Hot Chocolate, William Hughes’s “American Nectar”

This post presents the first recipe from a series of updated recipes that I developed for the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019). You can also find a version of this post on the Folger’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog.

When pirate botanist William Hughes wrote about his adventures with plants in the Americas, he devoted an entire section of his book The American Physitian (1672) to “The Cacao Nut Tree,” which he distinguished from all other American plants. Hughes paid particular attention to the properties and the preparation of chocolate. In the opening of the section “Of the making of Chocolate into a Drink,” he calls the beverage “the American Nectar.”

 

By calling hot chocolate the “American Nectar” Hughes invoked the idea that chocolate was a drink consumed by deities, and pleasurable for those mortals lucky enough to sample it. Chocolate was a revelation to European colonizers. A decade before Hughes published his book, Henry Stubbe called chocolate the “Indian nectar.” British writers repeatedly appealed to its almost otherworldly properties.

Although there are no references to chocolate in Shakespeare’s works, there are quite a few references to nectar. Most poignantly, the potent flower that Puck wields in A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains a powerful nectar that intoxicates the anointed with powerful feelings of love (Act II, scene 2). A powerful nectar is equal parts pleasure and danger: Hughes chose an evocative moniker for his hot chocolate.

Encountering chocolate in early modern cookery books offers evidence of Britain’s troubled colonial past. Accounts of chocolate drinking, recipes listing chocolate among the ingredients, and casual references to chocolate all bear witness to the material and informational exchanges between indigenous peoples and European colonizers in the Americas. Theobroma cacao is a fragile equatorial plant and the seeds that we process into chocolate products are not, on first sight, obviously edible or the source of the dizzyingly delicious chocolate delights available today. Indigenous Americans prepared a range of healthful and delicious beverages with chocolate. Europeans only learned to consume chocolate by mastering highly specialized indigenous knowledge.

When I set out to make William Hughes’s hot chocolate, I was presented with a wealth of possibilities for how to sweeten, thicken, enrich, scent, spice, and spike my drink. Here is a list of all the ingredients that Hughes reports that indigenous peoples and European colonizers put in their hot chocolate:

…chocolate, milk, water, grated bread, sugar, maiz [corn flour], egg, wheat flour, cassava, chili pepper [hot and sweet varieties], nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, musk, ambergris, cardamom, orange flower water, citrus peel, citrus and spice oils, achiote [annatto seed], vanilla, fennel, annis, black pepper, ground almonds, almond oil, rum, brandy, [and] sack.

Some of these preparations could serve as a meal replacement, others as an energy drink, and yet others as a healing tonic to soothe the body. These possibilities are all present in indigenous American usage and Hughes catalogs them for his British readers. As you prepare your own hot chocolate using this recipe, season to taste. Let your own spirit of adventure and personal tastes guide you as you season your mix and prepare a warming cup.

THE RECIPE

Ingredients

This recipe makes 2 cups of hot chocolate mix.

1⁄4 cup cocoa nibs
3 1⁄2 ounces or 100 grams of a 70% dark chocolate bar, roughly chopped
1⁄2 cup cocoa powder
1⁄2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1⁄4 cup breadcrumbs or grated stale bread (optional for a thicker drink)
1⁄2 teaspoon chili flakes (substitute 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon for a less spicy drink)
Milk (1 cup of milk to 3 tablespoons of finished mix)

Preparation

Toast the cocoa nibs in a shallow pan until they begin to look glossy and smell extra chocolatey. Combine all ingredients in a food processor, blender, or mortal and pestle. Blitz or grind until ingredients are combined into a loose mix. Heat the milk in a pan on the stove or in a heatproof container in a microwave. Stir in three tablespoons of mix for each cup of heated milk.

Notes

Hughes lists many other ingredients that indigenous Caribbean people as well as Spanish colonizers added to their hot chocolate. Starting with a base of grated cacao, they thickened it with cassava bread, maize flour, eggs, and / or milk, and flavored it with nutmeg, saffron, almond oil, sugar, pepper, cloves, vanilla, fennel seeds, anise seeds, lemon peel, cardamom, orange flower water, rum, brandy, and sherry. Adapt this hot chocolate to your taste by trying these other traditional flavorings.

twood_folgerchef_309 copy

Photo by Teresa Wood

LEARN MORE

The information and ideas in this post about chocolate and the knowledge exchanges between Europeans and indigenous Americans are inspired by Marcy Norton’s Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World  (Cornell University Press, 2008).

