Your Only Decision: Homemade Marshmallows or Fresh Whipped Cream?
American hot chocolate has gone gourmet. A cup of hot chocolate, the often gritty sensation from the powder that settled in the bottom of your mug, has transformed into a rich, deep smooth flavor. Made from freshly ground roasted cocoa beans or from some of the finest European chocolate, today’s hot chocolate landscape offers a wide range of flavors from Caribbean and African spices, house roasted cocoa beans, homemade marshmallows and locally sourced freshly whipped cream. Vermont’s focus on good local food and beverages provides the perfect backdrop.
As beer lines form at places like Stowe’s Alchemist, Greensboro’s Hill Farmstead and Shelburne’s Fiddlehead Brewery, our state has gained a deserved reputation as the Napa Valley of craft beer. Yet Vermont may soon find itself listed as one of the best places to find award-winning hot chocolate.
Travel and Leisure recently recognized Burlington-based Lake Champlain Chocolates as one of America’s best sources for the beverage. This first-class chocolatier boasts fair-trade certified, organic and non-GMO ingredients, homemade marshmallows and fresh whipped cream. Owner Jim Lampman and his two children, Eric and Ellen, have led the charge since 1983, inspiring other smaller shops to refine their operations to deliver high-quality, rich, authentic hot chocolate.
A week after the autumn equinox, I embarked on a “tour de hot chocolate” traveling to six Vermont towns, sampling some of the best-quality hot chocolate and meeting the fascinating people who create it. Naturally, my first stop was the headquarters and flagship store of Lake Champlain Chocolate, located on Pine Street in the Queen City. At the entrance, I was greeted by a large sign: a steamy cup of hot cocoa with three marshmallows floating on top, Our Take On Happy Hour, printed in bold letters. Clever!
With autumn’s chillier weather, requesting hot chocolate didn’t seem unusual. However, I wasn’t prepared for the menu offering seven different flavors. The Hot Chocolate listing offered Traditional and Aztec. Under the Dark Hot Chocolate offerings included Old World, Peppermint, Guatemala, Tanzania and Dominican Republic. The last three were part of Blue Bandana—a division of Lake Champlain Chocolates that creates impressive chocolate from bean to bar using unique cacao beans roasted in their nearby facility. Old World sounded intriguing, and when Erika the barista asked if I wanted housemade marshmallows or homemade whipped cream, I chose marshmallows.
Dark chocolate melted into piping hot frothy milk offered a rich, aromatic, full-bodied and deeply satisfying experience. Gary, who heads the retail operation, showed me a small tin of Old World drinking chocolate and explained that by using the recipe on the back, you could actually make this one at home.
This hot chocolate tasting tour was too good to do alone; it needed to be shared with someone. I texted my most chocolate-obsessed friend to meet me the following morning at 8:30 and promised a fun adventure of hot chocolate sampling. An immediate text back: “Where should I meet you?” We embarked on a 130-mile tour of some of Vermont’s finest hot chocolate venues.
At Laughing Moon Chocolates, located on Route 100 in Stowe Village, a chocolate graveyard with homemade dark-gray tombstones reading Kiss Chocolate, Sweets, Caramel and Fudge cleverly graced the entrance. Inside, the small shop was filled with a huge assortment of chocolates of all shapes and sizes. Barista Samantha melted white button chips placed in a Pyrex glass measuring cup in hot water and then added frothy milk steamed in a professional steamer and freshly whipped Cabot whipped cream to float on top. My white chocolate beverage was delicious. Next up was signature hot chocolate, which was rich and not too sweet. Laughing Moon suggests customers add more sugar if they want their cocoa sweeter, which keeps everyone happy. During busy season, a large batch of hot chocolate is warmed in a huge copper pot and ladled out to customers. Local comedian Rusty DeWeese is a regular—his favorite is hot chocolate loaded with whipped cream and sprinkled with peppermint.
Owner Leigh Williams started Laughing Moon after working for seven years in a Cape Cod chocolate shop. Discouraged by a dismal post-college job market, opening a chocolate shop made sense. She shared, “My dad always told me that there wasn’t anything I could do that would make people as happy every day.” With that sage fatherly advice, she has successfully operated for 15 years. “Good hot chocolate is affordable. You can spend $4 and make someone’s day.”
Traveling south on Route 100, with a quick stop at Lake Champlain Choco- lates Route 100 retail store, we found The Sweet Spot, located on Bridge Street in Waitsfield and situated on the Mad River. This café, currently owned by husband-wife team Sarina Gulisano and John Vitko, makes a rich chocolate ganache, adds it to frothy steamed milk and tops it with locally sourced housemade whipped cream. A table of high school girls was chattering away eating lunch as Kersten and I sipped our drinks jiving to the music and enjoying the river vista.
Twenty miles further south on Route 100, at Sandy’s Books and Bakery in Rochester, we had a hearty bowl of roasted squash soup and a mug of hot chocolate. Aztec Hot Chocolate, this time, which arrived in a charming gray ceramic etched mug. Made from organic cocoa powder, raw sugar, allspice, cayenne and chipotle peppers, the beverage was steamed in a vintage Astra, topped with rich whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa. The flavors were not too sweet, with good fire and a real kick. Sandy Lincoln, the owner, said, “We source as much local ingredients as possible here,” upholding their motto: “Feeding the mind, belly and spirit of our customers,” all amidst shelves of used and vintage books.
We traveled over the Middlebury Gap to Middlebury Chocolates located in Frog Hollow Alley, overlooking Otter Creek Falls. Charming café tables scattered in a small courtyard offered close-up views of the roaring falls. Inside, comfy couches, chairs and a long butcher table provided ample seating. Owner Stephanie Jackson introduced herself, and I ordered a half-portion dark chocolate cocoa served in a small ceramic mug. The chocolate was rich, not too sweet. The cacao beans, sourced from the Dominican Republic, Belize, Tanzania and Guatemala, are roasted on-site, a bean-to-bar operation. Jackson and her husband relocated to Middlebury from Asheville, North Carolina, and began the operation in 2010. “It blends the scientific and offers a creative outlet.” Her husband, head chocolate maker, agrees.
Vermont’s hot chocolate landscape is rich and inviting, offering a multitude of styles but always best when shared with a friend or two. This treat can certainly help us all endure a long winter!
This is just the beginning of Laurie’s exploration of hot chocolate with many more towns awaiting that promise a steamy cup of rich creamy chocolate and the stories that bring it to life.