by: Chef Jim Berman
I am simple. I treasure that which holds great significance without pretension. Fussy-less, wrinkle-free, add water and stir. Old denim jackets, well roasted turkey and one comfortable chair that fits my bottom just so. I like to look at the stars without knowing a thing about Orion or Vega. Crisp mornings, crunchy leaves and nowhere to go. Pocket-sized novels, earmarked for the tenth time. Well-worn brown leather shoes with but a trace of the lining left for the wear.
There is a lot to be said for complexity, rich knowledge and the dynamics of everyday life. But it is just that; everyday life. Sometime a vacation from yesterday, or time away from the kids, or moment of solace from the rat race can be found in the remotest of places. In James Joyce's
Dubliners there is great comfort in a plate of simply prepared Peas. In Robbins' Jitterbug Juice the Beet is elevated to immortality. There is succor in the familiarly simple. When the mesh of life unravels, it is with a size 15 knitting needle and a ball of delicate yarn that we weave it back together. Sometimes, in order to appreciate a bowl of peas or a serious little beet, we must forgo the pretension of everything that is around us and focus on the road in front of us rather than the whole trip. It's the trip, not the destination we are told. After all, whoever wins the rat race is still just a rat in the end.
Dealing with food, day in and day out, brings an appreciation for details, calculated moves and an acute perspective for the details. There is worth in the economical movement of multitasking with fire-lit pans in hand, juggling knives, absentee prep cooks and getting the frozen food safely stashed in the freezer all while keeping an eye on dollars and cents. Great works of art are often just that, great, as a result of their complex movement, motif and metaphor. Degauss' ballet dancers, Wyeth's Yellow Dog and Matisse's collages typify the complexity of fine art. There are cerebral and visceral connections to multifarious works. Intricacy is the workbench of an astute learner. It is the knowledge of what is, exactly, happening that makes for such an appreciation of all that is complex. Is there always wisdom in complex food? Is there more to elaborate and intricate food? It is wisdom that can be found in the simple, sublime and understated. Knowledge is looking in at that is seen and asking 'what?' while wisdom comes from peering out from what can not been seen and asking 'why?'
For me, that simplicity, that knowledge, that release, that 'ahhhhh' can be found in the eyelash moon that hangs on for just one more night before disappearing into oblivion. Or the icy cold air that blows in off the river, up the road and across the yard to make the leafless trees sway like a conductors hands. Or the sweet love that trickles off your lips from the first sip of hot chocolate so rich you can feel the passion run all the way down the back of your throat and coat your soul like a down coat made from Wonka's own golden geese. The pillowy mound of opulent whipped cream, firm and perky afloat on a warm, chocolate sea. An oasis for the taxed soul; the only innocent love that can be found with two hands wrapped around an oversized mug. Hot and steamy, rich and creamy, yours for the taking.
Ease into it. Sip by gentle sip. Is it alright if I taste here? How about a lick of the cream from over here? What about a great big slurp or is that getting things going too fast? What do you say about going all the way and taking a big, hot swallow? Does your heart beat faster with each sip? Does the cream coat the little crevices in the corner of your sullen frown? Or does the chocolate gush around your lips into the chasm just under your tongue before it is swallowed? Does your smile curl up around chocolate glistening on your top lip? If you Hot Chocolate paramour got lost, it is due time to rekindle the love.
There is very little right with instant hot chocolate. There is no fire-breathing, red-bellied, god-fearing soul to it. Ain't got no soul, ain't got no love. Plain as that. I'm all for shortcuts. I am. Seriously. I use time saving tools, back roads and express lanes. Wholehearted endorsements for phone ahead seating, on-line movie tickets and pre-mixed grout. But, I must simply draw the line at hot chocolate. If it cannot be done right, ne'er do it.
From the Polar Express it should be the life of the blustery winter, a haven in the snow. Tom Hanks sings and dances about the fulfillment of hot chocolate as a rite of passage to the winding tracks to the wonders of winter. The child's hot toddy.
The real kicker about inspired hot chocolate is that the complex flavor comes from its simple construction. Like a one-piece corset, the utility and appeal comes not from all the frill and lace, but from the treasure that lies inside. Milk, cream, chocolate, sugar and vanilla mixed with a little fire from down below to bring it all together. Of course the 'afterglow' cannot be dismissed. The whipped cream on top comes from the same wardrobe of ingredients, sans the chocolate and milk. To put it all together:
1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips (not the PG-rated, milk chocolate)
1 cup of Heavy Cream
2 cups of whole milk
½ cup of granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon of good vanilla extract
pinch of salt
pinch of cinnamon
Place chocolate in a heavy bottom sauce pot and melt over medium-low heat. Once the chocolate melts, gradually stir in the cream, ½ cup at a time. When the cream is completely incorporated, add the milk, sugar, vanilla salt and cinnamon. Bring to a simmer; a simmer should cause the hot chocolate to quiver with life but not come to hot-tempered boil.
For the whipped cream:
2 cups of Heavy Cream
¼ cup of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon of the same, good vanilla extract
Pour the cream in a meticulously clean bowl, preferably stainless steel. Whip with a large, balloon-style whip until it just starts to loose its liquid state and become something more of a semi-solid. Add the sugar and vanilla. Continue whipping until the cream holds stiff peaks.
Dollop the cream liberally on the warm love-in-a mug. You can sprinkle with cinnamon or get fancy with a cinnamon stick. Drizzle the cream pillows with a trickle of melted chocolate, or not. Hell, you can spike the whole thing with your favorite Bailey's, Frangelica or Kahlua if you fancy. But, then again, the simple life is the good life.