See also:

Kuhn, John, and Marissa Nicosia, “Early Modern Euro-Indigenous Culinary Connections: Chocolate,The Recipes Project.

Nicosia, Marissa, and Alyssa Connell, “Chacolet,The Collation blog, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Tigner, Amy, “Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part I,” The Recipes Project.

This recipe was developed by Marissa Nicosia for the Folger exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019), produced in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute.

Special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help.

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Chacolet from Rebeckah Winche’s Receipt Book at the Folger Shakespeare Library

We wrote a version of this post for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s research blog, The Collation. You can read it here. A special thank you to the Folger and everyone who came out to our Free Folger Friday lecture in December and got a sneak peak at these recipes.

Dear readers, we finally found a chocolate recipe to share with you! Since we launched this project we’ve been looking for chocolate. Alyssa and I love chocolate, our friends and family who taste our recipes love chocolate, and we were pretty sure you would love a historical chocolate recipe, too. We knew hot chocolate or drinking chocolate existed in early modern England, but it took us a while to find a recipe. Chocolate was a luxury good and not necessarily something that would have been found in the households of the people who were writing the manuscripts we’re working with. Drinking chocolate finally became more affordable and widespread in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC has a wide range of culinary manuscripts, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of their holdings. In October we participated in a Transcribathon sponsored by Early Modern Recipes Online Collective and the Early Modern Manuscripts Online Project. Reading through Rebeckah Winche‘s receipt book, Folger MS V.b.366, we found this recipe for “Chacolet.” As the coordinators of the Transcribation noted, the manuscript has a dated inscription, “Rebeckah Winche 1666,″ that conveniently locates the book in a seventeenth-century English household.

The recipe for “Chacolet” describes the process making hot chocolate from whole cocoa beans. Europeans may have encountered cocoa beans, but many would also have encountered chocolate in processed cakes that resemble the final product of this recipe as Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenoch suggest in Chocolate: A Global History. Moss and Badenoch also remind us that our modern chocolate bars are still more than one hundred years away at the time that this recipe was copied down. Only in the nineteenth century did chocolatiers develop the modern machines and processes, like conching, that utterly transformed this rare bean into smooth, modern chocolate (57, 61). Our friends at The Recipes Project have also written some great posts about chocolate consumption. Amy Tigner has two posts about it here and here, and Amanda E. Herbert describes how she teaches with chocolate here.

The Recipe

folger image chacolet, croppedChacolet

the ingredienc

# ounces
cacao – 1 – 0
cinamon – 0 – 3,2 part of an ounc
spanish peper – o- 20 part of an ounce
sugar – 0 – 10th pf a pound
uanilles 3
musk & ambergrees 3 granes

take th cacao nuts which must be very godd
put aside all the brooken ^(to be done after) put them in a coper or
iron frieng pan neuer used for any pech ouer
a a good moderat fire & stir them continualy
Yt all may be alike tosted
to know wen thay are enough take some in your
hand if thay crumble easily thay are enough or if
thay crack & leape in the pan
the spices must be beaten fine & sevied & all but
the vanelles mixed with the suger iuste as the use
then
break the cacaos upon as stone
clener them from the husks
when it is in a mas like dooe grind it ouer againe
wth all the strength possible then strew in the suger &
spice mix it well to gether & grind it agane twice
ouer
lastly put in the vaneles mix’d wth sye the suger grinding
it till it looke like batter when it is cold you mak
make it in to what forme you pleas
the stone must stand ouer fire all the while it is
a grinding
it is not fitt to use till it has bene 3 munths made

One interesting feature of this recipe is that it looks much more like a modern recipe than other recipes in Winche’s book or in the archive of historical recipes we’ve been exploring in general. Most of those are written as narrative paragraphs that combine measurements and instructions. This one looks more like what we’ve come to expect recipes to look like in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: it begins with a list of ingredients with amounts – cocoa beans, cinnamon, Spanish pepper, sugar, vanilla, musk, and ambergris – and then includes a methods paragraph explaining what to do with these ingredients.

