Thank you, Moctezuma II.
You may have lost the entire Aztec empire to Spain back in the early 16th Century, but you did tell Cortés (the guy who got your empire) about Mexican chocolate, and he brought it home to the king, who shared it with the French, who carried it around Europe, and pretty soon chocolate was everywhere.
The Mexican chocolate we buy today -- unlike the sour chocolate of Moctezuma's time -- is made by grinding cacao nibs with cinnamon and sugar. Both Ibarra and Abuelita, the most popular brands, are sold in disks; each disk is 3.1 ounces, delineated into 8 wedges. (Abuelita is also sold in bar form, though it's harder to find.) Two wedges seems to be just the right amount for a cup of hot chocolate, made with steaming milk.
If you're lucky enough to live near a Latino market, you'll find other brands of chocolate in bars, some containing almonds, nutmeg, allspice, or other spices. Be sure to read labels carefully (remember that all packaged products sold in the US must contain a label listing the ingredients in English).
You can substitute one ounce of semisweet chocolate plus half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon for one ounce of Mexican chocolate, and then add sugar in your recipe to taste. Or use one tablespoon of cocoa powder for every one ounce of Mexican chocolate, again adding sugar as needed.
Mexican chocolate, though sweetened, is a fundamental ingredient in savory moles, where it tempers and deepens the flavor of chile peppers. Of course you'll also want to use it for pecan pie bars, brownies, cinnamon-chocolate-pumpkin bread, or La Chispa, a hot chocolate drink kicked up with tequila.
Mexican chocolate pots de creme
Yes, a French dessert made with Mexican chocolate, inspired by several recipes and especially by my friend Cindy Salvato, an executive pastry chef. Serves 6-8.
2 cups whipping cream, chilled
6 oz Mexican chocolate (2 disks minus one small wedge), finely chopped
5 large egg yolks, at room temperature
3 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract, or the seeds from one vanilla bean
Pinch of kosher salt
Set your oven rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 325°F.
In a saucepan, heat the whipping cream to the simmer; remove the pot from heat, and stir in the chopped chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla extract and salt. When the mixture is well-combined, whisk in the chocolate-milk mixture. Pour through a strainer into a large glass measuring cup.
In a large, deep roasting pan, place 6-8 small ramekins, custard cups, small rice bowls, espresso cups or pots de creme cups. Distribute the mixture among the cups you have. Pour hot (not boiling) water into the roasting pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the little cups. Cover the pan with aluminum foil, and bake for 25 minutes or until the custard is just set around the edges.
Remove from oven, and remove the cups from the roasting pan. Let them cool, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or overnight. Serve topped with slices of fruit.
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