Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
There is nothing that makes me crabbier than the journey to the subway the morning after a blizzard: shuffling through snowdrifts, clambering over snow-plowed mountains, and sloshing through puddles of icy water. By the time I make a round trip, I arrive home both freezing and sweating, out of breath and clamoring for something to make me feel better.
The solution to these exasperating winter days is always hot chocolate. Caloric and caffeinated, hot and sweet, it sets you right in an instant. And you can do better than just plain chocolate flavor — how about how about vanilla rose, Earl Gray, or chili spiced?
These flavors sound avant garde, but they’re actually inspired by chocolate’s history. Chocolate was first consumed in liquid form in ancient Mesoamerica. Cocoa pods were harvested and fermented; then, the seeds were roasted and ground with a metate, a stone grinding tool also used to process corn. After being mixed with water, the chocolate was served hot or cold with added flavorings like vanilla beans, ground chili, honey, or a spicy tree-flower that had a taste similar to black pepper and nutmeg. Barely processed and only occasionally sweetened, the hot chocolate of the Maya and the Aztecs sounded so different than our modern drink that I was inspired to try making it myself.
I started by buying raw cacao beans online; they’re a popular health food snack that contain high amounts of magnesium and good fats. I used my toaster and my food processor to speed up the process and added a whole vanilla bean for flavor. I added my powdered chocolate to cup of boiling water with a bit of honey.
In both Maya and Aztec art there are depictions of elegant women pouring liquid chocolate between two vessels, one on the ground and one held at chest height. Pouring the chocolate back and forth aerates and froths the drink as it falls through space, like the waterfall in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. A thick head of froth was seen as the sign of a fine cup of chocolate. The method seemed simple enough, so I placed one bowl on the kitchen tile, held one in the air, and gently poured. Chocolate spattered all over my floor.
After cleaning up my mess, I decided to test out the Spanish method for frothing chocolate: a molinillo. After the Conquistadors pressed their way through Central America in the 16th century, they began exporting New World goods to Europe, like chocolate. The drink became very trendy back in Spain amongst the noble class, who added a lot of sugar, which is similar to hot chocolate today. They also used spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, which we now know as Mexican hot chocolate.
The Spanish invented all sorts of accessories to serve chocolate, which made their way back to Mexico, like wood-handled chocolate pots, silver serving cups, and carved wooden molinillos. The molinillo handle was held in the palms and spun, and the bulbous head frothed the chocolate.
Even after the Spanish, chocolate still had a long way to go before it became our modern drink. In the 19th century, mechanized processes separated the cacao from the cacao fats, making a less greasy chocolate; dairy was also added to mediate chocolate’s natural bitterness. So I was apprehensive when it was time to taste my ancient drink.
My first sip was shockingly bitter and acidic, even with the added honey and vanilla. But the more I sipped, I realized I didn’t like it at first because it was different than my expectation of what hot chocolate should taste like. The sour drink was more like coffee, an acquired taste. The more I drank it, the more I liked it. After six sips, I found the flavor complex and satisfying, and I felt invigorated.
I cradled my cup and looked outside. Suddenly, the winter snow was beautiful again.