Join Kathy on one of our amazing culinary vacations to Italy or France!Learn More
The BEST, and I mean completely beyond compare, hot chocolate I’ve ever had was during Carnival 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 it. This hot chocolate is so dense, decadent, soothing and an extra special treat. For me, it is forever tied Venice and my very first experience at Carnival in Venice.
We arrived in Venice late in the evening, a few days early for the last weekend of Carnival. The only two people on the vaporetto going Venice seemed like a ghost town. This was also my first non-summer visit to Venice. The low, thick and damp mist and the silence of the city covered any other proof of life forms. As our vaporetto puttered along, it felt more like we were riding on the river Styx being taken to another world.
The next day Venice had transformed into something else altogether. Dark and damp made way to lights and festivities. From early in the morning to late in the night, the streets were filled with elaborately costumed and masked party goers. Costume-clad party goers gladly stopped for anyone asking to take a photo. As we wandered through Venice, locals offered us 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 small canals nearby.
Venice in Winter is also COLD, bone-chilling cold. Since our days and evenings were mostly spent outside enjoying the festivities, we constantly felt an achy-bone cold that was virtually impossible to shake. That is until we found a cafe near Saint Mark’s to hide from the cold and warm up. We ordered this Italian hot chocolate only because it seemed the best thing to help warm us up. BEST. Surprise. EVER. We got the all-time best, dense, dark, hot, decadent, creamy 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. At the time we were both living in Paris, so we were more than familiar with the hot chocolates of Angelina, LaDuree, Cafe de 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, again and again. During the weekend, we made more than once-a-day stops at the cafe, so many I think my friend sampled every version on the menu. I mostly stuck with the dark chocolate version.
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. The secret is to use a little bit of cornstarch to thicken it. Some places will use cocoa powder and more cornstarch, but I prefer this melted chocolate and cream version. Using the best quality chocolate is also key. This hot chocolate always takes me to Carnival in Venice. With each sip I think of Venetian masks, elaborate costumes, frittelle (Venetian fritters for Carnival), parades, and the lagoon in winter – misty and magical. Below is my recipe for Italian hot chocolate.
Carnival in Venice is the two weeks before Ash Wednesday. It changes yearly and is based on the calendar used to determine Easter. 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. As of February, 2014, they still serve several variations of this thick, delicious and decadent hot chocolate.
Italian Hot Chocolate
(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 for the garnish on top
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 into your mug. I love Baileys Irish Cream or Kahlua.