Part 3: Jacques Torres

On this recent trip to NY, I continued the Great Hot Chocolate Quest. While my quest is mostly focused on Chicago, I do take side trips to determine the best hot chocolate ever. New York has three top places (in order of preference) for hot chocolate: 1. City Bakery 2. Jacques Torres 3. L.A. Burdick.

I’ve talked about briefly about City Bakery and L.A Burdick. Jacques Torres is a chocolatier; they have your traditional chocolates and whatnot. But most importantly, they have amazing hot chocolate. I had only been to Jacques Torres once and I think it was in 2008.   I went there with my best friend who worked nearby, It left such an impression that I still judge it as second best in NY; I’ve had L.A. Burdick a year ago and still think Jacques Torres is better.

So I was contemplating going to the one branch across town on this trip, when it turned out that there was a branch just a few doors down from our hotel. It was meant to be. So after a lengthy stretch at the Met, I went in to find out if their drink was as good as I remembered. They had three main options: regular, wicked, and orange. There may have been coffee infused flavors but I don’t drink coffee so I tend to ignore them. Wicked is the spicy one. My best friend loves spices and loved it. I tend towards the milder flavors so I initially ordered the regular. Then I saw the orange flavor and changed my mind. I love orange and chocolate together. I believe it is underutilized in the pastry/sweets world. I got my small container of hot chocolate with candied orange rind in it.

And yes, it was good as I remembered. It was delightfully thick, perfectly sweet without being cloyingly sweet. The orange was a nice touch. I loved the orange peels at the bottom of my cup. Nice bonus. Moreover, it wasn’t dinner destroying, which I appreciate. I had an appetite for dinner that evening; that doesn’t always happen with hot chocolate.

So thankfully, my memory taste buds served me well. I picked up the hot chocolate mix so we’ll have to report back on the results of that taste test. I’ll let you know.

That’s all for now.

Xocolatl

This weekend, we made another foray into the Great Hot Chocolate Quest of Chicago. We went to Xocolatl in West Logan Square; it’s another suggestion from the following list: http://www.chicagonow.com/show-me-chicago/2012/12/chicagos-best-hot-chocolate-ten-places-to-love/

It has several locations including Pilsen and Navy Pier. There were several flavors to choose from: Abuelita, Spicy, Mint, and some mocha flavors (I didn’t recall since I don’t drink coffee.)

I got the Spicy Hot Chocolate and some churros. Goodness, those churros were amazing. For years, I didn’t get the appeal of churros. It was chewy fried dough covered in sugar.  (And yes, this didn’t appeal to me. Most fried foods don’t appeal to me). But then I had a fresh churro filled with vanilla from a street vendor in Rio de Janeiro last year. I realized that the churros that I had in the past were all cold and stale. Freshly cooked churros are amazing; they are light, fluffy, and warm. (Most foods are improved by being warm in my opinion). At Xocolatl, I had a churro filled with dulce de leche that  was incredible, although it was a little messy. I’d go back to try all the different fillings like cream cheese or vanilla. My fiance tried strawberry and dulce de leche; he said the latter was better. Whatever the filling, you have to eat fresh there in the store before it cools off.

As for the hot chocolate, I was initially disappointed when I read the menu to see Abuelita chocolate. For me, Abuelita is a brand. I was hoping for something more homemade. Don’t get me wrong; I love Abuelita. I grew up with it. As a kid, we’d get the round bricks of chocolate that had to be melted with milk. I sometimes ate it straight…so good. In recent years, Abuelita got bought by Nestle, which did come out with a powdered version that I rather like. It’s sweet and filled with cinnamon. But I like being able to try hot chocolate at stores/cafes that I can’t make easily at home.

So I decided to go with Spicy Chocolate. I don’t usually go for spicy but I wanted something new and different. It was really spicy. I’m not sure what they put in it but it was too strong for me. I coughed occasionally from the spice. There were small orange/red flakes of something. It got a little better when I got half way through, the flakes were more diluted. Sadly, it just wasn’t up there in my top places for Chicago.

But I’d go back for the churros. Go for the churros. All the churros.

That’s all for now!

George’s Ice Cream and Sweets

So last night after the Jimmy Carter book signing, my friend and I checked out George’s Ice Cream and Sweets in Andersonville. It had been written up in that list of best hot chocolate places in Chicago for 2012. The author had talked a lot about their interesting flavors of hot chocolate, namely Nutella. So I was keen to try it, especially that we are moving away from hot chocolate season.

