Hasn't been hard this year, actually.
This has been The Winter That Wasn't. Not for lack of wishing, hoping, finger-crossing, and snow dancing on our parts. We are not alone, I understand, but we're still coming to terms.
I began, last year, to realize that our first full winter here may've been a bit unusual. I remember, when it snowed, and snowed again (and again) in 2010, hearing phrases like "historic levels!" and "not since Grover Cleveland!!" I smiled, and ignored them, and grabbed our soggy mittens. Then spent last winter, waiting for an encore. We never did get those foot-high drifts in 2011, just a few inches, here and there.
This year, that plural would've left us giddy. This year makes last year look like Snowmageddon.
We've had a half-inch here, an almost-inch there, enough to check the box, I guess. Most importantly, it snowed the night before Henry's snow party, which in retrospect was no minor miracle. (We had a bin of fake snow on hand, just in case, not being ones to rely on such things.) Still, the flakes inside outnumbered the flakes outside.
That snow elf, back in December? Biggest snowman we managed. Our one snowball fight topped out at five balls. We've not had a single snow day. Not even a delay. In winter. In Ohio. Remarkable, in my book. Heresy, in my childrens'.
Fact is, it's been unseasonably warm, with days in the forties, fifties, and beyond.
The bulbs began peeking through four weeks ago. The first crocus blushed purple while the calendar still read February. We've spent afternoons in our shirtsleeves, drawing rainbows in sidewalk chalk. Clipped thyme in our t-shirts. Wore our spring coats. In January. We made bird muffins, more out of orneriness than necessity. Because birds in winter need food, you know? Even if we didn't need so much as second layers to hang them.
(I meant to mention: Suet, oats, seeds and bashed peanuts, in whatever quantities we had around. Inspired by this wild birds web site here.)
I used the kids' snow shovels for leaves, last Friday, feeling badly they'd not yet been pressed into service. The Valentine's roses made it to the compost, a first for me, but see that sunshine? Usually our composting goes on hiatus in winter, or until the walk from the back door turns from *CRUNCH* to s-q-u-i-s-h. We're so there. So in they went.
Wednesday clocked in at 69°, and no, neither 6 nor 9 were a typo. Zoë begged to bring up the spring box. I was tempted to take down winter. Seemed like tempting fate, though, after last year's spring snow, so we compromised on a bit of both.
We're not yet compromising on the cocoa.
Snow or no, there's always a chill, even if it's intermittent and unreliable. We still have our single-digit mornings, our whippy winds that make thirty-five feel like twelve. Sometimes, that sunshine and those "unseasonably warm" forties lure us out longer than we would ordinarily stay. And we've had plenty of days in the wet, gusty upper thirties, for which I think the technical weather term is ICKY. Such weather demands soft warming things, and hot cocoa has been high on this year's list.
Because this is the year we finally got hot chocolate right.
I began fiddling with homemade cocoa last winter when I accidentally noticed the Swiss Miss ingredient list, our go-to since, well, my childhood. I grew up on Swiss Miss, and have fond memories of the way it would chase away the damp chill after swimming in the Pacific. We brought it on all of our camping trips to the coast, and always had a giant blue and white tub around for the drinking. The sweet dusty *plouf* of powder, the tiny white crunchy "marshmallows", the satisfying muddying of boiling water, sigh. I loved Swiss Miss. I still do. I think it makes for a nice, pleasant cup.
Here's what I didn't love: the powdery mess, the thousand bits of Swiss detritus that filled up our grout. (Tiled counters, GAH!!!!! Oh gosh, did I groan that out loud?) And while looking for an excuse to solve that pesky dust problem, I actually read the ingredient list: "sugar, modified whey, nonfat dry milk, cocoa, corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, carrageenan, dipotassium phosphate and artificial flavor."
Corn syrup? Partially hydrogenated soybean oil? Seriously? It's hot cocoa, people. Milk, chocolate, sugar. Not that hard.
Pride goeth before the bad cocoa.
We weren't looking for fancy, or decadent, or even anything halfway exquisite. All I wanted was good everyday hot cocoa, the sort we could slurp in a frost-fingered heartbeat. Dead-simple, delicious, chocolate-y, instant, creamy (but not too), nutritious (yes), and warmmmmm.
I did a little research, tried out a lot of options, all of them varying degrees of so-so. There were dry mixes made of cocoa powder and sugar, which were quick and easy but didn't pass the kid test. "Too gritty," they cried. My fault, I'm sure. Too-tepid milk, not-intrepid-enough mixing, "heat and stir well" being apparently too tricky for me. Three tries and fails and we moved on.
