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