The first time my husband and I took our kids to Italy was in 2004. Our daughter was six and our son had just turned eight. It was a two-week trip to research my first cookbook. I was excited about that. But what I was looking forward to even more was showing my children the place their mother adored so much and tended to go on and on (and on) about; the place where I had spent so many endless summers when I was growing up.
Except it was November. And instead of being down at the beach on the coast of Abruzzo, which is where I had spent most of my time as a girl, we were way up on a hill in a small farmhouse we had rented in Umbria, far away from summer or the seashore. There were no other families with kids around. It was a great place to be if you were researching soups and stews, but maybe not such a great place if you were six or eight.
It was, in short, not the kid-friendliest trip. The colorful, cultivated hills were cloaked in mist, and a chilly drizzle seemed to be about all the time. Our days consisted of a lot of driving. We would pick a town on the map and head toward it, our ultimate goal being (always) to find a good meal. It usually took much longer than we bargained for to get wherever we were going (in Italy, everything looks much closer on the map). We criss-crossed Umbria and ventured over the border into Tuscany, hitting, in our haphazard way, Arezzo, Assisi, Cortona, Deruta, Gubbio, and other places before eventually heading back to Rome to visit my cousin.
When we weren’t driving we were walking, which the kids liked because the hill towns with their narrow cobbled streets reminded them of Hogsmeade (or what Hogsmeade might be like if J.K.Rowling were Italian). And when we weren’t walking we were eating, which they sort of liked, but let’s face it, when you are six and eight eating is just not a priority, no matter how good the food is (unless the food is called gelato).
Still, once they had resigned themselves to the cruel reality that this trip was to be nothing like, say, Disney World (which they have yet to visit), the kids proved to be troupers. Though I might be blocking out certain moments of back-seat bickering and smacking and whining and exasperated scolding.
Let’s just say there was a certain amount of bribery involved–in addition to gelato, a stuffed animal here, a soccer ball there, a couple of those plastic faux tourist cameras that show different attractions in the view finder when you click the little button. And hot chocolate. Lots of hot chocolate. Italian cioccolata calda is halfway between a drink and a spoon dessert, very dark and thick and with a bitter edge. Our daughter would drink it hot and our son would wait for it to cool and eat it like warm pudding. It quickly became a daily ritual for us to stop at a bar late in the afternoon after walking around in the chilly mist. My husband and I would toss back one (or two) espressos and the kids would have their hot chocolate.
Six years down the road we still talk about our first trip to Italy together, so I am not sure why it didn’t occur to me sooner to try a homemade version of cioccolata calda. At any rate, when the power went out during last week’s storm a lightbulb finally switched on in my head. I had all of the ingredients–milk, cream, cocoa, sugar, and cornstarch (the secret ingredient)–plus a gas stove, and it turned out to be one of those happy occasions in which a single attempt was all it took. My daughter drank hers hot and my son let his cool and used a spoon.
What drinks are you stirring up to keep warm this winter?
This is a very rich version of hot chocolate, so rather than serving it in mugs I use cappuccino cups, which are shallower. You could even serve it in espresso cups as a drinkable dessert. Use the best unsweetened cocoa powder you can find. I used Pernigotti, a brand my mother favors that is produced in Novi Ligure Alessandria, north of Genoa, and which I purchased at Williams-Sonoma.
- 1 cup milk (I used skim; whatever you have is fine)
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
Measure the milk, cream, and cocoa powder into a saucepan and set it over medium heat. Begin whisking to incorporate the ingredients, and reduce the heat to medium-low or low if necessary to prevent it from boiling.
When the milk is warm, gently whisk in 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Continue to cook over a gentle flame until the cocoa and sugar are dissolved and the mixture is steaming hot. Add a little more sugar for sweeter hot chocolate.
Measure the cornstarch into a small bowl. Spoon a little of the hot chocolate mixture into the bowl and stir it into the cornstarch. Pour this mixture into the hot chocolate and continue to whisk over low heat for another couple of minutes, until thick and smooth but still drinkable.
Cooking time (duration): 10 minutes
Number of servings (yield): 2-3
Meal type: dessert
Culinary tradition: Italian
Copyright © Domenica Marchetti.