One crisp autumn day this year I decided to lounge in the hammock in my woodsy backyard. I got to unwind under the trees and take in the gentle senses of a sunny but cool late fall day. It was that time of year when I could see the steam of my breath on the breeze. As the sun set, a chill caressed my skin. Solstice is soon upon us. My inner time goddess takes note of the seasonal passage and makes her declaration: It is time for hot chocolate.
I am reminded of my Mexican Abuelita’s hot chocolate and I find myself contemplating a memory…
I remember being a young mother in my early 20s, in my first apartment, trying to recreate my Mexican grandmother’s special hot chocolate. My results were rich, and warm, and comforting, but always something was missing. For some reason, I could never get it just right. I wished I could call and ask her, but although I visited her often in my healing work in other realms, she was no longer with us in the physical one. Maybe she did hear me ask, though, and sent me the answer in a mysterious way because, little did I know at the time, one day I would visit her kitchen on an aromatic breeze.
Many years later as an herbal student I had an aroma-induced memory epiphany. We were learning about cinnamon that day, and it was the first time I realized that there were different types of cinnamon. I sat there in class and tasted a sample of cinnamon that was everyday familiar. Cassia was what it was called, and it was firm and strong, bold and spicy. Next, I came upon the sample labeled TRUE cinnamon. As the sweet waft of the gentle cinnamon volatiles stimulated my olfactory senses, suddenly, right there in the middle of class, I was carried back in time. I stepped through a portal and found myself in my Abuelita’s Mexican kitchen. I could see the bright colors of her walls and the lively décor in shades of turquoise and yellow, red and orange. In the background I could hear her voice and the chocolatera (chocolate pitcher) steaming on the stove as she whisked away at her hot chocolate with her molinillo (wooden whisk). Most of all, I could smell her cinnamon. True cinnamon.
True cinnamon was the cinnamon of my Abuelita’s hot chocolate! At that moment I realized that all these years my hot chocolate never compared to hers because I had been using the wrong type of cinnamon. While the cinnamon popular in the United States is cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), the cinnamon favored in Mexico is true cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum). Compared to bold, spicy cassia, true cinnamon is delicate and aromatic, lighter and flakier. True cinnamon is just divine.
Cassia and true cinnamon can be distinguished not only by their aromatics, but also by the way their cinnamon sticks or quills are rolled up. A cassia stick is usually only one or two layers of inner bark which are thick, woody, and firm. It is difficult to break a cassia quill with your bare hands. True cinnamon quills, however, are composed of many paper-thin sheets of inner bark curled up on each other. They are fragile and easy to shred with your fingers.
The sense of smell and memory are so deeply intertwined. I am sure everyone can point to an instance where they were transported back in time on a breeze of aromatics. I am so grateful that I got to spend time with my Abuelita in her kitchen that day, and that in those magical moments she was able to share her secret special ingredient with me. Now I can make her lovely hot chocolate and share it with my friends and family for the holidays.
Chocolate de Mesa
Makes 4 four-inch disc tablets
Hot chocolate in Mexico always begins with Chocolate de Mesa or Mexican table chocolate. Table chocolate is made in big batches and formed into disc-like tablets that can be stored for many months. Ingredients such as toasted cacao nibs, roasted almonds, and true cinnamon form the basis of the recipes, which Mexican families have passed down through the generations. Other spices like chili, ginger, or nutmeg are often added, and rose petals or orange peel can add a flare. Table chocolate discs are fun to make, and they can be unique gifts from the heart. Mexican hot chocolate is a nourishing drink steeped in indigenous tradition. I am profoundly humbled to share my authentic Mexican hot chocolate recipe. First, we make the Chocolate de Mesa. Then using this, we make Mexican Hot Chocolate.
- 4 Tbsp. whole raw almonds (if you prefer to omit the nuts consider a maca powder or powdered oats)
- 2 ½ cups roasted organic cacao nibs
- 2 4-inch organic true cinnamon quills (sticks)
- 1/2 tsp. organic nutmeg powder
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 pinch fine sea salt
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- Warm water
- Organic true cinnamon powder and organic nutmeg powder for dusting
- Lightly roast whole almonds in a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until golden (about four minutes).
- Place almonds in a blender or food processor and process until finely ground. Pour into a large bowl and set aside.
- Roast cacao nibs in the iron skillet over medium high, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until dark and slightly shiny (about four minutes). Set aside.
- Shred cinnamon in blender or food processor until finely powdered.
- Add toasted cacao nibs to blender or food processor with cinnamon, and process to a course powder, carefully taking breaks to scrape up the bottom and keep the blend stirred. Add to roasted almond meal in bowl.
- Add nutmeg, sugar, and sea salt to the bowl and mix together. Keep mixing until ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. The mix should be course like ground coffee.
- Add vanilla extract and tablespoons of warm water one at a time, working the mix with your hands until it becomes moldable. You may need to add up to 3 or 4 tablespoons of warm water.
- Once the mix is moldable, pack firmly into shallow, round ceramic or plastic candy molds. Use a frosting spatula or flat end of a butter knife to smooth out the top and remove any excess mix until the top is smooth and flush with the mold edges. Alternatively, you can hand-shape the tablets.
- Dust the tops with cinnamon and nutmeg powders, and press into the surface.
- Use the spatula to score lines into quarter portions onto the surface.
- Let the molds rest on a counter for 4 hours so the discs can set up. Then use the spatula to carefully work them out of the molds.
- Wrap the discs individually in tissue paper or parchment. Once they are completely dry and brittle to the touch, seal in a container and store for up to 6 months in the refrigerator.
The discs can be used to make Mexican hot chocolate, or they can be nibbled on as a fun treat.
Mimi’s Mexican Hot Chocolate
Each quarter segment of Chocolate de Mesa is enough to make 1 1/2 cups of Mexican Hot Chocolate.
For a big batch of hot chocolate
Makes 6 cups of hot chocolate
- 1 Chocolate de Mesa disc
- 6 cups milk or milk alternative
- Crumble an entire disc of Chocolate de Mesa into a saucepan with six cups of milk, almond milk, or coconut milk.
- Whisk frequently over medium heat until the disc dissolves completely and the hot chocolate begins to steam. Let the chocolate and cinnamon flavors steep into the milk as long as possible without scorching or simmering the milk.
- Whisk the hot chocolate until frothy.
- Pour into mugs.
- There will be some grit from the nibs and almonds that add texture and flavor. If you prefer a smooth beverage, run the hot chocolate through a strainer.
- My Mom is Colombian and they pour hot chocolate over a cheese cube. This is how I like to drink it!
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