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Warm up this winter with some Mexican hot chocolate

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 10:30 p.m. CDT

Many mornings this winter have found me making like a Mexican grandmother and making Mexican hot chocolate.

This is for my first-grader son, who learned in his Spanish class about chocolate and how to properly make it.

Traditionally, that would be by melting Mexican chocolate in hot milk and then spinning and whipping it into a froth using a wooden whisk called a molinillo.

You can find molinillos and chocolate at Hispanic food stores. You even can find at least one brand of Mexican chocolate at some supermarkets: Abuelita, which translates as “Little Grandmother” or “Granny” and is a well-known brand made by Nestle.

It comes in a fetching hexagonal box, which holds a stack of paper-wrapped discs of chocolate, to which a strong cinnamon flavor is added. In Mexico, chocolate often contains almonds, vanilla and perhaps other spices, as well.

This less-refined “table chocolate,” grainy with sugar crystals, is not meant to be eaten as is. But I can’t resist nibbling stray pieces when I make the morning chocolate, and am growing quite fond of it. I thought it was delicious in a chocolate cake recipe I found in a new cookbook.

I know you also can get Abuelita in powdered instant form. But the longer, traditional preparation process is part of the fun of the tablets. I’d like to find and try some other brands, such as Ibarra. (And get some made with real cinnamon, not artificial flavor. Please.)

Not a lot of places make and serve authentic Mexican hot chocolate, but keep an eye out for it, and also for a version thickened with corn flour (masa harina) called champurrado.

“We used to drink it in cold weather with churros,” a sort of doughnut for dunking, says Edgar Alvarez, of Pittsburgh’s Edgar Taco Stand, where the semi-secret recipe calls for a mix of milk and water, Mexican chocolate, Mexican vanilla and lots of cinnamon, hand-whipped with a molinillo. An 8-ounce foam cup sells for $2.

“People love it,” he said, even though some hear the “Mexican” and expect it to be spicier than just from the cinnamon. Frothing it with a molinillo makes it much better.

“People watch ... and they say, ‘Oh yeah – this is the real stuff.’ ”

Mexican chocolate also can be used for other dishes. At Casa Reyna restaurant in Pittsburgh, notes owner Nic DiCio, they use it to make chocolate ice cream and cake, as well as in mole sauces. “In Mexico they have shops specializing in grinding the roasted bean with different formulations of cinnamon, almonds and sugar.”

It was Mexico, after all, that gave the world chocolate. Indigenous people grew and roasted cacao beans, which they ground up to make a hot drink that wasn’t sweet until Spaniards got their hands on it.

Mexican hot chocolate

Mt. Lebanon, Pa., elementary-school Spanish teacher Tania M. Conte sent this recipe home with her students, noting that Abuelita brand chocolate can be found at some grocery stores.

If you don’t have a molinillo, you can use a regular whisk.

2 cups milk

4 wedges of Mexican chocolate, or 2 quarter tablets

Put 2 cups milk in a small saucepan on low heat. Warm milk gradually. Don’t let it boil.

Unwrap a Mexican chocolate tablet. Cut/break off the wedges.

Put the chocolate in the warm milk and let the wedges soften for about 30 seconds.

Use the wide end of the molinillo – or your whisk – to gently mash the chocolate.

Then use the molinillo or whisk to stir the chocolate milk.

When steam begins to rise from the milk, spin the molinillo (or whisk) briskly back and forth in the milk to create tiny bubbles that gang up together to become froth.

Carefully pour hot chocolate into cups and enjoy!

Serves 2.

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