Friday, December 12, 2008

Hot Chocolate--A Microanalysis

In his excellent book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, author Barry Schwartz relays the idea of two distinct personality types with regard to consumer activity--maximizers and satisficers.

A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. (This last paragraph is lifted from the Wikipedia page about the book).

As you may have already deduced, I am a maximizer, especially with regard to food. I have the compulsion to ensure that whatever I'm cooking or eating is the best possible incarnation of that thing that can be had for the money I'm willing to spend and the time/effort I'm willing to put in.

Working as a chef for a dozen or so years has only served to increase that tendency. After working somewhere that bakes 20 dozen chocolate chip cookies every day, and spending hours of my week walking by said cookies right as they come out of the oven, having multiple opportunities to eat them free of charge while they are at their most perfect state, gooey and still warm from the oven, how can I possibly be expected to eat a three day old cookie? Especially when the person who made that cookie probably didn't compare thirteen different types of chips and work on the recipe for weeks before settling on The One.

Same with bread. Restaurants get fresh artisan-quality bread delivered daily. It's around all the time, readily available, cut up and ready to be slathered with delicious house-made garlic-herb butter. I almost never eat bread that hasn't been baked that day. I'm spoiled for bread.

Recently, since I have a three year old son and we're doing various outdoor winter activities, I've started making hot chocolate for us to have when we come inside. I don't think I really ever had hot chocolate before, at least since I was a kid. I kind of always looked at it the same as tea--it's a hot beverage, but it's not coffee? So what's the point? Does it have caffeine? No? Ok, then...I'll stick with my coffee.

So, for my first taste of hot chocolate, I just had whatever we happened to have in the house, which was Safeway Select hot cocoa mix from Jewel. It was bleh. Not bad, mind you, just not the blast of chocolately, creamy goodness, the intensely thick and rich cup that I envisioned that hot chocolate *could* be. *Should* be. If I applied myself.

Now, some improvements are easy. My wife made that first batch, and I found out later that she used water, not milk. So for batch #2, I used milk. Skim. Which is what we had around. Not much of an improvement.

Next try, I used half and half. Much better. A marked difference. Now we were getting somewhere. We also had some whipped cream that someone brought over (the kind that comes out of a can), which we happily discovered melted nicely into the hot chocolate, improving the texture dramatically. I took note. Whipped cream needs to go on top of the idealized version of hot chocolate that I was now officially seeking.

But the flavor provided by the Safeway select stuff was lacking. It had that distinctly powdery flavor that you get from using cocoa powder rather than actual chocolate. It was also very difficult to get fully dissolved into the hot milk, even when I whisked it in a pan on the stovetop, making a thick paste at first and then diluting with more hot milk. No matter how much I tried, it would always have those dark globs of the hot cocoa mix floating around in the cup. Bleh.

As luck would have it, reinforcements were on the way. I had mentioned my quest for the perfect hot chocolate to my equally-maximizer-minded father, and the next time he dropped by, he graced us with a canister of ridiculously expensive Williams-Sonoma hot chocolate mix. Now, this is more like it, I thought as I checked the ingredients--bittersweet Guittard chocolate, soy lecithin (a very commonly used emulsifier) and pure vanilla. Better yet, this mix wasn't a powder at all, but consisted of little curls of actual shaved chocolate.

The package calls for a shamefully decadent five tablespoons of these micro chocolate shavings for each 8 oz. serving, which means that the entire twenty dollar canister makes eight servings. For the mathematically-challenged, that's $2.50 per cup just for the mix. Once you add in the milk, cream, and/or marshmallows, you're talking upwards of three bucks for a cup of hot chocolate that you make yourself. So this stuff had better be damn good.

It was. It melted almost instantly into the hot half and half and yielded a very smooth, rich, creamy finished product. It lacked that 'powdery' flavor that I noted above, and delivered a wonderfully velvety feel. And it tasted good. Chocolatey. But it didn't give me that 'smack-me-in-the-face' hot fudge flavor that I was dreaming about.

So my quest must continue.

I'm thinking what I need to do is simply buy some good quality chocolate--I'm a big fan of Lindt--and use my microplane to create shavings similar to the WS mix. Better quality chocolate, especially if I use chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa, should result in a stronger chocolate flavor.

I'm also interested in trying to do a Mexican-style hot chocolate, using the abuelita tablets (or similar products) that you can find in the Hispanic foods section of most grocery stores. This is basically chocolate with cinnamon and sometimes ground almonds added. Even the mainstream brand (which is made by multinational food mega corp Nestle) contains only basic ingredients like sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, emulsifiers, and flavorings, so if I hunt around for some more artisanal brands, I should be able to find something pretty darn good.

So, the quest continues. My maximizing urges will not permit me to settle for packets of Swiss Miss or spoonfuls of Quik. I will view each and every post-winter-fun mugful as an opportunity to improve my recipes and techniques until the ultimate hot chocolate formula is achieved.

I know...I'm nuts. Believe me, my the eye rolls I get from my wife as I arrive home from the Mexican market with a pack of Moctezuma tablets or the bemused eyebrow raises I receive as I peruse the internet for some fancy French hot chocolate mix ensure that message comes through loud and clear. But...there are worse things to spend one's time and energy doing. And, look! There are people out there as crazy--perhaps even crazier--than I am!

I'll keep you all posted on my progress. And, in the meantime, I should probably start a concurrent obsessive search into the world of fancy gourmet marshmallows. (Actually, I'd probably just be better off making my own.)


Sue said...

Try the cocoa recipe on the Hershey's plain cocoa can. With whole milk, it's way yummy.

James said...

Yes the quality chocolate and microplane stirred into warm milk - is the supreme taste. I discovered it earlier in the year. I actually resorted to putting valrhona choclate into the mini proccessor. A mocha-chino? espresso in the chocolate? And what about a caramel chocolate - add dulce de leche in with the chocolate (dentists look away now).