mug, with infused hazelnut and a dollop of whipped cream on top ($5). It's the ultimate Baci kiss. 1 Fifth Avenue (Eighth Street); (212) 995-9559.

Scott Campbell, the chef and owner of @SQC , says he dares customers to finish the 14 ounces of insanely rich melted Valrhona chocolate he serves under the hot chocolate label ($4). The dollop of whipped cream he places on top is not nearly big enough to leaven the intensity. 270 Columbus Avenue (72nd Street); (212) 579-0100.

I've come to realize that the hot chocolate served at FIVE POINTS in NoHo is not a beverage or even a dessert. It's a meal. Marc Meyer, the chef, starts with a standard Ibarra brand Mexican hot chocolate mix and adds to it a ganache made from Belgian dark chocolate. This yields a perfect cross-cultural hot chocolate -- cinnamony and rich and just chocolaty enough ($8). Dip in one of the freshly fried churros, or Mexican crullers, that accompany the mug, and forget about eating again that day. 31 Great Jones Street (Bowery); (212) 253-5700.

Finally, sitting in the elegant bar under the red and yellow circus tarps and trapeze ladders that dot the ceiling at OSTERIA DEL CIRCO , I had an over-the-top hot chocolate ($6.50) created by the pastry chef, David Gomez, with bittersweet chocolate, cream, sugar and egg yolk, served with a glass ramekin of whipped cream on the side. 120 West 55th Street; (212) 265-3636. ED LEVINE


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