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Even before I enter the tomato-red interior at ACKC, the wind barreling down 14th Street NW has caused me to involuntarily stiffen my shoulders and arms, as if my body thinks flexed muscles can actually block the chill. Truth is, I typically prefer hot chocolate for taking the sting out of a cold afternoon, which is part of the reason my wife, Carrie, and I have stopped at this Logan Circle shop. My other reason is less savory: I want to size up the ACKC’s cocoa bar against my memories of hot chocolates past.
It’s not a fair fight, I know. Nothing competes with childhood nostalgia or personal biases on the proper way to warm your bones on a freezing winter day. I don’t have much of anything against the hot beverages that ACKC turns out, these rich, multilayered drinks made with real chocolate shavings and not the powdered stuff most of us stirred into warm milk or—the prole shame of it all!—into heated municipal tap water. But I have a sneaking suspicion that for me, and maybe many other Americans, this cold-weather ritual is less about what’s in the cup than what’s outside of it.
True enough, as I’m alternating between my milk-chocolate-and-hazelnut drink (a sugar-coated meh) and Carrie’s cup of semisweet chocolate shot through with espresso (sensational), I’m clicking off all the things at this cocoa bar–cum–art gallery that I don’t want around me. My list is both long and unfair to co-owners Rob Kingsbury (the chocolatier) and Eric Nelson (the visual artist), whose aesthetics might appeal to me under different circumstances. But when I’m sipping hot chocolate, I don’t want to feel like I’m lounging near the perfume counter at Saks Fifth Avenue or sipping fancy cocktails at a gallery while trying to understand why two naked men are standing butt-cheek to butt-cheek near an open window. In a mosaic.
I prefer my cup in humbler surroundings: in front of a four-log fire, with a sleeping dog pressed against one leg and a loved one against the other, a soft down comforter covering us all. For one reason or another, Americans have never really enjoyed the same relationship with hot chocolate as, say, the English, who sipped the extra-stout stuff in chocolate houses during much of the 18th century, or the French, who continue to make a fuss over everything. To us, hot chocolate is less a social drink than it is a reason to relax and slow your pace—oh, and to break out the miniature marshmallows.
And yet, restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops continue to roll out richer and more elaborate hot chocolates, as if decadence was the reason we desire the drink. Sure, Starbucks fell on its face with its über-luxurious, now discontinued “Chantico,” but you can still find plenty of other pricey hot chocolates out there. Brasserie Beck has one; so does Oyamel. Murky Coffee, in particular, seems to think highly of its seasonal creation. On the chalkboard at the Capitol Hill location, Murky advertises its drink with five somewhat arrogant, somewhat tongue-in-cheek bullet points: Five dollars, no modifications, 12 ounces, NO QUESTIONS, no whipped cream.
They should add one more bullet to the list: no sense of humor. When I order my $5 hot chocolate at Murky, I can’t help provoking the cashier. I inquire about the drink, to which he responds, sort of sheepishly, “No questions!” So I ask it again in my best Vincent Vega impersonation: “It’s a $5 hot chocolate? You don’t put bourbon or nothing in it?”
“That would be a $6,” he says.
I have to admit that it’s a pretty fucking good hot chocolate, nearly as rich and foamy as a chocolate mousse made with eggs, cooked sugar, and real whipped cream. But all around me at Murky, people are talking on cell phones or futzing on Facebook. This is not how hot chocolate should be consumed.
Kingsbury totally understands my relationship with hot chocolate. He had similar experiences with the drink. While growing up in Vermont, he and his family would pull out the little packets of Swiss Miss to make their hot cocoa. Kingsbury remembers his grandmother heating the milk and whisking in the dry ingredients, while he stood eagerly by, a spoon of Marshmallow Fluff at the ready. “The Fluff would stick to the spoon…but after 15 seconds of heat, the Fluff would eventually melt off,” Kingsbury recalls. “That’s the best.”
Out of nostalgia, Kingsbury still offers Marshmallow Fluff at ACKC, but he’s progressed well beyond Swiss Miss. He knows a good hot chocolate is like—don’t laugh—a good steak. Both require large amounts of fat. Cocoa powder, that processed wonder of 19th century Dutch invention, contains a fraction of the cocoa butter found in, for example, Belgian dark chocolate. “That’s a big part of why you don’t get that richness” in hot chocolates made from powder, Kingsbury says. “You’ve lost all that wonderful fat.”
Technically speaking, you should only call a drink “hot chocolate” when it’s made from real chocolate, not powder. (The powdered version, funny enough, is the more haughty sounding “hot cocoa.”) Even though Kingsbury calls the counter at ACKC a “cocoa bar,” he’s really serving up hardcore hot chocolates, made with shavings of Michel Cluizel milk and bittersweet chocolates or Schokinag white and semisweet chocolates. Still, Kingsbury knows the environment plays a considerable role in the consumption of hot chocolate, which is why, he says, he hasn’t installed WiFi at ACKC. He wants conversation, not diversion.
I’ll give him that. But I think I still prefer my own private space, which is why I went to my local Shoppers Food Warehouse and bought a tin of Hershey’s “natural unsweetened” cocoa and a bag of Campfire mini-marshmallows. I was determined to create the sense of nurture that should accompany every cup of hot cocoa. I followed the recipe on the side of the Hershey tin, as I suspect my mother did all those years ago, including one-quarter teaspoon of vanilla extract (I used imitation). I topped two mugs with heaping mounds of miniature marshmallows and was all prepared to curl up on the couch.
That’s when I heard an electronic ping coming from the home office. Carrie had just received an instant message from a friend in North Carolina.
I retreated downstairs. The dog remained upstairs, asleep on the couch. Carrie chatted online with her friend, and I watched TV, sipping my hot cup of cocoa, feeling wholly unsatisfied.
ACKC, 1529c 14th St. NW, (202) 387-2626
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