Pacific Northwest | January 4, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 4, home
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The Liquor of Winter
Nothing warms like cocoa from a favorite thermos
A cup of steaming cocoa — especially one with a secret ingredient to make it extra creamy — is best enjoyed outside, after a brisk hike to someplace remote.
You could call it one of the wonders of the modern world. Most people call it a thermos. Like "Kleenex," however, Thermos was a trade name for years, and the vacuum bottle — as these things are generically called — goes by many names. My personal favorite happens to be a rusty, old, unbreakable Stanley. I bought it at a garage sale. For some reason this old bottle spoke to me, and when I picked it up, so did its previous owner.

"I'll let you have it for a dollar," he said, "but you have to hear the story." Apparently the bottle fell out of an airplane in Alaska in the 1960s. "The door came open during the flight, and the bottle landed in a snowbank. The pilot said not to worry, we'd pick it up on the way back.

"Sure enough, the next day, on the way back to the base camp, we stopped and got it, and you know what?" He leaned in close as if to share a secret, "The coffee was still hot!"

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When vacuum bottles were introduced, few could have foreseen their true potential. Who knew that North American commuters would someday have vacuum-insulated coffee cups resting in cup holders designed for that purpose? When William Stanley created his version in 1913, he was working on a way to transport living tissue for the livestock industry. The project involved breeding cattle. (Think about it if you must, but not for too long.)

For me, a vacuum bottle has only one meaningful purpose, and that is the transport of hot cocoa. Coffee or tea may be enjoyed sitting comfortably at home, but cocoa belongs outdoors. Perhaps because it is so decadent in itself, cocoa in more commodious surroundings becomes redundant. To be enjoyed properly, hot cocoa should be taken somewhere remote, somewhere barely accessible, somewhere cold.

By the same token, cocoa should be somewhat difficult to make. Quick and easy versions are pointless. Generally speaking, versions of cocoa made from presweetened, chocolate-flavored drink mixes are never as satisfying as those made carefully from scratch. (I was raised in Florida, and my family had no great cocoa tradition. We used Nestle's Quick or Hershey's Instant and, while it was easy to fix, the stuff we made was not what you would call memorable.)

I first learned to make real cocoa reading "A Wrinkle in Time," by Madeleine L'Engle. (I was probably 8 or 9 years old.) In an opening scene, the young Charles Wallace is making cocoa for his sister, Meg. "It was a dark and stormy night. The Cocoa steamed fragrantly in the pan, geraniums bloomed on the windowsill." I'm not sure if it was later in the book, in one of its sequels or in my imagination that I read a description of just how the cocoa was made. The children's scientist mother was making cocoa over a Bunsen burner, and into a base of boiling cocoa and sugar she stirred milk so slowly that the liquid never stopped simmering.

After I read that I started experimenting with cocoa, sugar and milk. I perused my mother's cookbook collection for old recipes. After a time, I developed a formula that seemed more or less infallible. Start by boiling the cocoa and sugar with a little water to make chocolate syrup. Use twice as much sugar as cocoa, and be sure to include a pinch of salt. Finally, stir in the milk and heat until steaming. Once you add the milk, avoid bringing the liquid to a boil or the cocoa will form an unpleasant skin on top.

This loose set of directions made me popular in college and served me well for decades. Then two things happened. At Maison du Chocolat in New York City, I ordered cocoa and received a cup of liquid almost thick enough to qualify as pudding. I couldn't imagine how the stuff got so thick and creamy. A few months later, a friend introduced me to a Spanish cocoa mix.

When I reluctantly followed the instructions to boil the mixture for a full minute (I was afraid there might be a skin on top), I found that the Spanish cocoa mix yielded a beverage every bit as thick as the stuff I had in New York. I read the ingredients and uncovered the secret: cornstarch.

At home in my own kitchen laboratory, I worked up a homemade version that boils the cornstarch and does not boil the milk. I think I have hit on something really good. Secreted away in a vacuum bottle and pulled out at the end of a long, cold trail, this is the stuff that winter picnics were made for. And I think the vacuum bottle may have finally found its best and highest use.

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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