Trader Joe's is known for traveling the globe to find a wide and ever-changing variety of foods. They recently went next door to bring back Organic Stone-Ground Mexican-Style Dark Chocolate, which has the shape, taste and paper packaging of traditional south-of-the-border chocolates.

There are two varieties, extra dark and salt and pepper, both with an intense, barely sweet flavor. Like other Mexican chocolates, the texture is grittier than American or European choices. The extra dark version has 70% cocoa solids, while the spicy has 54% cocoa solids. Each package contains two 1.3 ounce discs, scored into 8 pie-slice-shaped wedges, priced at $1.49.

Credit: E. Dwass

Credit: E. Dwass

If you've never eaten Mexican chocolate, you could find it an acquired taste. (And to experience a high-end introduction, you might want to try Rancho Gordo's lauded version.) While the flavor and texture may not suit you for snacking, cooking and baking with the chocolate is another story. From breads, to moles, to desserts, to beverages, there's no end to the things you can make. (For starters, check out this Oaxacan chocolate cookie recipe from the Washington Post.)

With mornings so chilly right now, we've been thinking about Mexican hot chocolate. There are different ways to make this popular beverage, but the key ingredient is, of course, good quality chocolate, which is cut into pieces or grated, then melted on top of the stove in a pan with hot water. Traditionally, a hand-carved wooden whisk called a molinillo is used to stir things up. This ancient tool is held between the palms of the hand and quickly rotated, with intricate notches and loose wooden rings aerating the mixture, creating an essential layer of foam.

Molinillos para el chocolate; Credit: Y!Musica via flickr

Molinillos para el chocolate; Credit: Y!Musica via flickr

In his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, OC Weekly editor and columnist (Ask a Mexican!) Gustavo Arellano writes about drinking hot chocolate made by principal Marco Aguilar at the Los Angeles charter school Academia Semillas del Pueblo Xinaxcalmecac: “He'll grab cocoa paste, untreated and without sugar, and place it in a metal container, pouring boiling water spiked with chile on top of it. In goes a jigger of aguamiel, the sap of the maguey plant that, in another incarnation, serves as the base for the ancient alcoholic beverage pulque. Then comes the whisking, immediately furious, yet increasing in intensity as every second adds up into two minutes. Aguilar pours the chocolate into a clay mug and places it on the table.”

Aguilar's technique is reminiscent of the ancient Mayans, who, Arellano writes, first elevated the status of cacao into “something holy and revelatory; ruins show how they roasted, cracked, and deshelled cocoa beans until what was left of the bean was a smoky, bitter part called the nib. These nibs were ground into a paste, then placed into a pot upon which preparers sloshed boiling water.”

As chocolate traveled north and eventually into our favorite dining spots, milk, espresso and other ingredients were added to the mix. That's what is done at CaCao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock, where 2 ounces of Mexican chocolate per cup is the base for the Abuelita Mocha Latte, with cinnamon, nutmeg and smoked almonds, and the Azteca Mocha Latte, which also is topped with chili powder.

“That one's my personal favorite,” says front of the house manager Frank Coria. “It's got a little kick to it.”

He says there's not really a written recipe for the drinks, it's just the process of melting the chocolate in water on top of the stove, then whisking in steamed milk. The key to the drinks' taste is the chocolate, which is imported from Oaxaca.

“It's kind of simple, right?” points out Coria.

At the La Monarca Bakery chain, the favorite drink is a Mexican hot chocolate with a shot of organic Oaxacan espresso. Founder Alfredo Livas says the imported chocolate consists of “stone ground cacao mixed with ground cinnamon, brown sugar and a hint of roasted peanuts.”

Livas shared the recipe for La Monarca's Mexican hot chocolate, with a caveat: “The trick is on not burning the milk (don't go over 165 F) and frothing the chocolate to have enough foam.”

DIY Mexican Hot Chocolate; Credit: E. Dwass

DIY Mexican Hot Chocolate; Credit: E. Dwass

La Monarca Bakery Mexican Hot Chocolate

Step 1 – Grate a disc of Chocolate Mexicano, and set aside:

Start by grating one disc (approx. 1.3 oz) for every cup (6 to 8 oz) of hot chocolate. Use a rasp, microplane, or cheese grater for this. While it's not strictly necessary to grate the chocolate before melting it into your liquid, grated chocolate melts faster and is less prone to burning on the bottom of the pan. If using powdered Mexican chocolate, add 2 tablespoons for every cup.

Step 2 – Heat water or milk until just below boiling:

In Mexico, hot chocolate is typically made with water. If you prefer a thicker, richer version, milk (any kind) is the preferred choice. Start by heating the milk or water in a high-walled saucepan until it's almost ready to boil.

Step 3 – Mix in chocolate:

Add in the grated chocolate. Mix well and continuously to prevent the chocolate from sticking to the bottom. Any liquid additions (rum, bourbon, tequila, vanilla) should be mixed in now.

Step 4 – Pour chocolate mixture into pitcher; whisk:

Mexican hot chocolate is typically served frothy, with a thick head of foam on top. This is achieved by vigorously whisking the mixture using a molinillo (wooden Mexican whisk) or a standard whisk. Pour the liquid into an earthenware pitcher or narrow high-walled vessel. Whip until airy and frothed up, about two minutes.

Step 5 – Pour the mixture into warm mugs, serve, enjoy:

Pour into pre-warmed mugs. Garnish with a cinnamon stick for stirring, grated chocolate on top, or whipped cream. Serve immediately.

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