The best hot chocolate I've ever had was during Carnevale in Venice. The thick Italian hot chocolate is so dense that it verges on being a pudding, and Carnival in Venice is where I first tasted this type of hot chocolate.
We arrived for our Carnevale weekend in Venice late at night and took a vaporetto from Piazzale Roma to the Accademia stop. It was my first non-summer vist to Venice, and the city seemed deserted. As we passed the Erberia (near the Rialto bridge), there were a few sounds of laughter and human existence. After we passed the Rialto bridge, there was no one, no gondole on the lagoon, and the only sound was the rumbling of the vaporetto motor as it poked along the Grand Canal. There was a light fog that sat just on the water's surface. It seemed that the ghosts of Carnevale's past were rising to the surface to welcome us to Venice. The black night, the only lights - those bouncing on the water, the buildings - at the same time, both exotic and decaying, the fog, and the silence created an atmosphere both enchanting and eerie.
During the day, the atmosphere was one of only merriment. From early in the morning to late in the night, the streets were filled with elaborately costumed and masked partygoers. Always silent but showing their willingness through gestures, they gladly stopped for anyone asking to take a photo. As we wandered through Venice, locals offered us and other visitors mulled wine and fried treats. Saint Mark's Square was celebration central, and a grand stage was set up for the many costume parades and shows that took place day and night. Strings of lights decorated the narrow calle around the square. At night, the lights twinkled overhead and danced below in the waters of the canal to add to the festive mood. It was also normal to see these masked partygoers riding gondole or on the vaporetto. Festivity, fantasy, and frivolity; that is Venice during Carnevale.
Venice in winter is also COLD. The chill, a cold wet one from the fog, seemed to seep through our many layers of clothes. We found a cafe near Saint Mark's to take a break from the cold and also found Italian hot chocolate. The menu was filled with at least 15 versions of hot chocolate - dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, with any kind of liqueur that you wanted, etc. etc. I got the dark and my friend the white. At the time, we were both living in Paris, so we were more than familiar with the hot chocolates of Angelina, LaDuree, Cafe Flore, and the rest, but this was oh so different. Instead of drinking it, it was so thick you could almost eat it with a spoon. Almost that is, it was still creamy and fluid enough to drink, and we drank in the hot and creamy chocolate. During the entire weekend, we made daily stops at the cafe for our hot chocolate break.
After we returned, I did some research to find that this quasi-pudding drink was the typical hot chocolate of Italy. You can find it in any cafe in Italy during the winter. I've since found it even in France and Prague, going by the name of "Italian hot chocolate" on menus. (Prior to Venice, I didn't fully understand the meaning of the name on the menu.) The secret is to use a little bit of cornstarch to thicken it. Using the best quality chocolate is also key.
This hot chocolate and Carnevale in Venice will forever be paired together in my mind. With each sip I think of Venetian masks, elaborate costumes, zeppole (Venetian donuts), parades, and the lagoon in winter - misty and magical. After the recipe for the hot chocolate, I've added a video of photos of my Carnevale in Venice. In the time it takes you to drink a cup of hot chocolate you can take a little trip to Venice.
Carnevale di Venezia 2011, is from February 26 to March 8, 2011. The cafe where we had our first Italian hot chocolate is in Campo St. Stefano. It has yellow tablecloths and dark wood trim around the entrance, and no name other than Cafe.
Italian Hot Chocolte - Cioccolata Calda
(Makes 4 servings)
1 cup whole milk, separated in 3/4 cup and 1/4 cup
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 1/2 ounces high quality dark chocolate 70%, finely chopped
About a cup of whipped cream, optional
Combine the 3/4 cup milk, cream and sugar in a saucepan and heat until it starts to bubble around the edges. While the milk mixture is heating, whisk together the 1/4 milk and the cornstarch until it is smooth. Once the milk mixture starts bubbling around the edges, add the milk and cornstarch mixture to it and whisk until it's heated through. Add the the chocolate and whisk together until it's smooth, hot and thick enough to coat a spoon. Pour into mugs and serve with whipped cream if desired. Enjoy!
NOTE: If you'd like a little liqueur flavor add 1 1/2 tablespoons of your favorite liqueur to the hot chocolate right before pouring. I love Baileys Irish Cream or Kahlua.