Rediscovering Hot Chocolate

Molinillos, cacao beans and nibs.

Molinillos, cacao beans and nibs.

¡Bate, Bate, Chocolate!

Rediscovering Hot Chocolate


Arcelia Gallardo uses a molinillo to put a foamy head on her hot chocolate.

Arcelia Gallardo uses a molinillo to put a foamy head on her hot chocolate.

Pronounced: báh-teh, báh-teh, chó-co-lá-te,
the headline comes from a Mexican children’s song

¡Bate, bate, chocolate!                    Stir, stir, chocolate,
tu nariz de cacahuate.                    your nose is a peanut.
¡Uno, dos, tres, CHO!                      One, two, three, CHO!
¡Uno, dos, tres, CO!                        One, two, three, CO!
¡Uno, dos, tres, LA!                        One, two, three, LA!
¡Uno, dos, tres, TE!                        One, two, three, TE!
¡Chocolate, chocolate!                    Chocolate, chocolate!
¡Bate, bate, chocolate!                   Stir, stir, the chocolate!
¡Bate, bate, bate, bate!                  Stir, stir, stir, stir

Winter winds make us think of warm things, like wool sweaters, cozy blankets, and perhaps the fiery collision between Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Aztec civilization. That meet-up helped to produce one of the best-of-all warm things: hot chocolate.

The Aztecs and Mayans were among the first to discover the ambrosial qualities of ground cacao beans mixed with water, a bitter drink that the ancients drank cold and unsweetened, in some quarters enlivened with chile peppers or corn flour. The Spanish colonizers embraced the libation and introduced it to Europe. The Europeans added milk, sugar, and heat, and they experimented with adding aromatics like rose petals, saffron, and vanilla.

We may not grow cacao in our corner of the world, but here in the East Bay, we do have knowledgeable purveyors and food artisans that are crafting high-quality ingredients into fine drinking chocolates; all without the additives, artificial ingredients, and excessive refined sugar typically found in packaged mixes. Seekers on this hot chocolate trail can expect to find a subtle balance of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity: the key tastes found in chocolate.

Arcelia Gallardo, co-owner of Casa de Chocolates readies her ingredients for spicy hot chocolate.

Arcelia Gallardo, co-owner of Casa de Chocolates readies her ingredients for spicy hot chocolate.

Casa de Chocolates

For spicy, complex Mexican-style hot chocolate, look for this brick-lined retail shop located at the intersection of Ashby and College avenues in Oakland’s Elmwood district. The owners, Arcelia Gallardo and Amelia Gonzalez, specialize in house-made Mexican, Central, and South American chocolates. A UC Berkeley graduate, Gallardo worked at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena and trained with American and European pastry chefs and chocolatiers in Mexico City and Italy. She’s also committed to supporting sustainable farming and cacao production in indigenous communities.

Gallardo prepares a finely ground mix of hand-sourced, organic cacao nibs, cinnamon, and sugar, the base for her hot chocolate.

Gallardo prepares a finely ground mix of hand-sourced, organic cacao nibs, cinnamon, and sugar, the base for her hot chocolate.

The two women draw on their Mexican heritage to whip up a full-bodied, intensely flavored Mexican hot chocolate. They begin with a base of roasted and hulled cacao nibs (the bean’s edible interior) harvested from beans the owners source in person from a small organic family farm in Belize. “We have to start with the cacao nib to get just the right bitterness,” explains Gallardo. The nibs are ground with Ceylon cinnamon and sugar. She shows me her freshly ground cinnamon. “Can you smell how intense that is?” she asks. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking for the best cinnamon. It’s a really important, defining spice in Mexican desserts. When I smell it I think of hot rice puddings and other regional sweets.”

Traditionally the nib mixture is crushed using a mortar and pestle, but Gallardo and Gonzalez couldn’t get the right consistency using this technique, so they grind their mixture in a juicer. “We tried every machine known to man to get the right grind,” laughs Gallardo. She crumbles a handful of the chunky cacao nib, cinnamon, and sugar base into her saucepan and cooks it with milk, a bit of melted solid Guittard chocolate, dried chile de árbol flakes, and a cinnamon stick.

Casa de Chocolates
2629 Ashby Ave, Berkeley, 510.859.7221,

Chocolatier Blue

For more chocolate with chile, try this Berkeley establishment’s dark, spicy hot chocolate, made with Straus organic whole milk and flavored with an infusion of whole chiles and crushed red pepper flakes. For chocolate, the owners use a fruity, single-origin, 72 percent dark chocolate from Domori Arriba, an Italian company that produces  the rare Criollo cacao at its plantation in Venezuela. This hot drink is long on chocolate with a hint of spicing. The shop also offers a holiday chocolate drink made with fresh peppermint leaves.
Chocolatier Blue: 1964 University Ave, Berkeley, 510.705.8800, 1809 4th St, Berkeley, 510.665.9500,


On Solano Avenue, this ice cream shop, which specializes in organic, seasonal products, blends a warming Aztec Hot Chocolate using their house-made cocoa sauce, cinnamon, chile powder, and steamed organic whole milk from Clover Stornetta. The drink is an intriguingly flavored mix, with cinnamon and chocolate predominating. They also offer a classic hot chocolate without the spicing.
iScream: Solano Ave, Berkeley, 510.527.4787

