Mexican Hot Chocolate for that February Holiday

In the days following this past Christmas, the spam emails that regularly flood my inbox emerged like virtual heart-shaped confetti bombs in rosy reds and shades of pink. A loopy script font informed me that is was almost Valentine’s Day. Wonderful.

I guess you could say that it’s not exactly my thing. In a world filled with those that swoon over Jane Austen romance, I’m the outcast in the corner reaching for the existential crises of Kafka. Though I may not be much of a romantic, it’s not at all that I’m against love itself or the act of showing it. Far from it, in fact! It’s more so the hyper-idyllic representations of what we “should” be doing to show our love, especially on this one specific day, that get on my nerves a bit. My aversion to roses doesn’t help either, I’m afraid.

My Valentine’s Day angst used to come from always being the one without a valentine, though I’m sure many of us been there. But when I finally had that stereotypical Valentine’s Day experience, it was one of those things where a lot of hype and build-up to this romantic holiday led to an underwhelming resolve. I couldn’t help but feeling like I was tricked into doing the same loving things I would normally do in a relationship but spending a lot more money in the process.

As a way to maybe appease the changed but still somewhat harsh attitude I have towards this Hallmark holiday, I now unofficially treat February 14th as Eat-all-the-chocolate-you-possibly-can-in-one-sitting Day instead. Trust me, it makes that invasive scent of roses in the air much more digestible.

This year, I celebrate my version of Valentine’s Day with this cinnamon and cayenne spiced Mexican hot chocolate with vanilla whipped cream. It’s intensely rich and chocolately and almond extract adds those cherry notes that complement the sweet warmth of the cinnamon so well. It’s the kind of hot chocolate meant to be savored and the mug meant to be clutched to the heart with both hands so that the tantalizing scents of the spices dance their way to the nose as frequently as possible.

While I see this drink as the next best thing to a chocolate IV hooked up to my veins, most of you are probably hoping that it will help to defrost my icy frozen heart as well. Any maybe you’re right and later today I’ll be visited by the ghosts of Valentine’s past, present, and future, but for now I’ll happily ride this chocolate high through to the end of the day. Happy V-day errbody.

Mexican Hot Chocolate
Serves 4-6
Adapted slightly from Bon Appetit

3 cups whole milk
3 cinnamon sticks broken into pieces
6 oz. semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped
2 Tbs. granulated sugar
½ tsp. almond extract
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
pinch of salt
1 cup whipping cream
½ tsp. vanilla extract

Combine the milk and the cinnamon stick pieces in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Allow to simmer for about 10 minutes, whisking occasionally. Whisk in the chocolate, sugar, almond extract, cayenne, and salt. Allow to simmer for about 5 more minutes, stirring often, until creamy and heated through. Whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks and stir in the vanilla. Pour the hot chocolate into mugs and serve with the whipped cream.

Apple Cider Caramels

It has very quickly started feeling like fall around here. The other night I walked outside and it smelled exactly like a snow and the my first thought really was, “oh god, winter actually is coming.” Luckily I’ve been packing my weekends so full with fall activities (i.e. haunted houses at BuschGardens), college homecomings at schools I didn’t even go to, drinking beers while wearing flannel. You know, the usual stuff) that it kinda keeps my mind off that sad fact.

You know what else makes me forget about the impending horrors of winter? These apple cider caramels! So do apple cider donuts for that matter, but that’s a story for a different time. I know that the Internet has already said a lot about these caramels and they need no further verification that they taste like the actual essence of fall itself, but here I am doing just that.

The intense apple flavor is what makes these caramels so notable. It has both that rich, nearly buttery flavor of caramelized apples while retaining that tart aspect that really gets the salivary glands going. This comes from boiling 4 cups of apple cider down to about a half cup of pure apple syrup. The syrup then gets a hefty dose of sugar, butter, and cream and flaky salt and cinnamon help to counterbalance the richness and sweetness. The end result is what I can only describe as all things that are good in one single bite. I would go on about how it makes me reminisce about walking through a brisk park while admiring the changing colors of the leaves or something along those lines, but then I might start sounding like this guy. So, I’ll just stop here before things get too carried away and tell you to make these now.

Apple Cider Caramels
Recipe from Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen

4 cups apple cider
½ tsp cinnamon
2 tsp flaky sea salt
8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cups heavy cream

Pour the apple cider into a saucepan and heat on high until boiling. Continue boiling until you have only ½ cup of cider remaining. This should take 30 to 45 minutes. In the meantime, measure out all of your ingredients since the process goes rather quick once the cider is ready. Also, line the bottom and sides of a square brownie pan with 2 pieces of parchment paper.

Once the apple cider has reduced, remove from the heat and add in the sugars, butter and cream. Return to a medium-high heat and stir until all ingredients are melted and incorporated. Stop stirring and attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Let the mixture boil until it reaches 252 degrees Fahrenheit. This will take 4-5 minutes.

Once it reaches temperature, remove the caramel from the heat, quickly stir in the cinnamon and salt and pour the caramel into the pan. Set aside until completely cool. You can also place it in the fridge in you are in a bit of a rush. To cut, remove from the pan and peel off the parchment paper and transfer the caramel to a cutting board. Coat the blade of a large knife in vegetable oil and cut in to 1-inch squares. Wrap each in parchment paper if you are patient like that.