Hot Chocolate & Day of the Dead in Mexico

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Sugar Cookie Skulls from Leite’s Culinaria

Please do not feel obliged to put chilies in your hot chocolate in the interest of authenticity.  “Mexican Hot Chocolate” with spicy chilies and Aztec branding is a fine trend – you can hardly miss it at Starbucks and beyond.  But to some (full disclosure: me), chilies work best to season meat and broth, not hot chocolate.  Cocoa, hot or cold, is a thick, rich, milky drink whose single dark star is chocolate – scented, seasoned or spiked as it may well be.  The chilies: too strong and weird and over complicated for a simple, balanced cocoa.  The true Aztec chocolate drink of

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Famous depiction of chocolate frothing from Pre-Columbian codex

many legends (xocolatl) is best described by Michael & Sophie Coe in The True History of Chocolate – a porridge of chocolate, corn, grains and, yes, chilies.  Do you really want your local barista to whip one of those up for you?  Didn’t think so.  But take heart because ALL chocolate is authentically Mexican.  The complex process of harvesting, fermenting, roasting, winnowing and grinding cacao beans into a dark liquid paste developed in the ancient cultures of Mexico.  Cacao was central to many Mesoamericans, particularly the Maya and the Aztec.  Here is a timeline.  Need more info? Here’s a giant work of scholarship on the subject from author Michael Grivetti. Spirituality – offerings to the gods – is part of chocolate’s cultural heritage, so its inclusion in modern Day of the Dead (Dias de los Muertes) ceremonies warms my heart.

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Heart & Soul Hot Chocolate from CHOCOLATE BLISS

HEART & SOUL HOT COCOA RECIPE from Chocolate Bliss

Banish all those packets of instant cocoa from your house. This is the one that inspired them all. You’ll wonder how anything that tastes this good could be good for you, so here’s how it works: the dark cocoa is good for the heart & blood, the dairy is good for the bones, the flavor, richness & sweetness are good for the soul. Use a premium gourmet brand like Valrhona or Scharffen Berger’s cocoa, and look for “natural” or “non-alkali” cocoa powder (as opposed to “dutch-process”) in order to get the maximum benefits for the heart.

4 cups whole (or 2%) milk

½ cup heavy cream

¼ cocoa powder (preferably Valrhona)

¾ cup sugar

1 Tbs. vanilla extract

½ tsp salt

Mix the sugar and cocoa together in a small bowl and set aside. Put the milk and cream together in a big saucepan over medium heat. As the milk starts to warm up, scoop up about a cup in a measuring cup and whisk into the sugar & cocoa mixture to form a paste. Then slowly add the paste back into the saucepan and whisk briskly until incorporated. Add the vanilla and salt & adjust chocolate & sugar to taste.


The biggest celebration of Day of the Dead in America is at Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles. Part art walk, part street festival, all souls are welcome here. The tradition is rooted in the Mesoamerican tradition where alters are decorated with memorabilia, marigolds, candles, hot chocolate, bread and sugar to attract the souls of the departed.  These victuals entice with their beauty and fragrance and promise to fuel the traveling spirits as they undertake their journeys.  L.A.’s contemporary version includes lighting grids, interactive folk art, film screenings on the side of mausoleums, and children playing over gravestones.  Mexico has been serving a Halloween special of

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Baby Cacao Pod in Tabasco, Mexico

death and chocolate for a long time. On my research trip there a few years back, the official holiday (November 1-2) had passed, yet every colonial church we visited held candles stubbornly flickering and marigolds sweetly wilting – testaments to how much we want our loved ones back. Isn’t that better than thinking of them dead and buried?  Wouldn’t you prefer that they fly in for a midnight snack?  I, for one, have lost too many and I love the thought that they might visit, linger, browse a little in my kitchen and take a bite of a sugar skull cookie.

Forever on my guest list:

Libby – my sister. Prom queen, Francophile, wild child, leader. Lost in a plane crash in 1988 as was her husband, the affable and much-missed Glenn Bogitsh; image


Barbara – my mother-in-law: warmth, humor, literary intelligence -gone with lung cancer in 2006, Lily Belle Burke: poetic inside and out – my friend for 12 of her 18 years; Rupert, with your infectious, vigorous spirit – only 20 – how did we lose you?; Jamie – our sage cousin: gone only last month on an Hawaiian holiday  Video Tribute to Jamie Zimmerman, MD

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Beautiful Jamie

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Irreplaceable Barbara Epstein






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Rupert Norris (center, with Thomas Epstein left & Sam Epstein right) – come back!

Lily-still have trouble living without you.

Lily- I miss you.

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