Marguerite Swoboda uses the frother on her espresso machine to make her salted caramel hot chocolate.
Winter is supposed to be returning this week.
You know what that means: Good hot chocolate weather.
Portland is a coffee town, but in the winter nothing beats a good cup of classic hot chocolate or hot cocoa.
What's the difference? Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, sugar, and milk, while hot chocolate is made from finely chopped chocolate melted in milk or cream.
Cocoa powder does not have the cocoa butter that's found in hot chocolate, so it's usually thinner and a bit less rich than hot chocolate. Hot chocolate is also usually smoother and creamier, thanks to the cocoa butter.
"Even high-quality, unsweetened cocoa doesn't have the cocoa butter that chocolate has," notes Dean Bingham, owner of Dean's Sweets in Portland, which sells three varieties of hot chocolate mixes.
Bingham's "Double Dark" hot chocolate mix contains unsweetened cocoa, sugar, chocolate chips that are 70 percent cacao and a touch of vanilla.
Marguerite Swoboda, owner of Sweet Marguerites in South Portland, says hot chocolates are becoming more popular, partly because coffee houses are making lots of mochas -- hot chocolates mixed with espresso.
"I think that's more of an adult thing," she said. "They're not feeling so bad about drinking hot chocolate. They're cutting it with the caffeine a bit."
Mocha hot chocolates aren't the only variation of the decadent drink hitting the stores. There's white hot chocolate, "Aztec hot chocolate" with chile powder to give it some heat, salted caramel hot chocolate, peppermint hot chocolate, chai hot chocolate - you think of a flavor, it's probably out there.
To help guide you through the dizzying array of choices, I've put together a little guide to hot chocolate in the greater Portland area.
If I don't cover your favorite spot, don't send me angry emails. This isn't intended to be a complete guide, by any means. (No one can, or should, drink that much hot chocolate.)
Let me know -- politely -- where you like to go, and I'll follow up with a blog post covering your other suggestions.
As for my list, some places were deliberately chosen because I knew they'd have hot chocolate that would make me swoon. Other places, I just randomly stopped in to be sure I had a fair cross section of the area's hot chocolate hot spots.
Generally speaking, hot chocolates from chocolatiers or establishments specializing in sweets were the best. Perhaps not surprisingly, hot chocolates served in coffee shops usually played second fiddle to the coffee.
Here's my list, ranked from one to four hot chocolate cups:
434 Fore St., Portland
Variety: Italian hot chocolate
Cost: $3.99 one size
Four hot cocoa cups
Don't be surprised if you start hearing sleigh bells while you drink this. This is classic hot chocolate, the kind of drink you dream about when you hear the song "Winter Wonderland" or crave after coming in from a long day of skiing or playing in the snow.
It's made with two kinds of Belgian chocolate and whole milk. Be sure to ask for whipped cream on top -- it's real whipped cream, cold, thick and delicious, and floats well and long on top of the chocolate. You don't have to worry about it all melting into the cup before you take your last sip.
This was one of my favorites. It's classic, it's chocolatey, the whipped cream is divine, and I felt like a kid again while I was drinking it.
SWEET MARGUERITES CHOCOLATE CAFE
382 Cottage Road, South Portland
Varieties: Regular and salted caramel. Also sells a "Hot Chocolate Kit."
Cost: $2.79 each, one size
Salted caramel: Four hot cocoa cups
Marguerite Swoboda makes both a "regular" hot chocolate and a salted caramel hot chocolate. Both drinks start with her chocolate base, which is made with hand-chopped El Rey's bittersweet and milk chocolate and half the amount of whole milk that will go into the final cup. Then she uses the frother on her espresso machine to add the rest of the milk. Both recipes also contain a bit of cinnamon and salt.
For the salted caramel, Swoboda adds the same salted caramel that she uses in her handmade chocolates. It's a drippy, soft caramel that melts well into the hot chocolate.
"We also have chile powder, so if someone wants it spicy when we're doing the final step, the frothing, we can add chile powder to it," Swoboda said.
