I remember every detail of my abuela's hot chocolate. The way she made it with fresh ginger, using local dark chocolate, and served it in a particular blue mug. The memory of sitting there in the Dominican Republic, the breeze coming off the sea, surrounded by the voices of the strong women in my family, is something I will cherish forever.
From those beginnings, hot chocolate has grown to be something of a fascination for me, and over the past five years I've been seeking out the best hot chocolate and keeping a diary of my travels online at ultimatehotchocolate.com.
Why hot chocolate? Each has a story to tell about the origin of the chocolate used and who the maker was. At Soma in Toronto or CacaoDada in Seoul you can taste single-origin hot chocolates while watching them craft chocolate from bean to bar. You can sprinkle in spices or herbs depending on your mood and location, liquorice in Helsinki, rosewater with camel milk in Dubai or cardamom in London. In Columbia it's served with a piece of oozy cheese; in New York, a homemade marshmallow. I've had hot chocolate with cream infused with lavender in France, and even topped with cotton candy.
These drinks give me a chance to delve into the culture of the cities and cafés I'm visiting, to discover local approaches and flavour profiles, learning more about the people who make them. I discovered champurrado, a prehistoric hot chocolate, after speaking with a young man who promised to take me to "the best tamales in Mexico City". The tamales at his family's restaurant were good, but the champurrado was even better. He showed me how to make it, with chocolate from Oaxaca, corn masa, cinnamon and, most importantly, time. Make it slowly, never in a rush – the same way you should enjoy it.
But above all what I love about hot chocolate is the experience it provides when it all comes together in one perfect package. The hot chocolate on the 103rd floor of the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong made me feel like I was in Paris at Christmas and the one at Café de Flor in Paris made me feel like I was in love. The dangerously boozy one I had in Paraty in Brazil turned me into a singer while the lavender white hot chocolate at Fika in Toronto was like a perfect snowy winter day, minus the frostbite.
There are days when my body craves the chilli hot chocolate at Steven ter Horst in Adelaide, and I fear I'd overdose on Campfire hot chocolate at Mork in Melbourne if I lived there. I've had hot chocolates in 55 countries and written about more than 450 of them, and my search for the ultimate hot chocolate continues. But my favourite is still my abuela's, the one that started it all. There's nothing quite like it anywhere.
Giselle's hot chocolate recipe
This is the base recipe I use every day. A good hot chocolate starts with good chocolate. I prefer 72% but you can go darker or even use milk or white chocolate. My favourite is Guittard, from a family-owned company in the US, which I can't get here. In Australia I've been using Callebaut and Valrhona, but would rather find something local.
In terms of ready-made powders I'm a fan of Grounded Pleasures from Ballarat. Mork makes a nice dark cocoa, and Monsieur Truffe in Melbourne does a little hot chocolate kit with chocolate chips. I also melt down bars from Bahen and Co (a WA bean-to-bar company) but that makes for expensive hot chocolate.
I also add herbs and spices. A handful of fresh mint leaves, cardamom, grated ginger or even thyme are some of my favourites. For even more flavour, steep the herbs or spices in the milk in the fridge overnight. I use about a teaspoon of dried spice, or a small handful of fresh herbs.
I like to add a tablespoon of cocoa to this recipe below to make the drink creamier. If you're using a really good chocolate, though, just let the chocolate shine on its own.
50gm dark chocolate for every 250ml full-cream milk
1 Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan and warm them slowly over low-to-medium heat to 80°C. Don't let the mixture boil.
2 If you've added any spices you may want to put your hot chocolate through a sieve to filter them out.
3 Use a whisk to froth up your hot chocolate when it's done. Top with boozy whipped cream for an extra treat.