Panela Hot Chocolate

Durham enjoyed a white Boxing Day, and so did Fred and I. We made a snow kitty.

Yes, it is wearing a bowtie and playing a recorder. It is probably not necessary to say that these items were Fred’s idea.

And we walked through the neighborhood, still aglow with Christmas decorations.

When we were happily tired and chilled, we repaired back to the house, where I made Fred what might have been the first cup of homemade hot chocolate he’s ever had.

I won’t dwell on how ghastly it is to live in a culture that uses hot cocoa mixes combined with . . . (I can barely say it) water when the homemade version is so simple and so much better. Let’s just say that since this was Fred’s first experience with hot chocolate from scratch, I wanted to do a good job. So I decided to lace it with my newest addiction–Latin America’s culinary answer to crack–panela.

Panela is raw sugar cane, boiled down until it forms a firm cake. You might recognize it from your local market as a brown, cone shaped item that can easily be mistaken for a candle (not that I ever would have done that, of course). Also known as piloncillo or papelon, it tastes like brown sugar infused with the richness of molasses, with smooth overtones of maple syrup. In Central and South American it is grated, shaved, or broken off in pieces and added to recipes. Despite its firm texture, it grates easily and dissolves quickly in hot liquid.

I discovered panela when I made asado negro for Fred, from a recipe that appeared in the New York Times Magazine earlier this month. Asado negro is a Venezuelan dish consisting of roast beef simmered with leeks, onions, peppers and garlic in a thick, dark, caramel-like sauce. The magazine column, “The Cheat,” explained how to create the sauce with a combination of white and brown sugar, but indicated that the roast would be “spectacular” if you could find some panela. 

Remembering the little candles, I immediately trotted over to Compare Foods to get one. There I found that panela comes in different shapes and sizes. There was the candle, but there were also large round cakes and these smaller beauties, which I decided to bring home.

The asado negro didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped (the cooking time in the recipe ended up being too long for the meat), but none of this mattered. After my first taste of the panela, I wanted it in everything. I put it in my oatmeal. I sliced it over cheese. I cut off chunks and ate it all by itself. 

So when the need for hot chocolate arose, I knew panela had to be involved. Its smoothness is the ideal  complement to cocoa’s rich bitterness, and I’m glad to say that Fred’s first cup of homemade hot chocolate was the best I’ve ever made. 

Panela Hot Chocolate

For each serving, you will need:

1 cup milk
1/4 cup half and half
1 1/2 tbsp. Dutch processed cocoa
Dash salt
2 T grated panela, packed (more or less to taste) (if you can’t get panela, white or brown sugar would be fine)

Pour enough milk for all servings into saucepan and on high heat. Into each cup, add half and half, cocoa and salt. Whisk with small wire whisk (or a fork) until well blended. Add panela and whisk again until panela has begun to melt. When milk is hot but not boiling, fill each cup. Whisk again until panela has melted. Add a dash of cinnamon or ground chili pepper for garnish if desired.

Microwave version: Follow directions as above but do not heat milk in saucepan. Instead, add cold milk to cocoa mix in each cup and microwave each serving until milk is hot, about one minute. Remove from microwave and whisk ingredients until well blended before serving.

Blue Crabs

For a farm girl, I’m inconsistently squeamish about killing things. Flies in our house are caught with a cup and freed outdoors, but roaches are mercilessly squashed. Ants might be allowed to roam across counter tops for days, then tortured to death with  poison from traps placed in strategic corners. Meat from sentient creatures such as cows, goats, and chickens is consumed with abandon . . . and I can’t put a live crab in boiling water.

The crabs caused a lot of trouble a couple of weeks ago, when Walking Fish, our CSF (Community Sponsored Fishery), let us know that North Carolina blue crabs were in the next delivery.

I’d been avoiding the crabs, and apparently so had many other Walking Fishers. Originally, members were simply told that crabs would be arriving as part of their weekly share; those who didn’t want the crabs could write to the group’s e-mail list and arrange for an exchange with another member. But it seems there was so much switching around, and too many crabs not being taken, that Walking Fish changed the policy. Now, when crabs come in, those brave enough to face them down have to add their names to a list.

Fred wanted to be on that list–the list of mighty crab killers. Why remains a mystery, but it is probably the same impulse that propels him–my sensitive, bookish artist–to yell at hapless pitchers and treat interstate on-ramps like entryways to the Indy 500.

“Will you just have it all done when I get home?” I pleaded.

“Sure,” he said. Perhaps it was my imagination, but his chest puffed out the tiniest bit. “I’ll look up how to do it on the internet.” 

That should have been my first warning.

As usual, he picked me up from work on Thursday.

“How are the crabs?” I asked.

He couldn’t seem to look at me. His head drooped. “It was awful,” he said. “I couldn’t get any meat out of them. I tried and tried and I got just enough to put on a cracker.”

Confused, I asked, “What do you mean there was no meat?”

“There was just this watery stuff, mostly, and then I couldn’t get the meat to pull away from the shells.”

I pondered this. “That’s odd.”

Then it came to me. “Did you cook them before you tried to get the meat out?”

He looked up, and the life drained from his eyes. “Cook them? The internet instructions didn’t say anything about cooking them first.”

At moments like these in married life–like when the Braves lost to the Giants in the playoffs, or when a man struggles with assembly instructions you figured out an hour ago–it is important to be gentle. “Honey, I think you need to cook them first.”

He put his head in his hands. “But the instructions didn’t say anything about cooking them first. They just talked about cleaning them. I thought it was like fish, or chicken. You know, you clean it, then you cook it.”

I put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up again, despair clouding his face. “Why didn’t they say anything about cooking them first?”

Now is probably not the time to mention crab boils, I thought, or all the stories you hear about cooking live crabs, or children’s movies like The Little Mermaid, which admittedly Fred probably never saw. Instead, I patted his hand.

“We can probably salvage something,” I said. “I’ll take a look when I get home.”

“I don’t know,” he moaned. “There really isn’t much there.”

I figured he was exaggerating. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

If you’ve ever wondered how much meat you can get from six blue crabs without cooking them first, here it is.

Luckily, Fred stopped his cleaning efforts before he got to the claws. We boiled the carnage, seasoning the water with herbes de Provence and salt. We made an appetizer of the meat we salvaged. It was sweet and tender, possibly the best I’ve had.

Fred’s been pondering the meaning of this incident ever since. He’s wondered how many times, at 50, he’s missed critical first steps. He’s even considered the crabs as a metaphor for his whole life.

That may be true. If so, then it’s also true that a few good things can be salvaged from a mess. And that we’ll get another shot at the crabs, if we want.

Hiatus Activity

It’s been a busy few weeks.

The cats have helped me with my crosswords.

Cleo admired Fred’s latest painting.

Fred cooked supper, even involving vegetable matter in the process.

And we visited the family farm in Tennessee.


Posting will continue to be sporadic over the next few weeks, as we travel around the country for holidays. I’ve been cooking a lot and hope to share recipes for the holidays soon, but will certainly be back in January.