We added chocolate syrup to warm milk, which was just plain awful. We stirred chopped chocolate bars into steaming mugs, which sounded simple and good but was neither. (Chocolate shards all over everywhere, too much mainlining of the hard stuff, and lumpy-bumpy mottled milk as the end result). We tried the Dorie Greenspan method, with water and blender, which indeed made a very nice, frothy quaff, but with too much to-do, and too much noise.
(Am I the only mother acutely aware of kitchen noise pullution? I grind beans every morning, blend smoothies some evenings, and each time feel the ways those ear-blasts interrupt everything. I do it still, because I love me my coffee, and smoothies are some times the only way to smooth out a rough dinner. But I am reluctant to introduct any more blitzing in our days. Cocoa should soothe, not alarm.)
Then, right around this time, last year, the lovely Ashley at Not Without Salt dropped the G-bomb: "I keep a jar of ganache on hand always, for frosting cupcakes, filling cookies, and stirring into hot milk, for cocoa." I'm paraphrasing wildly here, as I can't find the original mention, as the post wasn't even about Revolution. By which I mean, she wasn't even talking hot chocolate. The ganache thing was just an aside. But did you catch that game-changer? Ganache + hot milk = hot chocolate?
Ganache, of course, is the fancypants French name for hot cream and chopped chocolate.
Once upon a time, The end.
Shortest dessert story ever told. Not to mention the most ridiculously useful. Drizzle it while warm, and it becomes one swank glaze. Cool, scoop, roll, and behold: truffles. Whip it, watch it triple, and you've got devastatingly great frosting. All this I knew, and applied, often. What I didn't know was that ganache was my hot cocoa holy grail.
It seemed almost too good to be true. Actually, it seemed absolutely too good to be true. Seriously??
But with little to lose, we whipped up some ganache, snapping semisweet Ghiradelli bars (no chopping, no shards!) into a pool of hot, heavy cream. While the chocolate softened, we heated some milk, until wispy with steam and edged with guppy bubbles. A few whisks brought the ganache together, several spoonfuls of which were deployed into the hot milk. At which point, a feather would have laid me out flat: the ganache melted almost on impact, a few stirs—a few lazy stirs, very important detail, that—into this wildly promising, fragrant, intoxicating brew. It smelled fantastic. It tasted leagues better. My children lapped it up. I happy-danced.
That was last spring. This is now. Some hundred-plus cups of hot chocolate later. Every few weeks, we whip up fresh ganache, a task any four year old can manage with aplomb. When cocoa time comes, I warm milk, scoop and stir. And shake my head again over its no-duh elegant simplicity. It's easier, faster, and less dusty than "instant", and so far above and beyond, I still can't stand it. It doesn't hurt that, nutritionally, it's not at all bad, besides. One good dollop of ganache in eight ounces of milk is, in my book, pretty darn respectable. Particularly when it doubles as a cure for frosty fingers, a balm for cold noses, a ballast against winter. Because even in the mild ones, one must keep cozy.
Everyday Hot Chocolate
inspired by Ashley at www.notwithoutsalt.com
Hot Chocolate Base (Ganache)
Yield: 2 generous cups ganache (enough for 2 dozen+ mugs of hot cocoa)
This makes a light ganache (1:1), scoop-able straight from the fridge. For firm truffles and heartier frostings, a 2:1 chocolate:cream ratio gives greater body and intensity. FYI.
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized, if possible)
12 ounces semisweet chocolate (3 - 4 oz. bars)
Snap chocolate bars into a large, heat-proof bowl. Heat cream over medium, until the first bubble breaks, then remove from heat and pour over chocolate shards. Let sit 5 minutes, then whisk gently to combine, 1-2 minutes. Pour into jar, and refrigerate, up to 1 month.
To Make Hot Cocoa:
Heat milk (2% or whole), as much as you want, over medium heat, until steaming. (Alternatively, for one mug, microwave). Add ganache to hot milk: I use 1 heaping tablespoon per 8 ounces of milk, though there are those under my roof who argue 2 tablespoons are far superior. And no, I don't measure. Eyeball it. Stir ganache into hot milk until dissolved, 10-15 seconds, taste, and add more, if desired. Pour into mugs, top as desired (whipped cream, marshmallows), wrap fingers 'round, and give thanks for winter.