I like to drink hot chocolate. That’s not unusual, lots of people like to drink hot chocolate.
I have a problem. I cannot make a decent cup of hot chocolate. I mean, OK, I can, it just takes more effort than it should.
It’s 2024. This should be a solved problem. Maybe it is, but I can’t figure it out.
I used to boil water, add cocoa powder, and drink it, and that was fine. But a few years ago I learned that hot chocolate made with milk is a lot better. And I started getting picky about the cocoa mix and caring about the ingredients list. This would prove my undoing.
I went to one of those fancy coffee shops, one that wasn’t a chain. It seemed like a well run business. One that I could respect and feel good about spending money in, and was worth driving farther and spending more to go to. They didn’t just make tea and coffee for you and sell it to you for consumption right there. You could also buy the stuff and take it home and make it for yourself. That seemed convenient. I bought a container of real cocoa powder which I believed would make an authentic, superior cup of hot chocolate, and felt confident that whenever I was at home and the mood struck me, I would be able to reliably produce a satisfying cup in a short amount of time with convenience, enjoyment, and minimal mess.
I wasn’t even a third of the way to shangri-la. Or wherever the fuck you can get a good hot chocolate at home. Let me tell you.
Heating milk is more complicated than heating water. With water, you basically can’t fuck it up. You get a container, you fill it with water, you apply heat, the water gets hot, you’re good.
With milk, things are complicated by the sugars, fats, and proteins in the milk and how they react to being heated up. Basically, you don’t want to get the milk too hot. You can scorch the milk, and the milk will get this disgusting skin on the top. Scorched milk creates like an advanced polymer bond with the walls of the heating vessel, and you basically need to take out a grinder and polish the shit off to get it clean again, or I guess if you want to you accept defeat gracefully you can just learn to love the brown stains on the insides of your heating vessel. It’s up to you, it’s a free country.
Me, I want to finish with my cleanup and be indistinguishable from the starting state, so that I can preserve a sense of eternal youth and renewal. Building up brown scorched milk on the inside of a sauce pan that I could just throw out and replace every so often when I grew sufficiently disgusted with it is not an approach to life that I would consider. I mean sure the metal could be recycled, but I take it seriously when you buy a pan and they tell you it will last you the rest of your days and can be handed down to future generations. Apparently this means I am hard to please and may never truly be happy.
Anyway, for a while I tried using a sauce pan and put it on my gas range, turned the heat on low and tried to eyeball it to see when it seemed warm enough to use to make hot chocolate. I quickly learned that the human eyeball is not an ideal instrument for measuring temperature. I tried dipping a finger into the milk at various points and learned that this was also not optimal. It occurred to me that there were thermometers, so I tried using one of those. This was a bit of a breakthrough, as it it afforded a repeatable, reliable method of quantifying temperature. I could even leave the thermometer in the milk and monitor its temperature in realtime. This was the start of something.
You might be wondering why I didn’t try using a microwave oven. I don’t own a microwave oven, because fuck microwave ovens. So that ruled out using a microwave oven. Microwave ovens are not for me.
I recognized that a key to hot chocolate happiness would be if I could create a good cup consistently, and that knowing the number of the temperature would be a prerequisite to achieving this. So I wasn’t exactly sure what temperature I should be targeting, but I knew that through trial and error and many thermometer readings I would be able to quickly hone in on the ideal temperature for hot chocolate, my way.
Very early on, I learned that a boil was definitely not necessary. I also learned that bringing the milk to temperature quickly was not necessarily in the best interest of quality. Rather, you want to bring the milk to temperature slowly, gradually, and if you can do this it helps to reduce aggravating the proteins and causing them to turn brown and form that gross skin.
I came to recognize that heating milk on the stovetop was going to be a lot of work. Or rather, would require that I watch the milk like a hawk, and take great care to ensure that I turn the burner on to the precise level that wouldn’t heat the milk too quickly. And that was not easy, because I have a pretty basic oven that was built to be cheap and last a long time and be reliable and safe, but not necessarily be the easiest to dial in to the exact same flame level every single time you turn it on.
