Hot Chocolate Goes Glam

Continuing the program's Winter Sipping series, host Michel Martin travels to CoCo Sala, a chocolate lounge in Washington, D.C., for a sampling of their various hot chocolates. Owner and chocolate expert Nisha Sidhu walks listeners through the various flavors — from White Chocolate through Chocolate Peanut Butter.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And to end the show on a sweet note, this winter we've been exploring different beverages suitable for sampling in the cold weather. It's our Winter Sipping series. Today, hot chocolate. And I do not mean that stuff that comes in little tear-off packets. No, hot chocolate has gone glam.

To tell us more, we've stopped at a new restaurant in D.C. where cocoa is a prominent feature on the menu, CoCo Sala. We're here with owner and chocolatier Nisha Sidhu. Thanks so much for having us.

Ms. NISHA SIDHU (Owner, CoCo Sala; Chocolate Expert): Thank you.

MARTIN: Have did you fall in love with chocolate?

Ms. SIDHU: Originally, I was a biomedical engineer. I did that for a while, and then when I started to have children I gave up engineering to be a stay-at-home mom. I always loved pastries and cakes and chocolate, and so as my kids got a little bit older, I decided to go to pastry school and do a professional pastry program.

MARTIN: I can see the relationship between pastry and engineering. I can see it.

Ms. SIDHU: Yeah, I mean, you know, pastry is - it's all chemistry, and you have to have that scientific mind in order to really understand what's going on in a recipe. With chocolate, it's even more important. People - I think the average person doesn't realize how complex chocolate really is. Chocolate itself is a crystal structure, and when we work with chocolate what we do is something called tempering, and in order to understand the whole tempering process, you have to understand how crystal structures work, how they can be broken apart and then how they're put back together again.

MARTIN: So, this isn't just a thing where you're in love with it. It actually appeals to your mind. While we're on the subject, is there difference between cocoa and chocolate?

Ms. SIDHU: Cocoa is what gives chocolate its actual flavor. It's the cocoa solids. In the pastry world, what - we use the term couverture. Couverture is higher-quality chocolate. The Europeans actually have a standard, that couverture must contain a certain percentage of cocoa butter in it. Now, what couverture consists of are cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and then depending on the type of chocolate, milk or sugar.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about hot chocolate. As long as we have been exposed to chocolate, has there been a hot chocolate beverage?

Ms. SIDHU: Oh, yeah. In fact, chocolate, you know, if you go back to trace its origins back to the Aztecs where it was first discovered, was only enjoyed in the liquid form. So you know, in its very primitive sense - now, it didn't have any sugar or milk added to it, as we do, but you know, before even solid chocolate candy came along, there was liquid hot chocolate.

MARTIN: Let's try some of the ones you prepared for us here, and I can't describe my joy in seeing six little cups of hot chocolate here in front of me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And on the menu, you've got all different ones. You've got dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, salted caramel. Why don't we just pick one. Which one should we start with?

Ms. SIDHU: OK. Usually, what I recommend and what we do is what we do hot chocolate flakes here at CoCo Sala. So what I recommend is you start with the white chocolate since it's the mildest in flavor.

MARTIN: For some people, that's a contradiction in terms. How is it possible to even have white chocolate?

Ms. SIDHU: Yeah. Actually, white chocolate is a misnomer. There is no cocoa solids in the white chocolate. It's really just cocoa butter, vanilla, sugar and milk.

MARTIN: So we're drinking butter.

Ms. SIDHU: Well, we're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm not against it, by the way. Pretty much what we're doing is drinking butter.

Ms. SIDHU: And vanilla.

MARTIN: It's also my dream come true. Here, I'll have a little sip. It is mild. It's sweet, which I like, but I'm not a huge fan of white chocolate, so...

Ms. SIDHU. Yeah, we find that a lot of customers who don't enjoy chocolate don't mind white chocolate or they enjoy white chocolate. And...

MARTIN: I've met people who don't like chocolate. I don't like them very much but that's, you know, personal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms .SIDHU: My husband is actually one of them.

MARTIN: He doesn't like chocolate?

Ms. SIDHU: He does not. He prefers white chocolate.

MARTIN: OK. All right. So that is - so it's mild, and that's often a good choice for people who aren't huge fans of the chocolate flavor.

