In the winter, there are few drinks that hit the spot like cocoa. Not the little packets of powdery faux chocolate with desiccated marshmallows, mind you. I’m talking about the real deal, made from Hershey’s cocoa and whole milk and sugar and vanilla, simmered on the stovetop. While mixing a packet with water and nuking it in the microwave is fast and easy and diet-friendly, making real cocoa isn’t much more difficult, and the flavor is richer and deeper, worth every calorie. Plus, nothing that made in the microwave can create the same aroma as the homemade edition.
When my fellow baby boomers and I were little, there were no microwaves. I know that's hard to believe. If we wanted popcorn, we had to pull out a heavy pan, heat the oil until smoking, carefully deposit a kernel into the pan, wait for it to pop, then add the full measure, cover, and shake. That popcorn tasted wonderful hot or even cold, if any was left over.
The fact that both cocoa and popcorn have been adopted for microwave preparation reinforces their almost universal appeal. It is somewhat discouraging that few people seem to realize the originals are easy to make and infinitely better tasting. Of course, families were bigger when I was growing up. The six children in our family didn't raise an eyebrow back then. Even if we had microwaves, by the time my mother could have prepared nine generous cups of cocoa in the microwave, she could have just as quickly made enough to serve the family from scratch.
My mother didn’t use a recipe for many things, cocoa included. She considered how many people she was serving and put a few tablespoons of cocoa powder in the aluminum pan that I still associate with snowstorms and chilly winter nights. She added sugar by eye, about three times the measure of cocoa. She worked a little water into the dry mixture and put the pot over medium heat, waiting for it to come to a quick boil. Then she added milk, milk from glass bottles that were delivered to our door from Eachus Dairy, until the color was just right. She turned down the heat, and let the pot come to a low simmer before adding a swig of vanilla. It was ready for us when we came indoors from shoveling, our noses red, our coats and snow pants dripping from melting snow.
That was the Milanese version of cocoa, the only one I knew until I met my future in-laws. For them, cocoa was part of a meal that they often served on Sunday night, cocoa and cheese sandwiches. They actually dip their grilled cheese sandwiches into their cocoa, a culinary experience that thirty some years later I still find peculiar. My mother-in-law, a less certain cook than my mother, measured everything with great care. She made sure I had her recipe so that my husband could enjoy the very same cocoa he grew up with. She worried, though, about my lack of fiscal responsibility because I used all milk, straight from the cow. I did not create a more frugal mix of reconstituted powdered milk and whole milk, the way she always prepared it for her family. She worried that the cocoa wouldn’t taste the same in my house, and it probably doesn’t. It isn’t because of the difference in milk product, though. It is more my nature.
Each time I make cocoa, I use my mother’s method, eying up ingredients, certain that it will never taste exactly the same. My mother’s method allows for surprise, something I don’t mind. Sometimes my cocoa is more chocolaty. Sometimes it is more milky. No matter. When I catch a whiff of chocolate coming from the gently bubbling cocoa, I’m transported back to my childhood, sitting around the table with my five brothers, my parents, and my grandmother, listening to the wind howl and the adults tell stories about more violent storms in years gone by. I remember muscles pleasantly sore from helping clear the walks and parking lot, knowing the value of a job well done. I remember how good my fingers felt holding a warm mug, how excited we were that school might be cancelled.
Those memories don’t come from a packet, pilgrim.