Sure, it sounds like a fun assignment: Drive all over town on a chilly day to try hot chocolates.
Until you’re sitting at your desk after cup No. 7 with your brain running at the speed of fudge, praying no one bumps your chair because you’ll hurl.
A great cup of hot chocolate isn’t kid stuff, it’s a showcase of chocolate at its finest, all hot, creamy and just a little sweet.
Sadly, too many places don’t take it seriously enough. It’s easier to find a great cup of coffee than it is to find a great cup of hot chocolate.
All I ask is hot chocolate that meets a few basic standards:
– It should be made from real chocolate, not powder.
– It should be served in a real cup, made of glass, not a paper cup. Good hot chocolate is an indulgence, something you should sit and enjoy.
– It shouldn’t be too sweet. Good chocolate has bite and a slight bitterness that balances the sweet. Hot chocolate should have it, too.
– Whipped cream or marshmallows shouldn’t be necessary, but the contrast of hot liquid and cold topping is a fine thing.
I ended up with five cups that were worth every calorie. Here they are, starting with the two best:
(1) Not Just Coffee
7th Street Market (also available at the Atherton Market). $3.50 for a 12-ounce serving.
Remember that no-powder rule? James Yoder violates it, but carefully.
“We taste-tested so many chocolates – all the usual suspects,” he told me while he went about doing the things that set his hot chocolate above the rest (warming my china cup before he started, whisking in several stages to create a creamy texture, drawing a perfect rosetta on the top at the end). He finally settled on a bittersweet powder with 70 percent cacao made by Zuma in the United Kingdom.
He’s even more specific about the milk: Homeland Creamery, from Julian, N.C. Most of hot chocolate is really milk, not chocolate, he says. Good milk is sweet on its own, so you don’t need to add more sugar.
His cup speaks for itself: not cloying, not too hot to drink, with the perfect balance between bitter and sweet.
2424 N. Davidson St. (plus many other locations; find them all at www.ameliesfrenchbakery.com). $3.25 for a 12-ounce cup with whipped cream.
Of course it’s listed in French, as “Chaud Chocolat.” And you can get all fancy, with house-made syrups to flavor it.
But if what you want is a warm hit of pure chocolate happiness, this is your cup: bittersweet, topped with a tutu-sized ruffle of excellent whipped cream. Under that, the hot chocolate is made from a ganache – a paste of chocolate and cream – and it has the perfect bittersweet bite, like biting into a bar of Valrhona or Guittard.
(3) Central Coffee
719 Louise Ave., off Central Avenue. $3.40 for the 16-ounce white-chocolate hot chocolate.
It sounds like it ought to be too sweet, but the white chocolate version is wonderfully warm and fuzzy, like the liquid version of a eating a warm sugar cookie. Nice touch: They start with a little squirt of vanilla-flavored simple syrup in the cup. It comes out foamy on top and creamy on the bottom.
Skip the canned whipped cream though – it gets lost in the white foam on top, and you really don’t need it.
(4) Bar Cocoa at the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte
201 E. Trade St. $6.50 for a glass mug.
A couple of chocolate nits to pick here: $6.50 is a lot for hot chocolate, especially since it doesn’t come with whipped cream (and the young woman behind the counter made it clear she didn’t want to go down to the kitchen to fetch marshmallows).
Still, it is an excellent cup if what you want is pure chocolate flavor. It’s very thick and creamy, with a little nuttiness to balance the sweet.
(5) Julia’s Coffee at Habitat ReStore
1133 N. Wendover Road. $2.80 for a 12-ounce cup.
There was no choice on a cardboard cup here. But the drink inside the cup is made with frothed whole milk and Ghirardelli chocolate sauce. So it’s very sweet, but there’s a little spice to balance that. And you can browse the used-book collection while you sip – your cold-day treat is complete.
Photos: T. Ortega Gaines/Charlotte Observer; Kathleen Purvis