The first European to consume chocolate was probably Columbus on his fourth trip, in 1502, anchored off the Central American shore. He was unimpressed. Cortés, in 1519, recognized that the Aztec drink, said to have aphrodisiac powers, would be a hip New World import, and brought it back. Chocolate remained a Spanish exclusive until Florentine voyager Antonio Carletti broke the monopoly in the early seventeenth century, when he described the cocoa-making process to the Duke of Tuscany. Chocolate was soon being downed in the same public houses in Florence, Turin, and Venice where coffee, another exotic newcomer, was already the rage.
And it still is. Hot chocolate in Italy is different from the stuff I grew up drinking, that kiddie drink made from milk (if you're lucky) and a powder, topped with a melty marshmallow. Today's Italian version is dark-chocolately, dense (often thickened with a little cornstarch), and topped with unsweetened whipped cream. I looked for a recipe in all my regional cookbooks without success. Then I checked Pellegrino Artusi's Culinary Science and the Art of Eating Well. First published in 1891, a perennial best-seller in more than one hundred editions, Artusi's classic is the Italian Fanny Farmer. My copy of the fifteenth edition (1911) has an entry about hot chocolate. Artusi defends its previous omission, saying that almost everyone knows how to make "chocolate to drink," and then he provides a recipe.
Artusi's hot chocolate is still fantastic, easy, and the best I've ever made. He calls for a special Italian utensil, the cioccolatiera. It's essentially a double boiler, so I use one of those instead. I also recommend a blender or immersion mixer in place of Artusi's whisk. Of course, he and I agree that you should use the finest quality chocolate (I use bittersweet bars from Slitti - but that may be out of the way!). In a pinch the supermarket stuff will do. The result is low sugar, if not low fat - a treat for chocolate lovers of any age.
ARTUSI-INSPIRED HOT CHOCOLATE
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate (use the finest quality available)
1 cup water
2-3 tablespoons unsweetened whipped cream
In the top of a double boiler over boiling water melt 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate in 1 cup of water. Pour into a blender and whip for 30 seconds (or use an emersion mixer). Return mixture to double boiler and heat to desired temperature. Pour into a large cup and top with whipped cream.
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