Salted caramel is a trendy flavor profile right now, but sometimes people overdo it. What I liked about the salted caramel hot chocolate at Sweet Marguerites is that the flavoring was subtle. Overall, the drink was smooth and balanced; the delicious chocolate was not overwhelmed by the caramel or a lot of salt.
Swoboda does not add whipped cream to her rich hot chocolates because she thinks it "would just be too much." I'm not sure I agree. I think whipped cream should always be an option -- hey, it's hot chocolate -- but Swoboda is just listening to her customers.
"When we first started serving it, people were telling us it was too rich, so we cut back on the size of the cup that we were using, and I was afraid that adding whipped cream on top of it would just make it over the top," she said. "We're testing a drink called liquid chocolate, which is a much thicker version of a hot chocolate served in an espresso cup, and I'm thinking of doing whipped cream for that."
If you'd like to take some regular hot chocolate home, Swoboda also sells "hot chocolate kits" for $12. The kits serve four.
COFFEE BY DESIGN
43 Washington Ave., Portland
620 Congress St., Portland
67 India St., Portland
Varieties and cost: Regular chocolate $2.65 for 12 ounces, $2.95 for 16 ounces and $3.25 for 20 ounces; white hot chocolate $2.75, $3.05 and $3.35; peppermint hot chocolate, salted caramel, Mexican and hot chocolates flavored with syrups $3.15, $3.45 and $3.75
Regular chocolate and white chocolate: Two-and-a-half hot cocoa cups
Coffee By Design probably has the widest variety of flavors, but each location offers different hot chocolate specials, so what's available will depend upon which store you visit. I went to the India Street store and tried both the regular hot chocolate and the white hot chocolate.
The regular chocolate was thin but had a stronger chocolate flavor to it than some other coffeehouse hot chocolates. It would be just fine for an everyday choice when you don't want something that's too rich.
It turns out there's a reason for that good chocolate flavor. Apparently, CBD uses Ghirardelli sweet ground chocolate powder in their hot chocolates. They add a little milk to the powder to create a syrup, then add that syrup into more milk.
I'm not normally a white chocolate person -- white chocolate isn't really even chocolate, it's just cocoa butter, sugar and some other ingredients -- but if you like white chocolate, you'll like the flavor of Coffee By Design's white hot chocolate.
One caveat: Although the flavor was good, it was way too sweet for me. So if you don't like sweet drinks, maybe this one isn't for you.
Over the holidays, I heard raves about the salted caramel flavor, but apparently now it's only made by request. The Mexican hot chocolate, which contains hot sauce, is one of CBD's most popular flavors right now.
MARKET HOUSE COFFEE
Public Market House
28 Monument Square, Portland
Varieties: Milk, white, dark and Aztec mocha
Cost: Aztec Mocha $4 for 8 ounces; $4.50 for 12 ounces; $5 for 16 ounces; $5.50 for 20 ounces
Aztec: Two hot chocolate cups
This little coffee place, located on the second floor of the Public Market House, only had Aztec Mocha listed on the board the day I visited, so that was what I ordered. The drink, according to the board, was made with dark chocolate flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and a dash of cayenne pepper.
The cup looked great, with lots of foam -- lots more foam than hot chocolates I got at other coffee houses. I was disappointed, though, when I tasted it. I was expecting a rich dark chocolate taste, but instead the drink was overpowered by the cayenne pepper. I couldn't taste the chocolate or any of the other spices, and there was a weird grittiness to it. There were little pieces of something in my mouth that had almost the texture of coconut. Was it the other spices? Who knows, because all I could taste was cayenne.
2 Free St., Portland
Variety: Regular hot chocolate
Cost: $2.34, $2.57 and $2.80
Two hot cocoa cups
This one, made with a liquid and milk, had little foam and tasted more like warmed milk than hot chocolate. This was like something you'd make for the kids at home after they've been sledding -- something out of a packet you keep on the shelf. It just wasn't anything special.