Maybe there was another way.
I considered an electric kettle. I had used them to heat water and they worked well for that, although as we’ve already established, that’s a lot easier. But what I liked about the electric kettles is that they have built-in temperature setting and will shut off reliably at the desired temperature. So I thought, why not use an electric kettle.
I tried one, and found that unfortunately most of them are engineered to bring water to temperature as quickly as possible. The way this works, apparently, is that there’s a heating element at the bottom of the kettle, which turns on and heats up to a temperature well in excess of the set temperature you’re trying to get the water to. The heating element then dumps heat into the mass of water contained within the kettle, and through convection the water heats up to a uniform temperature, although probably at any given moment the water very close to the heating element is probably much hotter than the average temperature of the water throughout the kettle. So — you guessed it — this temperature is high enough that it will cause chemical changes in the milk proteins, resulting in scorching and that yucky skin.
Further product research led me to knowledge of the existence of another type of device, called a milk frother. These are used by coffee aficionados, of which I am not one, to produce specialized coffee that use heated milk. That sounded promising. These frothers didn’t just heat the milk up, though, they agitated it to create a foam. This was irrelevant to me, but wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I researched an eventually bought one. A Maestri House CJG8XLAFV Integrated Milk Frother MMF9201 – Moonlight White. It seemed like it would do the job. It was a small unit, holding 400ml of milk, which was just the right amount for a single cup. And since I’m not running a restaurant, and am not a glutton, or a frequent host of hot chocolate parties, that seemed like the right amount for me. It had target temperature settings of 120, 140, and 160 degrees. Fahrenheit, of course. And it was only about $60. I thought for sixty bucks, it would probably solve all my problems. I felt excited, an impending happiness that I had not yet known.
I bought the thing. And it was delivered to my door a few days later. I opened up the package and tried it out. And I learned some new things about the subjective sensation of temperature which frankly I had not been expecting, and therefore surprised me.
First, let me say that the Maestri House design seems pretty smart. The heating element is contained within a base, which you can mount the kettle on, so the heating element is not directly in contact with the milk, which is for the best, and honestly a really good idea. The inside of the container has a little spindle in the center, and on this spindle you can mount a little wire agitator, which spins while the unit is in operation, stirring the milk, and generating the froth. It’s really clever. There is no mechanical linkage that causes this thing to spin. It seems to be done through magnets and a current generated by the electricity in the heating element. So no mechanical linkage means a completely sealed container that doesn’t have a chance of leaking.
That is, unless you overfill the container. See, as milk froths, it occupies a greater and greater volume. And also as the agitator spins, it creates a vortex and the resulting centrifugal forces acting on the milk cause it to climb up the walls of the container, like a frothy milky tornado. And if you add too much milk, this tornado threatens to, can, and will, escape over the top of the kettle. Which is a problem. You don’t want that. So, to hopefully avoid this problem, the designers at Maestri House thoughtfully and helpfully put a mark on the inside of the vessel that says “Max Fill”. As though to suggest that when adding milk, the level should not exceed this level, lest you run the risk of spillage.
Here’s the thing about that. They put the Max Fill mark too high. Or, they made the walls of the kettle too low. Either way, if you put in that much milk, it will overflow. The kettle has a lid, but the lid isn’t really sealed, and milk will make its way out, spilling over the top. And if you weren’t watching, you’ll find that your milk frother is sitting in a big puddle of warm milk on your countertop. And this is a major inconvenience. If you have homeowner insurance, make sure that it covers you against milk tornadoes. If it doesn’t, then you better fill the frother well below this mark. What’s a safe level? Well, you can try to figure that out, and then try to remember it each time you use it.
I thought I’d try just not using the frother. Who needs froth? I just want warm milk. So I removed the agitator, and the manual says that it’s not needed. The thing I found out about that is that without the action of the frother, the milk doesn’t really circulate. So what ends up happening is, the milk close to the heating element in the bottom heats up to the temperature it’s set for, and convection alone doesn’t mix this milk around and result in even heating. The rest of the milk, not adjacent to the heating element, ends up remaining cool. And so the average temperature of the milk ends up being well below the set temperature. And then when the unit reaches temperature and turns off, it turns out that the milk temperature is really well below what you were going for. So, really, it turns out that you really better use that frother to stir the milk so that the warmer milk would mix and evenly heat up the entire volume of milk in the kettle.
