Can you tell I was never on any sports team in high school? Any time the word “competition” is mentioned, I start to get the cold sweats. I’d rather just be a participant, a team player, not a contestant to be judged. Maybe I’m still smarting from the humiliation of all-class kickball games in fourth grade, or maybe I’m just a wuss.
But I’m also easily persuaded. So when my fellow food writers bully me into doing a hot cocoa cook-off, I must reluctantly pull out my dueling pistols and defend my honor.
Back in October, I reunited with Food Blogger Camp besties Stephanie Stiavetti, Sarah Olson and Garrett McCord at BlogHer Food in San Francisco. Once again, the minute we got together, it was like sleepover camp run amok, complete with late-night pillow giggle sessions, in-jokes repeated ad infinitum and lots of snacky overeating.
In between viewings of Dr. Tran videos, copious consumption of Hi-Chew candies, epic drunken photo sessions at parties, and actual conference attending, our conversations kept returning to the salted caramel hot chocolate we’d sampled from Oakland’s Bittersweet on our first night in town.
The four of us had split a huge cup of the hot chocolate like an appetizer on our way to dinner and were all impressed by its distinctly savory caramel notes. “How would you make it?” became a constant refrain over the next five days, and we couldn’t help but brainstorm other hot chocolate variations.
The challenge was on. I’m not calling it a competition because of the aforementioned sweats, but you’re certainly encouraged to make all of the cocoa varieties we’ve invented:
- Garrett: Hungarian Heat, a semisweet hot chocolate with smoked paprika, cloves and white pepper
- Sarah: Gingerbread hot cocoa with white pepper
- Stephanie: Thai Spice, peanut butter curry hot cocoa
And my entry below, of course, a fairly faithful replication of the Bittersweet salted caramel hot chocolate. My preference runs to a less-rich cocoa powder-based drink rather than the intense hot chocolates flavored with chocolate shavings, but feel free to add an ounce of semisweet chocolate chips if you’re into a thicker drink.
Salted Caramel Hot Cocoa
Total time: 15 minutes
Makes 2 servings
- 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (I adore Scharffen Berger)
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tsp Maldon sea salt
- 1/4 cup cream
In a medium saucepan, whisk the cocoa powder into the milk and set aside.
Pour the sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan that will comfortably fit the sugar with some headroom. Place over medium-low heat and stir gently with a wooden spoon to keep the sugar heating evenly.
As the sugar heats, it will turn from fine grains to white shardy pieces to golden shards to a melted amber puddle. Be patient, and refer to the video on our caramel sauce post if you want to see the process.
When the sugar is fully dissolved and a deep golden caramel, stir in the Maldon sea salt and take the pan off the heat. Pour the cream into the caramel in a thin, steady stream while stirring; the caramel will hiss, bubble and harden, so this is where it’s crucial to have a pan with enough room to prevent boil-over.
Return the pan to the heat and continue to stir to re-melt the caramel.
As you stir the caramel, heat the milk/cocoa powder mixture over medium-low heat until it begins to steam. Keep the milk under a simmer or you’ll get a milk “skin” on top, one of my least favorite surprises in my cocoa mug. Whisk the hot caramel into the milk and serve immediately, with or without marshmallows.