XOcolate Bar

Located on Solano in North Berkeley, this is the place to go for European-style hot chocolate. Behind the counter of the tiny, colorful standing-room-only storefront, a machine expressly designed for the purpose churns away, mixing and warming a rich, silky-smooth “European-style Hot Sipping Chocolate” made from Guittard 70-percent dark chocolate and water. Similar to the celebrated French hot chocolate served at Angelina’s in Paris, this is the dense, need-a-spoon variety. If you’re inclined to try your own custom mix, a kit of chocolate tablets to make 20 ounces of sipping chocolate is available for sale.
The XOcolate Bar: 1709 Solano Ave, Berkeley, 510.525.9626,

Sketch Ice Cream

At the south end of 4th Street, Sketch has resurrected their much-loved shop and offers assorted made-from-scratch sweet treats, including a delicious light and frothy hot chocolate. Proprietors Ruthie and Eric Shelton, as sweet as their confections, make a drink from steamed Straus whole organic milk and TCHO 68 percent bittersweet chocolate. Every cup includes a cheerful, fluffy marshmallow, made in-house with organic evaporated cane sugar and cocoa nibs. “Wait until you’ve finished the hot chocolate to eat the marshmallow,” advises Eric, “that way it will be soaked with hot chocolate and especially delicious.” Marshmallows are sold by the package if you want to add them to your mixes at home.
Sketch Ice Cream, 2080 4th St, Berkeley, 510.984.0294,

Almare Gelato

And if you’re intrigued by the sound of the Italian-style cioccolata calda, stop in for one at Almare Gelato in downtown Berkeley. “It’s not winter if you don’t have a hot chocolate in your hand when you are hanging out in the piazza,” says proprietor Alberto Malvestio. “And downtown Berkeley is our piazza. There are lots of good recipes for hot chocolate, but like my gelato-making uncle ‘Zio Dino’ always said, the simpler, the better. Whole milk, cocoa, sugar, and that’s it. The best ingredient, of course, is somebody to share it with.”
Almare Gelato, 
2170 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, 510.649.1888,

An enticing cup of buttery sweet Salted Caramel hot chocolate at the Bittersweet Café

An enticing cup of buttery sweet Salted Caramel hot chocolate
at the Bittersweet Café

Bittersweet Café

The whole world of drinking chocolates can be found in one place at this cozy sit-down on College Avenue in Oakland. Choose from more than a half-dozen styles and flavors, all built from a blend of El Rey, Valhrona (powdered), Scharffen Berger, and Guittard chocolates combined with steamed milk for a light, foamy mix. Salted Caramel, buttery-sweet with a hint of salt, is the most popular flavor. Spicy Hot Chocolate includes a bit of flower essence, giving the drink a “depth of character and note of luxury that you can’t quite identify,” says buyer and merchandise manager David Salowich. White Chocolate Dream, made with El Rey white chocolate, has an interesting character, with its cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg notes. “We like El Rey because they don’t deodorize the cocoa fat that they put back into the product, so it tastes like chocolate,” says Salowich. “It doesn’t taste like sweet, fatty nothing, as many white chocolates do.” Deep, dark Bittersweet, which Salowich describes as “beguiling,” is made with Guittard whole chocolate, the only blend made with water, not milk. Bittersweet, Classic, and Mocha mixes are for sale to try at home. The long-standing Berkeley Chocolate Club is a big fan of Bittersweet Café and their special blends. In the opinion of member Carrie Olson, “hot chocolate is best when it uses dark quality chocolate with a minimum amount of sugar.”
Bittersweet Café: 5427 College Ave, Oakland, 510.654.7159,
1438 Broadway, Oakland 510.238.8700,;
Berkeley Chocolate Club:


Try creating your own blend of chocolate, sugar, and spice at home using the excellent products of our local chocolatiers, organic dairy farmers, and spice purveyors. In addition to their many solid chocolate varieties, TCHO chocolate makes a product called Drinking Chocolate, which uses dark chocolate crumbles with a rich, fudge-like flavor. Oakland-based Madécasse produces several excellent dark and bittersweet blends and also makes a kit that includes their 63 percent chocolate squares and vanilla sugar, all grown and processed in Madégascar. This exceptional company helps to support workers, families, and the local economy by finishing the product right where the chocolate is grown.


Inspired by a recipe from Arcelia Gallardo of Casa de Chocolates

A traditional Mexican and Central American atole (a masa-based hot drink), champurrado is a thick hot chocolate typically served in the morning with churros or as an afternoon snack. It’s very popular during the holiday season when it is served alongside sweet tamales.

IMGP1322 (1)Makes 4 cups

½ cup masa harina*
3 cups whole Clover Stornetta milk
1¾ cups water
3–4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons piloncillo**, chopped
½ heaping teaspoon cinnamon
1–2 whole star anise (or ground)
¼ teaspoon ground ancho, padilla, or cayenne chile

Dissolve masa in ¼ cup boiling water to blend. Add milk, mix well. Boil 1½ cups water with piloncillo, cinnamon, star anise, ground chile, and cocoa powder until piloncillo dissolves. Add masa and milk mix to spiced hot water. (Masa and milk may be strained for less graininess.) Turn flame to low and stir constantly, approximately 20 minutes, until mixture thickens. Ladle into cups.

* Masa harina is Mexican-style corn flour. Look for Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina, which is non-GMO.

**Piloncillo is an unrefined sugar used in Mexican cooking.  It comes shaped into large cones, and can be found in the produce section of Latin-American grocery stores. You can substitute 2 tablespoons brown sugar.

Kristina M. Sepetys lives in Berkeley. She and her children were delighted to taste every cup of hot chocolate mentioned in this article. Kristina is a regular contributor to Edible East Bay and has written on food, farming, economics, and environmental policy issues for many publications.