Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
Many mornings this winter have found me making like a Mexican grandmother and making Mexican hot chocolate.
This is for my first-grader son, who learned in his Spanish class about chocolate and how to properly make it.
Traditionally, that would be by melting Mexican chocolate in hot milk and then spinning and whipping it into a froth using a wooden whisk called a molinillo.
You can find molinillos and chocolate at area Hispanic food stores, such as Reyna Foods on Penn Avenue in the Strip District. You even can find at least one brand of Mexican chocolate at Giant Eagle Market District stores: Abuelita, which translates as “Little Grandmother” or “Granny” and is a well-known brand made by Nestle.
It comes in a fetching hexagonal box, which holds a stack of paper-wrapped discs of chocolate, to which a strong cinnamon flavor is added. In Mexico, chocolate often contains almonds, vanilla and perhaps other spices, as well.
This less-refined “table chocolate,” grainy with sugar crystals, is not meant to be eaten as is. But I can’t resist nibbling stray pieces when I make the morning chocolate, and am growing quite fond of it. I thought it was delicious in a chocolate cake recipe I found in a new cookbook.
I know you also can get Abuelita in powdered instant form. But the longer, traditional preparation process is part of the fun of the tablets. I’d like to find and try some other brands, such as Ibarra. (And get some made with real cinnamon, not artificial flavor. Please.)
Not a lot of local places make and serve authentic Mexican hot chocolate, but at the stand in front of Reyna in the winter, you can get both Mexican hot chocolate and sometimes a version thickened with corn flour (masa harina) called champurrado.
You also can get Mexican hot chocolate at the Edgar Taco Stand around the corner on 21st Street. “We used to drink it in cold weather with churros,” a sort of doughnut for dunking, says Edgar Alvarez, whose semi-secret recipe calls for a mix of milk and water, Mexican chocolate, Mexican vanilla and lots of cinnamon, hand-whipped with a molinillo. An 8-ounce foam cup sells for $2.
“People love it,” he says, even though some hear the “Mexican” and expect it to be spicier than just from the cinnamon. Frothing it with a molinillo just makes it that much better. “People watch ... and they say, ‘Oh yeah — this is the real stuff.’ ”
La Palapa on the South Side also makes authentic chocolatito caliente, for $3 a cup, says co-owner Jesus Martinez.
Another Spanish teacher I know, Becky Cibulka, who blogs about Latino food, tweeted to Las Velas Mexican Restaurant on Market Square, Downtown, and was told that Mexican hot chocolate is “not on menu but if you ask the server they will make it.”
Mexican chocolate also can be used for other dishes. At Casa Reyna restaurant in the Strip, notes owner Nic DiCio, they use it to make chocolate ice cream and cake, as well as in mole sauces. “In Mexico they have shops specializing in grinding the roasted bean with different formulations of cinnamon, almonds and sugar.”
It was Mexico, after all, that gave the world chocolate. Indigenous people grew and roasted cacao beans, which they ground up to make a hot drink that wasn’t sweet until Spaniards got their hands on it.
MEXICAN HOT CHOCOLATE
Mt. Lebanon elementary-school Spanish teacher Tania M. Conte sent this recipe home with her students, noting that Abuelita brand chocolate can be found at Giant Eagle Market District stores. If you don’t have a molinillo, you can use a regular whisk.
2 cups milk
4 wedges of Mexican chocolate, or 2 quarter tablets
Put 2 cups milk in a small saucepan on low heat. Warm the milk gradually. Don’t let it boil.
Unwrap a Mexican chocolate tablet. Cut/break off the wedges using the dull side of a knife.
Put the chocolate in the warm milk and let the wedges soften for about 30 seconds.
Use the wide end of the molinillo — or your whisk — to gently mash the chocolate.
Then use the molinillo or whisk to stir the chocolate milk.
When steam begins to rise from the milk, spin the molinillo (or whisk) briskly back and forth in the milk to create tiny bubbles that gang up together to become froth.
Carefully pour hot chocolate into cups and enjoy!
— Tania M. Conte
Mexican Chocolate Cake
This simple but exotic loaf cake recipe comes from the first cookbook from Aliya LeeKong, a former professional cook who has an Indo-Pakistani and Tanzanian background and who is married to “a guy from Brooklyn, whose family comes from Trinidad by way of Venezuela, Spain and China.” It’s a very interesting book with some very interesting recipes, many of them vegetarian like this one.
Ms. LeeKong writes that she has “a serious love affair going with Mexican chocolate,” which made her go on “a rampage, sneaking it into desserts whenever I could and even going so far as to add it to my morning coffee on occasion (ridiculous, I know). A pastry chef I work with looked down his nose when I told him I was doing a loaf cake, but I adore them! Loaf cakes are unassuming and, when decadent enough like this one, an unexpected bite of seemingly casual luxury. This one is rich and moist, with melted bites of Mexican chocolate and that kick of cinnamon.”
— Bob Batz Jr.
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
2⁄3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup creme fraiche, softened at room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 ounces Mexican chocolate, chopped finely
Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and lightly flour a 9-inch loaf pan and set aside.
In a bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Fit a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or use a hand mixer, and cream together the butter, creme fraiche and the sugars until light and fluffy using medium speed. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure everything is fully incorporated. With the mixer back on, add eggs one at a time and vanilla extract.
Reduce speed on the mixer and add 1⁄3 of the flour mixture followed by 1⁄3 of the chocolate. Repeat twice and then scrape down. Mix again briefly only so that the batter is just uniform — be careful not to overmix.
Transfer batter to the loaf pan and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted. Let cool on a rack before unmolding — run a thin knife along the sides if it’s sticking. Serve garnished with confectioners’ sugar.
— “Exotic Table: Flavors, Inspiration, and Recipes from Around the World — to Your Kitchen ” by Aliya LeeKong (Adams, Nov. 2013, $35)
Bob Batz Jr.: email@example.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.