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Food: Stef & The Chef

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Do you remember drinking hot chocolate as a kid? Maybe it was your first hot drink. When you weren't allowed to have coffee and still thought hot tea was bitter, someone comf orted you with a steaming mug of hot cocoa at a Christmas party or after a day of sledding. And you probably bumed your tongue. But you went back for more, especially if it had those cute little marshmallows floating on top. Maybe it was instant Swiss Miss made with boiling water. (One variety even has instant marshmallows!) But if you haven't had hot chocolate since then, or haven't tried it in one of the many coffee houses that seem to be multiplying like rabbits about town, you're missing a great winter treat. Cafes typically créate hot chocolate by the glass. They use the churning and gurgling cappucino machine to heat milk to 160 degrees. Then they mix the milk with rich chocolate and, usually, top each serving with whipped cream. When made right, this hot chocolate is serious adult indulgence. Take heed, though, hot chocolate is still primarily considered a kid drink. If you stop in at a cafe with colleagues from work or fellow gradúate students, and they all speak that coffee code of "lattes" and "doublé caps," and then you step up to the counter and order a hot chocolate with whipped cream, you may have to withstand a little ribbing. Your companions might admit to drinking hot cocoa after a day on the slopes, or only when it's spiked with a little Peppermint Schnapps, but they know that mature adults don't make a habit of it In defiance of such unsavory stereotypes, and in defense of childhood comforts, we decided to make a habit of drinking hot chocolate all over town. We feit that if we were going to Champion hot chocolate as just the warming drink for those blustery late afternoons when it's already getting dark, we should offer you some grown-up suggestions on wh ere to get it. The first thing we realized was that the range of hot drinks called "hot chocolate" varies widely. What you like depends on what you expect to get out of a hot chocolate experience. Our first expectation is chocolate. Hot chocolate connotes richness and decadence; thi nk of y our f avorite chocolate bar, heated and mei ting and drinkable. Of all the hot chocolates we tried, those served at Cava Java (1101 S. University) and Espresso Royale Caffe II (214 é. Main Street) were our top choices for intense chocolate content. Cava Java's was carefully prepared with Guittard chocolate stirred into steamed milk. The stirring was critical, because it distributed the luscious chocolate throughout the drink instead of leaving it sticking to the bottom of the glass. It was served with a dollop of whipped cream over a frothy surface. Espresso Royale's hot chocolate was strongly bittersweet yet smooth. They use Ghirardelli's blend of ground chocolate and cocoa which they heat into a rich syrup every moming. A generous serving of the syrup mixes well with the steamed milk to créate a deep chocolate experience, accented by real whipped cream and chocolate drizzle on top. (At $1 .50 for a single, Espresso's was also the cheapest hot chocolate we sampled at the coffee houses.) Amer's (31 2 S. State St.) was also high on the chocolate quotiënt and tasty. Sweetwaters' Cafe (1 23 W. Washington St.) had a good chocolate flavor, but it was a bit overdone so that the drink had a grainy texture. Another important factor in today's coffee house versions of hot chocolate is the steamed milk. The nutty taste of the heated milk is a boon to the total hot chocolate flavor. Cafe Zola's (1 1 2 W. Washington St.) emphasized the flavor of the milk in their version of a hot chocolate. We thought we tasted honey, but the chocolate flavor was lacking. It made for a soothing fat mug of sweet warm milk that was delicious but would not satisfy a craving for a blast of chocolate. Gratzi's Coffee House (222 S. State St.) was also light on chocolate to bring out the nutty flavor of the milk, but the preparation we got tasted like the milk had been burned. Finding a good balance of steamed milk and potent chocolate seems to be a key to an excellent hot chocolate, and Espresso Royale's, with its full chocolate flavor, also allowed the toasted milk taste to come through deliciously. Most places we visited sought to enhance their hot chocolate with whipped cream. Some cafes used the canned varíety like you can buy in the grocery store, but the better versions used a nitrous oxide (N2O) compressor which creates instant whipped creani by forcing the gas into fresh cream and then shooting it out in its fluffy f orm. Both of our favorite options (from the S.U. Cava Java and the Main St. Espresso Royale Caffe) used this superior f orm of whipped cream - good enough to make us drool. Hot chocolate is served in a variety of containers, from paper cups to hefty mugs to delicate glasses. For us, the paper cup automatically created a disappointing hot chocolate order. A drink that can be as rich as dessert belongs in a proper vessel. Would you want chocolate mousse on a paper plate? Caribou Cafe (309 S. State St.) and Cafe RendezVous (1 1 1 0 S. University) both made the unfortunate serving error of using paper cups. This may have had some relation to why these hot chocolates tasted weak and lifeless. In fact, Caribou's tasted rather a lot like the paper cup, and was also served much too hot. Espresso Royale'sand theS.U. Cava Java's hot chocolates were both served in slim, shapely glasses that seemed designed to keep the whipped cream on top while allowing you to get to the liquid undemeath. Sweetwaters' and Amer's also used this style. Cafe Félix (200 S. Main St.) served their hot chocolate in a classic white coffee cup with saucer - a nice touch - but the drink itself lacked any strong flavor of chocolate ortoasted milk. Java House (1301 S. University) used something like a juice glass which seemed weird to us; their version of hot chocolate was sweet but piain. Finally, we were surprised to find out that a few places serve a white chocolate versión of hot chocolate. White chocolate is a by-product of the chocolate-making process. It's made from the cocoa butter which is left over after the chocolate liqueur, needed for dark chocolate, is removed. We tried the white hot chocolate at Amer's. It was a starkly white milky drink which tasted to us like white chocolate candy crossed with vanilla icing and marshmallows. It was sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. We wouldn't have chosen it again. The fancy hot chocolates we sampled ranged in price from $1 .50 to $1 .85 for a single serving. For those feeling less than eager to drop so many quarters on a mere cup of something warm this winter, we would recommend a stop at an old hot chocolate stand-by: Dun kin' Donuts (2550 W. Stadium). They don't mix up their 90-cent hot chocolate by the glass - it's just dispensed from a machine at the counter across from the crullers and bavarian creams - and they don't accent it with whipped cream. But it tastes surprisingly good for that oldfashioned instant flavor. They serve it up hot, though, so be careful not to bum your tongue. Stef is a freelance wri ter w ho lo ves to eat and drink. The Chef is a local professional chef who spends his life in restaurants of all kinds.


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