But wait. There’s more. It’s not enough that the thing overflows. It also doesn’t feel like it’s as warm as the indicated temperature. Like, if I put water in my electric tea kettle, and set the temperature to 140, I get water that feels like it’s pretty warm. If I stick my finger in it, it feels hot, and I can’t stand to do it for more than a very brief amount of time and I’ll burn myself if I try to do it longer.
With the milk frother, the same temperature feels almost cool. It’s warm-ish, but it’s not going to burn me. If I put my finger in it, or gulp it down, I feel like it’s just barely warm enough to count as warm and not disgustingly tepid. The reason for this, I have come to believe, has to do with the froth. The milk itself might be the temperature indicated, but all the air that has been mixed into the milk by the frothing action isn’t hot. And it’s a considerable amount of air. And it cools the milk down rapidly, and the result is that room temperature air mixed with hot milk results in milk that feels cooler than it really is. You get a sensation of the average temperature of the air and the milk together. So 140F, which could scald you if it was just the milk, ends up feeling like maybe 90F, which is not hot. The Maestri House frother maxes out at 160F, but this feels like maybe 120F. If you drink the hot chocolate immediately and quickly, this is maybe acceptable. But it’s really at the bottom end of the range of what’s acceptable.
The one thing I’ll give the frother credit for is that it doesn’t scorch the milk, and I don’t get a skin on the surface. However, the sides of the kettle do end up getting kind of a thickened milky slime that you’ll want to wash out after every use. So that’s not really great. Like, of course I’m going to need to wash the thing out after use. But if I don’t do it immediately, this milk scum is going to dry out and harden, and make cleaning it much harder. It’s way better to rinse the thing out before that happens, so you quickly learn that you need to do it immediately after pouring the milk into your mug. So then you spend a minute or two rinsing out the kettle, and by the time you’ve returned your attention to the mug, you find that the milk has already cooled to a temperature that basically sucks for enjoying hot chocolate.
I came up with an ingenious hack that works around this, but it feels convoluted and wasteful. Nevertheless, I will share it with you. It involves heating the mug. The easiest way to do that is to pull it out of the dishwasher as soon as the dishwasher is done washing it, and everything in the dishwasher is hot as fuck. If you don’t have a dishwasher, you can also just heat some water to boiling, put it into the mug, wait for the water to transfer heat to the mug and get it nice and warm, and then dump the water and replace it with hot frothy milk when the milk is ready. That way, the milk will stay warmer because it doesn’t end up getting heat sucked out of it by the un-warmed mug.
The downside of this hack is that you end up running two different kettles, one for water, one for milk, and you end up feeling like this is wasteful because you’re just throwing out hot water. But you do get a halfway decent hot chocolate this way. It’s just a lot more effort than it should be. You have to fill the milk kettle, not too much, and you have to time the water so it’s hot sooner and fill the mug with it and give it time to warm up, when dump the water, wipe out the inside of the mug so it’s dry, refill with milk, rinse the milk kettle, add cocoa powder, stir. And only then do you get to enjoy.
At that point it’d be easier to walk down to a coffee place and order one. This gives you the illusion of possibility that you might have a social interaction, which could be rewarding. Only that never happens. Nobody talks to people. Just the barista, but they’re just taking your order. And now you had to get dressed and look presentable. And while that may help you feel human and allow you to believe that you’re a functional member of society, it’s just more effort and doesn’t actually pay off in any real way.
So. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve experienced and grown. And yet, I don’t feel like I’ve reached my goal. I feel like I’ve invested capital and time, and yet what I have to show for it still leaves much to be desired. It’s taken up way more of my time than I ever thought it would, and still I don’t have the success that seemed so straightforward and achievable when I set out.