In 1985, when I was a college student living in Italy and the dollar was worth 2,300 lire, I developed a taste for luxury. Leather boots, cashmere scarves, pasta topped with truffles: None of these were beyond my student means.
How times have changed. On a trip to Florence a few weeks ago, I quickly realized that the current exchange rate was going to prohibit the purchase of leather, cashmere and truffles. I consoled myself with one luxury from my student days that I could still afford, Italian-style hot chocolate.
Hot chocolate in Italy can't really be described as a beverage. It's more like a fine-quality European chocolate bar in liquid form. Indulging daily made me feel rich but only cost a few euros. Sipping a cup of the stuff at the Roberto Cavalli Café, off the fashionable Via Tornabuoni, was as satisfying as buying a handbag or pair of sunglasses in the adjacent boutique.
The gold standard is served at Rivoire, the elegant tea room and chocolate shop in the Piazza della Signoria where Savoy "chocolate in a cup" has been a specialty since 1872. Chocolate lovers make pilgrimages to this Belle Epoque landmark and elbow their way to the marble-topped bar to enjoy chocolate the way locals do, as a quick winter afternoon pick-me-up (table service will triple the bill). I thought it would be easy enough to find instructions for Rivoire's hot chocolate online. But I discovered when I got home that the recipe is a closely guarded secret, and I'd have to experiment like so many pilgrims before me to come up with a reasonable approximation.
It made sense to begin with a recipe from Pellegrino Artusi, a Tuscan cookbook author who has been called the Italian Fannie Farmer, and whose extremely popular 1891 handbook of Italian cooking has never been out of print. To make Artusi's hot chocolate, I simply melted bittersweet chocolate and water in a double boiler until it was hot, and then whipped it in a blender. The mixture was too thin and bitter for my taste. To make a thicker brew, I added a little cornstarch (suggested in several Italian recipes), which gave the chocolate a wonderfully silky texture. Replacing the water with low-fat milk tempered the chocolate's bitterness without dulling its flavor.
At some of the trendier Florentine cafes (including Hemingway and Café Vestri), I enjoyed variations on traditional hot chocolate that included cinnamon or cayenne pepper. These are easy enough to make. For Spiced Hot Chocolate, stir 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg into the bowl with the chocolate, cornstarch mixture and milk. For Spicy Hot Chocolate, add 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper.
ITALIAN-STYLE HOT CHOCOLATE
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 cups low-fat milk
6 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened whipped cream (optional)
1. Place cornstarch in small bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon milk until smooth.
2. Put 1 inch of water in bottom of a double boiler or medium saucepan and bring to a bare simmer. Place chocolate, cornstarch mixture and remaining milk in top of double boiler or in a stainless steel bowl big enough to rest on top of saucepan, and set it on top of simmering water, making sure water doesn't touch bottom of bowl. Heat, whisking, until chocolate is melted and mixture is very warm and steamy (but not quite boiling) and slightly thickened, 5 to 8 minutes.
3. Scrape half of hot chocolate into blender and blend for 30 seconds. Pour into 2 mugs. Repeat with remaining hot chocolate mixture. Top each serving with 2 tablespoons whipped cream if desired and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.