When I got there, I was amazed at the choices. There was Nutella, Raspberry, Pumpkin, Mint and more. I decided to go with Nutella since Nutella is happiness. However, my hot chocolate was not very good. It wasn’t very flavorful. There was a lot of foam and not a lot of taste. There were some small spoonfuls of liquid Nutella but the taste was fairly diluted. If I hadn’t ordered Nutella, I wouldn’t have really known it was. Alas.

So if you want hot chocolate, I’d stick with Katherine Anne Confections or Black Dog Gelato. If you are in Andersonville, I’m very fond of Kopi Café’s hot chocolate. They have some flavors too like Mexican Hot Chocolate or Mint. It’s not fancy or particularly thick but it does the trick when you are in need of some hot chocolate loving. Also, their food is great.

But I will say about George’s Ice Cream and Sweets is that the ice cream was amazing. I only got a few bites of my friend’s ice cream but it was wonderful. One was a mixture but it was the best peanut butter ice cream concoction that I’ve ever had. It’s from Wisconsin which is the land of tasty ice cream. I’m going to have go back for the ice cream. When it is ice cream weather. Like in August.

That’s all for now!

Hot Chocolate in France

In my opinion, the undisputed queen of hot chocolate can be found at Angelina Tearoom on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. It’s an extremely lovely tea room with gold walls and murals. It was founded by an Austrian confectioner Antoine Rumpelmayer who named it after his daughter-in-law in 1903. It was a fashionable place for the fashion giants, including Coco Chanel.

However, it usually has an impressive line to sit down and eat. Fortunately, if you don’t need to sit down to enjoy your hot chocolate, there is a little side shop that sells the hot chocolate for take away. Now it’s not cheap but it is totally worth the price. It’s simply brilliant. It’s velvety and thick. I don’t know the chocolate content but it’s sweet enough for my taste without overdoing it.  It’s certainly strong, and if consumed in its entirety, it can serve as an entire meal. While Paris is a culinary capital, it’s a fair substitute of a proper meal.

And again, nothing like wandering the streets of Paris with another form of hot chocolate. However, if you do have the opportunity to eat at Angelina, their pastries are incredible too. Also, the hot chocolate is allegedly served with fresh whipped cream too if you elect to drink it there. (I admit that I’ve not had the opportunity).

Another hot chocolate of note on this trip was in Aix-en-Provence’s Deux Garçon, a lovely café frequented by many greats in French history.  Notably, artist Paul Cezanne and writer Emil Zola allegedly frequented the establishment every day. Other patrons included Jean Paul-Sartre, Edith Piaf, and Albert Camus.

However, the café/restaurant does not rest on its laurels. They offer nine different types of hot chocolate flavors in the Italian style. I chose the orange flavor since I’ve never seen it as an offering for hot chocolate before. And I was well rewarded. It was sturdy hot chocolate (not reaching the heights of Angelina’s or Katherine Anne’s) with the delightful addition of orange. It was pleasant and worth the taste.

Of Crepes and Walking in Paris

Sorry for the hiatus but I’ve been on a lovely vacation to France and England for the past few weeks. I love to travel. Nothing beats exploring and adventuring out in the world. I treasure every opportunity to see more of the world. The next several posts will deal with my thoughts and experiences while across the pond.

On this recent trip, one of the things that I was most excited about doing was having a Nutella crepe on the streets of Paris. There is absolutely nothing like getting a crepe made before your eyes from a little kiosk, usually an open window to a hole in the wall. Dessert crepes made in restaurants just aren’t the same. Part of it is the fresh, hot dough. Then there is the creamy Nutella, often too hot to eat at first. (I’ve burnt my tongue many times).  But I think it’s the atmosphere of the eating experience. I get to eat my crepe while wandering the streets of Paris.

Walking is my absolute favorite activity in Paris (and generally anywhere). Paris is simply a marvel to walk around in.  It’s a cliché but it’s true. The city is beautifully laid out with arching trees lining the streets. Some buildings have art deco influences or reflect theBelle Époque. And then you have the amazing regularity of Baron  Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Buildings from his substantial rebuilding and refashioning of Paris have the same number of levels and balconies. On the first floor, there is a storefront for a business, then a little apartment above it typically for the shopkeeper. Then the next floor is the most magnificent and expensive with a little balcony. There are two more levels of less spectacular apartments and then a final attic of cheaper lodgings (usually servants lived there). The whole ensemble is topped with a arched roof. However, it’s the structure only so the buildings have their own individual characteristics. It’s incredible to see street after street of this structure in the buildings.

Then you have incredible plazas with monuments, notably the Champs-Elysees or the Place de la Concorde. There is such majesty in these plazas. And the bridges are so singular. There is the Pont Neuf with the faces, the golden bridge to Alexander III, and the walking bridge covered in locks.