Maine Mall, South Portland
Varieties: Classic, salted caramel, chai hot chocolate
Cost: $19.99 for 12 ounces
Chai hot chocolate: Three-and-a-half hot chocolate cups
Every holiday season, my family splurges on some Williams-Sonoma hot chocolate, which is made from shavings of premium bittersweet Guittard chocolate that melts well in milk. Last year, we tried the salted caramel version and were not impressed. It screamed "here's some salted caramel because we thought we'd cash in on this trendy flavor profile." The salted caramel flavoring was so strong, it tasted artificial.
We had better luck this year with the chai hot chocolate, which includes flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves. This was much more subtly flavored and well balanced. Whereas I will never touch the salted caramel again, I've gone back to the chai hot chocolate two or three times and still have it on the shelf at home.
425 Fore St., Portland
Variety: Drinking chocolate
Four cups of hot cocoa
Portland's two competing gelato shops are also fierce competitors when it comes to hot chocolate. Both stores have out-of-this-world classic hot chocolate, but they are also very different, so it's hard to say I prefer one over the other. If you are looking for something that is absolutely rich and the very definition of the word "decadent," the Gelato Fiasco hot chocolate is the one for you. It may be too rich for some people, but if you're in the mood, trust me, this is a treat.
The drinking chocolate is made with chocolate gelato before it's been frozen -- be careful, I can hear you drooling from here -- which gives it a thickness and creaminess unlike any other hot chocolate I've tried around town. According to the woman who made mine, the gelato is combined with whole milk and a splash of choclate-flavored syrup. An infusion of peppermint is optional. (I declined this and drank mine "straight.")
For toppings, you can have either whipped cream or a big homemade marshmallow shaped like a star. I chose the marshmallow, and the woman behind the counter got out a little hand-held torch and "roasted" it for me.
This drink was just exquisite. Extremely rich, but exquisite.
82 Middle St., Portland
Varieties: Double dark, white chocolate mocha, Aztec
Cost: $10.50 for a 9-ounce package that makes 8 to 10 cups
White chocolate mocha: Aztec: three-and-a-half cups of hot cocoa
You can't buy individual cups of Dean's Sweets hot chocolates. They are only sold in take-home mixes.
Dean Bingham recommends using a heaping tablespoon of mix for each cup, then letting his cocoas sit for about 45 seconds before drinking so the chocolate chips in the mix have a chance to melt. Then, he says, it should be whipped or shaken to get it nice and frothy.
I tried two of Bingham's three cocoas, adding froth to both with my hand blender. The white chocolate mocha contains unsweetened cocoa powder, white chocolate chips and a Coffee By Design Italian roast coffee in a Turkish grind. That, Bingham says, "means that you end up with a little bit of residue at the bottom of the cup, but it gives you great coffee flavor."
The white chocolate mocha is for the person who doesn't like their hot chocolate very sweet. It had a mild bitterness to it, and I couldn't detect much white chocolate flavor -- maybe I didn't spoon enough white chocolate chips into the cup. I like mochas, though, and this was a nice change of pace after trying so many other sweet hot chocolates around town. But it's not something I would have, say, every weekend.
I much preferred the Aztec chocolate, which Bingham says is his favorite as well. The hot chocolate's heat and flavor comes from a blend of cayenne, cinnamon and star anise. I thought the star anise was an especially nice touch. The cayenne gave it plenty of heat, but not enough to overwhelm the chocolate flavor.
Dean's Sweets also makes homemade marshmallows for those who prefer something better, and lighter, than what comes in the plastic packages at the grocery store.
9 Monument Square, Portland
Varieties: Peppermint cocoa, plus others made with flavored syrups
Cost: $2.75 for a smallTwo-and-a-half hot cocoa cups
This is your standard cocoa, made with cocoa, sugar, whole milk and flavored syrup. But it was good, and the peppermint flavor wasn't too strong. If you like peppermint cocoa and want to just grab one on the way to work, this one will serve you well.Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:
Marguerite Swoboda of Sweet Marguerites in South Portland melts chocolate that she’ll use in her salted caramel hot chocolate.
Ingredients include Maine sea salt, caramel, cinnamon, whole milk and El Rey bittersweet and milk chocolate.
Gelato Fiasco's hot chocolate