Friends of mine have an annual party featuring what they contend are the three most important food groups—garlic, butter and chocolate.
Of these, I would say that chocolate reigns supreme on the menus of folks in Carding, especially the hot, drinkable kind.
That’s where the agreement begins and ends because, as you will find out, everyone likes their hot chocolate in their very own way.
Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. But you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.
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Once the holidays are over, Andy Cooper doesn’t bother putting the cocoa mixes on sale any more because so many folks in Carding fill each other’s stockings with cans from Lake Champlain Chocolate, the regional favorite. Not only does everyone have their personal pet flavor—from peppermint to mocha, spicy aztec or traditional—every hot chocolate lover has her or his personal variation on the preparation and drinking thereof.
Andy just shakes his head when he hears the annual debate getting stirred up—literally—over in the general store’s coffee corner.
“What’s to discuss about cocoa?” he asked. “You just heat up milk, stir in the cocoa mix and drink.”
“Milk?” Ruth Goodwin could hardly keep the disdain out of her voice. “Just milk?”
“Well, I use whole milk, not any of that other stuff,” Andy insisted. He was not in favor of milk that advertised itself as a percentage of anything. And even though he would concede—if pressed—that there are folks who are lactose intolerant, the idea of using soy or almonds for milk made him bilious.
“What do you put on top?” Ruth went on. “Marshmallows? Whipped cream?”
“Hmph, I don’t see any need to get all fancy about it,” Andy said. “Just milk and hot chocolate—the traditional kind, no flavorings—is all you need.”
Of course, Carding being Carding, Andy’s opinion hardly quelled the controversy. Every time he walked by the coffee corner, one local cocoa aficionado or another would be holding forth on the finer points of hot chocolate.
“Water? Instead of milk?” he heard Agnes Findley gasp one day. “You use water to make cocoa? Why on earth would you do that?”
“I come from a big family,” Skitch Clavelle explained. He was an old friend of Andy’s and a renowned swap artist. Or at least that’s what he called himself. Skitch owned a warehouse full of used machinery of all sorts in Barre (he called it the Vermont Commercial Machinery Exchange) where he bought, sold, and collected all things mechanical from horse-drawn plows to bottlers to industrial sewing machines to parts from the first computers made at the former IBM plant near Burlington.
“What does being part of a big family have to do with making cocoa with water?” Agnes asked.
“Well, I have four brothers and between us, we could put down a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and a gallon of milk in one after-school snack,” Skitch explained. “So for my mother, it was a matter of economics. She mixed the cocoa mix—we only had Nestle Quick back then—with water and then added some milk, much like you add it to coffee. I got used to it that way and now if I drink cocoa made with all milk, it seems too thick to me.”
Agnes nodded. The economic argument made sense to her.
“Besides, I like to add a little coffee to my afternoon cocoa,” Skitch continued, demonstrating his technique to his avid audience. “I’ve been trying to cut back on my caffeine and I find this helps.”
“Yes, mocha,” Edie Wolfe said in an appreciative voice. “That’s my favorite. Tell me, have you ever added eggnog to your cocoa? I always treat myself to a quart or two of Benson’s Special Nogg when it comes into the store, and I make it go a bit further by adding it to coffee or cocoa.”
Skitch grinned. “I’m gonna have to make a note of that.”
But Ruth was having none of it. “You know, you are missing the whole point of hot chocolate if you continue to drink the powdered stuff,” she said. She took a bar of 70 percent cocoa from her pocket and followed it with a bar of high quality of milk chocolate.
Everyone in the coffee corner perked up with interest.
Andy crossed his arms over his chest. “Ruth, just what are your intentions here?”
“Can I use the kitchen in your break room?” she asked.
“Be my guest.”
“We’ll need a grater and some cinnamon too,” Ruth said. “I promise this will be the ultimate hot chocolate, Andy. And if you like it, you can put all the ingredients on sale and give out my recipe.”
It didn’t take long for a small but spirited crowd to shoehorn itself into the small break room at the rear of Cooper’s General Store and Emporium. Ruth’s audience murmured and remarked as she grated, measured, melted, poured and heated two kinds of chocolate into two cups of whole milk.
“Now, the piéce de resistance is this,” Ruth explained as she pinched a bit of salt between two fingers. “You want just a little bit of this and then a little bit of this.” She lifted some cinnamon from a jar on the table and sprinkled it into the pan. “If you add too much, you’ll dull the chocolate taste.”
The dark liquid in the pot steamed as Ruth portioned it out into small cups. Skitch passed them out among the crowd.
Everybody sniffed or swirled according to their own peculiar style and then the tasting began.
“Oh my,” Agnes said, smacking her lips.
Skitch’s eyebrows moved toward his non-existent hairline. “I wouldn’t want to drink this all the time but damn, that sure is wonderful.”
Ruth was as good as her word and gave her recipe for Ultimate Hot Chocolate to Andy. Copies of it appeared on a special shelf in the store the next day alongside a display of 70 percent cocoa and bars of the best milk chocolate Andy could find.
That didn’t quell the cocoa debate, of course, but Andy did notice that he had a hard time keeping those two types of chocolate in stock.
If you’d like to try a cup (or two or three) of Ruth Goodwin’s Ultimate Hot Chocolate for yourself, here’s the recipe.
Ruth Goodwin’s Ultimate Hot Chocolate
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup 70 percent chocolate, grated or finely chopped
1/4 cup high quality milk chocolate
1/4 cup light cream or half-and-half
a small pinch of salt
a small pinch of cinnamon
Heat 1/2 cup of the milk (do not boil) and stir in both chocolates until they are completely melted. Whisk in the remaining milk and cream or half-and-half. Add salt and cinnamon while stirring. Remove from heat, pour and enjoy (with friends, preferably).
Remember, you can visit Carding any time by scouring the archive of older stories or by reading one of my four Carding novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, or Lights in Water, Dancing.
Thanks for stopping by.