Hot ChocolateBy amy • • Feb 15th, 2009 • Category: Beverages, Columns, Sweets
Ah, Valentine’s Day. It’s a chance for Shelf Life to combine two of our favourite things, music and chocolate. And we like both of them hot. Marshmallows are fine, cinnamon sticks are good as well, but for Shelf Life nothing goes with hot chocolate like Hot Chocolate. This was the seventies disco band who had hits like ‘Everyone’s A Winner’ and ‘It Started With A Kiss’. Recently, with a cup of our favourite cocoa in hand, Shelf Life watched the group’s old clips on YouTube – and there they are, boogie guys in aviator shades and tight white satin, syncopating away under the coloured lights, while the 1975 studio audience dreamily bops along. Like the drink they named themselves after, this stuff is irresistible. ‘You Sexy Thing’ is an amazingly steamy song, in a retro kind of way, it’s like the musical equivalent of a tumble in a Jacuzzi.
But the point is: availability. On Valentine’s Day in 1975, both funky Hot Chocolate and fine hot chocolate were largely inaccessible to most people. If Hot Chocolate were not performing, say, on a winter evening in downtown Toronto – where they were most needed – you could not trudge home and punch them up on the Internet. Similarly, if you wanted to mark the occasion with something sexy and sweet and drinkable, your local supermarket would have probably offered you one brand of hot cocoa, and by today’s standards that product would have been extremely basic. Today, an old-school standby like Carnation is a slow mover in an increasingly crowded race, with high sales at the expensive front end. Shelf Life found more than ten brands of gourmet hot chocolate in downtown Toronto, with many more obtainable at the touch of a keyboard.
Shelf Life is romantic, so we like to think that the more chocolate there is, and the more music that goes with it, the more magic gets spread around. Here’s a fantasy for this Valentine’s Day of togetherness and passion and dreams: wouldn’t it be wonderful if every time people enjoy good chocolate or dance to a smoochy tune extra love enters the world. ‘I believe in miracles’, sang that long-ago guy under the disco ball, and so do we.
Practicing their smooth moves over an unsuspecting beverage are this weeks expert judges: food writer Stephanie Dickison, restaurant reviewer for Dine.TO; culinary journalist and Food Cult mastermind Howard Dubrovsky; and Chris Zielinski, Executive Chef, Ultra Supper Club, all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent us from evaluating every brand in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste-tested and awarded between zero and five stars.
Stephanie: Interesting aroma; quite creamy, but with something else in there, almost like potatoes. I look at Brand One and think: calories. it appears very rich. But then I get disappointed: the texture is dry and unsatisfying, and it tastes like bran cookies.
Howard: I’m in the middle of the road with Brand One. It’s not superb but it’s not ho-hum either. It’s not too sweet, and it has an odd metallic note ? in fact I like the slightly bitter edge. It looks like chocolate milk. I’m not in love but I could have an alright time with this one.
Chris: It definitely has that hint of bitterness to it, so the sweetness doesn’t overwhelm, which is good. Decent finish, texture a bit on the gritty side, nice friendly aroma. I could drink this whole cup.
Brand One Total EIGHT AND A HALF STARS ********1/2
Stephanie: This one reminds me of the hot chocolate I grew up with, not the best product, but when you’re young something like this really satisfies. Brand Two tastes a little on the cheap and processed side, but for me it has that childhood appeal. It smells like wet bamboo.
Howard: Here you get a little froth, and a big chocolate smell. Brand Two is like the previous brand, only better, maybe a bit sweeter, with a sexy texture. There’s a similar bitter note underneath.
Chris: This one is growing on me, the more I drink it the more notes I’m picking up. The smell is lightly burnt. It has a sultry texture and a very endearing taste, balanced and also seductive. Whoa time to say: down, boy.
Brand Two Total ELEVEN STARS ***********
Stephanie: The colour is gorgeous, it resembles the most beautiful brown paint you can imagine, or a rich dark stained wood. There’s a lot going on here ? a silky, sexy texture, and the kind of taste you would expect from a gourmet hot chocolate. It smells like Playdoh.
Howard: A little sweeter than the rest with a tiny shot of acidity that wakes it up, plus wonderful shine and colour, Brand Three is hottest of the hot./ /If it was a person ? put it this way; if Brand Three walked into the room, you would do a double take.
Chris: I agree, it’s a panty peeler, for sure, though it’s not my favourite. Brand Three has a decadent appearance, a light, grainy texture, and a bit less salt than the others. Maybe it’s the occasion, but to me it smells like cinnamon hearts.
Brand Three Total ELEVEN STARS ***********
Stephanie: It’s got a thin texture, but a real sweet dark chocolate taste. Brand Four has an old-fashioned quality? It’s Grandma’s dark chocolate, and she’s tucked right up under her quilt. It’s good hot chocolate but I might not choose it for Valentine’s Day.
Howard: This one delivers a mighty chocolate hit, and it’s on the sweet side? Kids would enjoy Brand Four. It might end up too sweet, though, with marshmallows.
Chris: For me Brand Four is cloyingly sweet. I also found it a little oily, and viscous. But it’s strong. I can see that some people would like it – it might be their ideal. Check out that bizarre aroma, which is like rosewater.
Brand Four total EIGHT AND A HALF STARS ********1/2
Results: For the first time in Shelf Life history, a taste test has produced two sets of twin results. Van Houten and Williams-Sonoma were judged equally enjoyable, with Godiva and Marie Belle in tandem just a few sips behind.
Off The Menu: Chacun a son gout? Each of these brands has something to recommend it. But whatever your choice, don’t stop the music. Shelf Life suggests you drink up accompanied by the video of Hot Chocolate’s Put Your Love In Me, which dates from 1976. Not only does the vocalist plead /tonight I wanna be in HEAVEN /but there’s also an entire disco’s worth of cosmic star-filters and special effects, including a semi-nude couple with big hair who seem to be kissing and making out on top of the drum kit. (Is there a better way of capturing the spirit of hot chocolate, especially on this day of love?).