Since the recipe’s formatting and instruction was somewhat familiar, our process of updating focused more on the ingredients. Now, it’s hard to find whole cocoa beans in their husks in a specialty grocery store, let alone a basic supermarket. At a health foods stand in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia Alyssa and I found cocoa nibs: dried and chopped pieces of cocoa beans. This form of chocolate is popular with bakers seeking to add crunch to chocolate chip cookies and raw foods enthusiasts looking for alternatives to processed chocolate. By grinding the cocoa nibs first by hand in a molcajete and then in a coffee grinder we often use for spices, I produced a hot cocoa mix with an even consistency. However, I decided to prepare Rebecca Winche’s “chacolet” two different ways: with cocoa nibs to get closer to the original cocoa beans and with cocoa powder, a pantry staple today. I also decided to leave out the rare, funky, and/or glandular musk and ambergris.

Our Recipes

starting with cocoa nibs

1/3 c cocoa nibs
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 c sugar
1 t vanilla extract

To make the hot chocolate mix:

Heat the cocoa nibs in a shallow pan for about two minutes. When they begin to look glossy, add the cinnamon and crushed red pepper and stir to combine. Remove from heat.

Now it’s time to grind your cocoa nibs and spice mix. We started this process in a molcajete and then transferred the mixture to a coffee grinder that we also use for grinding spices. In the coffee grinder the mixture turned into a solid paste. A dedicated spice grinder or a small food processor would also do the trick.

Return the cocoa and spice mix to the pan. Add the sugar and vanilla extract. Stir over a low heat for 2-4  minutes until the sugar is completely integrated and the mixture is uniform in color and texture. Some clumps will form, especially at the bottom of the pan.

Transfer the cooled mixture into a jar and label with the date. Store in a cool, dry, dark place.

To make hot chocolate:

Heat one cup milk over a medium heat until steamy. Add 3 T hot cocoa mix. Whisk over heat for another minute or two until it begins to simmer and mix is completely dissolved. (We owe this part of our instruction to Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for “decadent hot chocolate mix.”)

starting with cocoa powder

1/3 c cocoa powder
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 c sugar
1 t vanilla extract

To make the hot chocolate mix:

Add all the ingredients to a shallow pan.  Stir over a low heat for 2-4  minutes until the sugar is completely integrated and the mixture is uniform in color and texture. Some clumps will form, especially at the bottom of the pan.

Transfer the cooled mixture into a jar and label with the date. Store in a cool, dry, dark place.

To make hot chocolate:

Heat one cup milk over a medium heat until steamy. Add 3 T hot cocoa mix. Whisk over heat for another minute or two until it begins to simmer and mix is completely dissolved. (We owe this part of our instruction to Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for “decadent hot chocolate mix.”)

The Results

When I tasted the cocoa nibs version I was totally blown away. It was much spicier than I  expected and had a nutty, chocolate taste. The oils and larger granules from the cocoa nibs gave the mixture a unique texture. The cocoa powder version had a more concentrated chocolate flavor. Despite the fact that both versions have the same amount of chili flakes, this one was less spicy. The texture was smooth and creamy. I could drink either of these on any cold day!

The original recipe also made a curious suggestion: to wait three months before using the chocolate. Since I still had some of the cocoa nib mix in my cupboard a month after I first tested the recipe, I decided to test this point. The flavors had deepened and mellowed. The chocolate flavor in this cup of cocoa was deep and, in the whole, less spicy than the bath I made fresh. Feel free to store your hot cocoa mixes in a jar or plastic container in a cupboard for use throughout the winter and spring. Let us know if it changes over time!

By making this recipe two ways I was first and foremost negotiating the realities of a modern kitchen – it’s a lot easier to take cocoa powder, that marvel of modern chocolate processing, down from the pantry shelf than to cocoa beans or even cocoa nibs. But despite the different starting points, the side-by-side taste testing of the two versions showed remarkable similarities– the mix of chocolate and warming spices is the real flavor-profile of the recipe and that remained consistent. When Alyssa and I cook in historical archives we’re often confronted by the possibilities and limits of how much of the past we can taste. Accessing these recipes gives us the opportunity to try dishes that early modern cooks tried centuries ago – not just to read about them, but to make them and savor them. We cannot duplicate their exact taste profile, but we can approximate it and do so in ways that make sense for our own modern kitchens.