But there is also hidden magic.  There is wondrous street art, especially in the gallery district. Paris was where I saw my first piece by street artist Space Invader. Now, his work appears to be put behind Plexiglas. Even the streetlamps are notable; some are covered in gold, others are have magnificent curls. And the chocolate shops have brilliant windows, especially during Christmas. This year, one window showcased a chimpanzee made from chocolate. Another showed a buxom Mrs. Claus.  A walk in any weather in Paris makes you understand why the Impressionists spent so much time there.

Also, we discovered a lovely walking tour company called Paris Walks (there is a sister company in London) led by English ex-pats. It is an extensive two hour walking tour for nine Euros (really good price). They cover different sections of the city like the Marais or time like the Resistance. Last year, we did three walks in two days. They even got me to enjoy Hemmingway!

Walking in Paris with a Nutella crepe has to be on the finer pleasures in life.

Lincoln Park Zoolights and Hot Chocolate

On Sunday, we went to the Lincoln Park Zoolights, another favorite Chicago Christmas tradition. The zoo gets decked out with holiday lights so it feels a little like Vegas. The trees are covered in colorful lights or those falling icicle lights. There are these light up animated signs, usually of animals. My favorites are the gibbon swinging and the chameleon/lizard that catches a fly with its tongue. There is even a Loch Ness Monster sitting next to the lagoon. There are areas lights timed to music and giant snow globes. There are few things in this world that I believe you can’t have too much of. Christmas lights are one of those few. Also, there are ice sculptures including one that was a carved heart with a proposal in it.

As a wonderful bonus, some of the animal houses are open after hours. We wandered into the gorilla house to see chimpanzees stretched out, sleeping in front of the viewing glass. They were so peaceful. And you got a good look at their feet which really look like hands. We also wandered into the monkey house where the monkeys were more active. There was a tiny monkey that clearly wanted to play; he grabbed an adult’s tail and was hoisting himself up it like it was a rope. He tried to play what looked like tag with another. Sadly, the adults were not having any of it. But it was so cute. There are also lemurs now. Yes, lemurs.

Also, the hot chocolate was up to muster. There are little kiosks that sell it around the zoo. I’m not sure what brand or store they are from; it may be Hershey’s which is surprising since the hot chocolate was so good. You could get regular or flavored with Reeses Peanut Butter Pieces, Peppermint Patty, Caramel Turtle, and Triple Chocolate. I had the Reeses Peanut Butter one since hot chocolate and peanut butter are a bit rare considering the prevalence of chocolate and peanut butter in other products. It was good. It’s not as thick as others previously mentioned but it didn’t taste watery or powdery. It was perfect for a cold December night wandering around the zoo. And the Reeses Pieces were a nice addition. So yeah, it is worth it.

Sadly, there seemed to be something amiss this time we went. A good portion of the lights were out so there were stretches of darkness in the zoo. There were sections that were clearly decked out in lights but weren’t on. We heard people speculating that maybe it was one bulb that did it. Who knows?

But it was still enjoyable and something I like to do every year. I think it is open until the 4th or 5th of January so you still have time.

 

Hot Chocolate Mixes at Home

I’ve made hot chocolate at home for many years now. To be frank, I’m a fan of the simplicity of Swiss Miss with the caveat that it must be made with warm milk. Water just don’t cut it. Sure it’s mostly sugar but it works in a pinch and is available everywhere. Also, it’s not too rich for me and sometimes you aren’t in the mood for thick thick chocolate. I also love Abuelita, a Mexican hot chocolate (basically with cinnamon), which is now owned by Nestle. The original stuff came in thick circular concentrate that you melted on a stove. (Now, you can buy it as powder, which works). I used to eat the solid circles of it whole. So good and totally decadent. Land O’ Lakes  also has these chocolate packets with the right amount of milk concentrate that does the trick if I’m at work or another environment lacking in milk.

But when I’ve tried to move beyond these lower end of the market, I’ve been disappointed. I’ve tried some fancy French chocolate mix from places that I’ve never heard of but are famous in France. I’ve tried Godiva too but to no avail.

Until I had LA Burdick’s Milk Chocolate. You may remember LA Burdick from a few weeks ago when I was in New York. I gave it good marks but it couldn’t top my other two favorite places in New York for hot chocolate. Well, the home mix takes the cake for best at home hot chocolate. It’s easy to make (no melting chocolate) and it’s the right thickness and sweetness. It’s chocolate shavings rather than powder or solid form which make the difference. Warm glass of milk, 8 spoonfuls of the powder and you’ve got a fine cup of hot chocolate.

But I’ll go back and forth between it and Swiss Miss. It is very rich so it’s a once in a while thing.