Ms. SIDHU: Exactly.

MARTIN: OK. Then shall we just go deeper to milk chocolate?

Ms. SIDHU: The next - the next one is a milk chocolate. It's made with what we call 40 percent couverture. All of the chocolate which we use here is French. We use Valrhona chocolate.

MARTIN: Now you're talking. Mmm. So milk chocolate. What is the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate?

Ms. SIDHU: Milk chocolate is just that. It has milk solids which have been added to the chocolate. A majority of dark chocolates out there do not contain any milk solids, which makes their flavor more intense.

MARTIN: And that's what this is, this one here?

Ms. SIDHU: Mm hmm. This is a 72 percent dark chocolate.

MARTIN: OK. Mmm. Now that's intense. I personally love this, but I think, maybe - is this an acquired taste?

Ms. SIDHU: It is, and it's...

MARTIN: Is it something that kids probably wouldn't like? Is it something you probably like more as you get older?

Ms. SIDHU: Exactly. Yeah. Our pallets change as we get older. Our taste buds change, and that's why most children don't enjoy the flavor of coffee because it's more bitter, and that's exactly the same with dark chocolate.

MARTIN: Mmm. Yum. Mmm, what else do you have here?

Ms. SIDHU: OK. This one is the salted caramel milk chocolate. And...

MARTIN: Which one is this?

Ms. SIDHU: This one here.

MARTIN: This one, salted caramel. Now, why salted?

Ms. SIDHU: Well, caramel on its own is just- it's very sweet. And so the salt just cuts it just enough so that you don't feel like it's overly sweet. It's made - ours is made with the 40 percent milk chocolate, so it's very similar to the milk chocolate but you just get that little hint of the salted caramel.

MARTIN: Interesting. Interesting. Whose idea was that? Did you make that up?

Ms. SIDHU: Yeah. That was - yeah, it was a collaborative. Everything here is a collaboration. We have an amazing management team, an amazing chef. So it's a fun job.

MARTIN: And what are these other two?

Ms. SIDHU: This is something new which we have for the winter season. This is a pumpkin spice hot chocolate. And then this one, the last one, is my favorite. It's the peanut butter hot chocolate.

MARTIN: That's your favorite. OK. Well, I'm going to for that. OK. Mmm. That's really - that's really nice.

Ms. SIDHU: Yeah. Chocolate and peanut butter go great together, so it's that combination. I mean, one of the things which makes our hot cocoa different is we only use pure couverture and cream in it. We don't use any powdered cocoa. And then - and so it's much more thicker, much more creamier. It's more of a European-style hot chocolate.

MARTIN: It is thicker. I wanted to mention that. It kind of feels a little like a pudding...

Ms. SIDHU: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: If people like that. Some people don't like that texture. But what - speaking of the whole powdered thing, now some people will only have experienced the powdered packets.

Ms. SIDHU: Right. Right.

MARTIN: If you want to take it to another level, what can you do at home to make a really nice hot chocolate?

Ms. SIDHU: I mean, at the most basic level, you could take any chocolate bar that's out there and chop it up very finely. And what you want to do is create what we call a ganache, which is a mixture of hot cream and chocolate. So really, I feel that if you're going to go to that effort of making hot chocolate, then use the highest quality chocolate you can find that's out there. And you want to heat up your cream till it's boiling, and you want to slowly add it and stir at the same time so that it forms an emulsion. If it's - initially, if it starts - seems like it's starting to break, get clumpy, just keep adding a little bit more hot liquid. Eventually it will become smooth.

MARTIN: Do you ever get tired of chocolate?

Ms. SIDHU: No. Never.

MARTIN: A woman after my own heart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Nisha Sidhu is the owner and chocolatier at CoCo Sala. It's a restaurant in D.C. which prominently features chocolate and cocoa-based items on its menu, a chocolate lounge, as it were. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SIDHU: Thank you. This was a lot of fun.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Now, you just heard me rhapsodizing over some hot chocolate drinks, and we've also talked about mauled wines and sparkling wines as part of our Winter Sipping series. But we know that there are more beverages to help break the chill on a cold winter day, so we'd like to hear from you. What's your favorite winter beverage? To tell us what you think, call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522. Or visit our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore and blog it out.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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