A hot chocolate investigation worthy of "60 Minutes"

by Bonnie McGrath, guest blogger  




   Since winter started, I have been craving good hot chocolate.  Something I haven't thought about in a long time.  Because whenever I made it from a pedestrian mix or ordered hot chocolate while out at a restaurant in recent years, it always seemed to taste like Ovaltine.  Even when I tried the hot chocolate in various shades and flavors at the very gourmet Bucktown restaurant Hot Chocolate, it tasted funny because it's served  in tall skinny glass "cups"--which just don't do justice to hot chocolate, I don't think.

    I thought I had found a pretty good hot chocolate in December--at Starbucks, of all places.  Every time I'd pass one, I had to go in and order a hot chocolate.  But when I suddenly started asking for a Grande hot chocolate in a Venti cup so there would be room for extra whipped cream, and then a Tall hot chocolate in a Venti cup so there would be even more room for extra whipped cream, I realized I was really only there for the whipped cream.  Which is quite good.

    So I went back to the drawing board.  As did Starbucks;  they suddenly started selling new gourmet hot chocolate flavors in packets to take home: salted caramel, peppermint and toasted marshmallow.  I bought a gift pack wrapped in green ribbon but haven't tried any of them.  The individual serving packets are so thick they scare me!

     Sticking to the spirit of Starbucks, I dropped in at Caribou, which has a trio of choices:  dark, milk and white.  I settled on the milk chocolate flavor, and was quite pleased, but like its coffee cousin Starbucks, I think it was the wonderful pillow of whipped cream on top--and at Caribou it's covered with a layer of teeny chocolate chips, pleasing to both the palate and the eye.

    Next, I bought not only a can of Intelligentsia hot cocoa (because I heard it was supposed to be the best in Chicago), but a can of Ghiradelli, as well, both at Fox & Obel, both of which I had very high hopes for.  But I didn't have much satisfaction with either one.  The Intelligentsia (which came with sugar in it) seemed too sweet, and the Ghiradelli, which requires that you put in your own sugar, seemed not sweet enough--unless I put in way more sugar than i thought was within healthful bounds.  Maybe my microwave wasn't heating the milk correctly for these hot chocolates--and maybe that was the problem.  In any case, I tried buying a third can (perhaps the charm?) of Godiva dark hot cocoa mix at Macy's--but it fell short, too.  Believe it or not, one sip tasted too sweet, and the next not sweet enough.

    I thought I was going hot chocolate crazy. 

    Sugar Buzz Judy wrote a blog post featuring two hot chocolate recipes:  a Martha Stewart concoction that was supposed to resemble a peanut butter cup; and a traditional concoction that required too many cooking steps for my comfort--although it didn't hold a candle to one I saw in an online cooking video that used coconut milk and fresh vanilla beans in the recipe. None was my cup of tea (or hot chocolate).  And I got hot chocolate depressed.

    People started recommending favorite hot chocolates right and left:  hot chocolate made by Rick Bayless at his new River North Mexican carry out Xoco that is supposed to be rife with spices and quite delicious.  But the line to get in is always around the block so I never got to indulge.  Some people swear by McDonald's hot chocolate.  But since I have weaned myself from that place for nearly two decades now, I didn't want to start up.

    And then suddenly, two very fortuitous things happened.  My hope was renewed; my spirits picked up.  I was offered a free cup of hot chocolate at the Chicago History Museum one afternoon, just before a historical bus tour I was about to embark on which was sponsored by CHM.   It came out of a big silver urn, and it was made by the museum's cafe, which is ensconced down the hall from the main entrance.  I didn't really want hot chocolate at that moment but I decided to try just a taste.  And good thing I did.  I found exactly what I had been searching for:  the perfect balance of cocoa, sugar and liquid.

    I rushed over to the staff and asked what brand they used--and they proudly stated that they used a mix from Julius Meinl (a Vienna coffeemaker with three coffee houses in Chicago).  It was just the right flavor of chocolate, not too sweet, and it was very creamy.  The staff was cagey when I asked if they used water or milk, and I got the feeling they mixed them both together.

    A couple of weeks later, I had another perfect hot chocolate.  Once again, it was a free cup out of a silver urn, but this time offered in the members' lounge at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I had the same feeling---the perfect combination of chocolate, sweetness and dairy.  And at just the right temperature.

    The coffee in the lounge was Intelligentsia, but the hot chocolate was so much like Julius Meinl, I asked the woman in charge of the lounge what kind of hot chocolate was being served.  Was it Julius Meinl?

    She said she had no idea what kind it was.  "But it is just delicious, isn't it?" she said.

    I agreed with her wholeheartedly, determined to take full advantage of my membership from that day on--because of the free hot chocolate.  From here on in, there will be no viewing of Marc Chagall, Ellsworth Kelly, George Seurat or Georgia O'Keefe without some hot chocolate before.  Or after.  Or both.


Bonnie McGrath is a columnist and blogger at the Chicago Journal.


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  • As a fellow chocolate addict I totally feel your pain!! I have had XOCO's and I did not like it, really thick. My favorite cocoa in the city was also free, when my parents stayed at the Conrad hotel! They served it with cinnamon sticks in it and it was delicious! I will definitley have to try Julius Meniel since there is one right down the street!

  • Z, i would recommend the Meinl made at the history museum! and i must figure out a way to get a free cup at the Conrad!

  • Thank you for doing the taste test for the rest of us. You just saved so many people from wasting their hard earned money on bad hot chocolate. The stuff isn't cheap either. I'm fortunate to live in Mexico with connections to the best chocolate in the world - criollo chocolate from the state of Tabasco. It would be great if Rick Bayless could offer the public a hot chocolate also made from criollo cacao beans, but be prepared to pay a high price. Criollo beans are rare and only comprise 5% of the world's cacao beans. Chocolate Central's Mexico itinerary for our luxurious and adventurous chocolate tours include a visit to cacao farms in Tabasco, Mexico. For chocolate lovers, it is a special treat to sample chocolate right at its source.

  • CC, now you have me hankering for some criollo beans!!

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