Baking through the ages

The most delicious meals are created in personal kitchens, I think. With the splurge of food blogs and recipes available online, all sorts of culinary discoveries can happen in our very own homes. The following photos pay tribute to some of the sweet discoveries that I’ve made with new friends since these past few months.

In autumn, I found a recipe for pumpkin pie bars. The recipe is at least two years old, but I got caught up in the pumpkin wave for the first time this year. I remember that most grocery stores were nearly out of pumpkin filling around November, when we made this, but I snagged the last can.

Roommate poses with the masterpiece of her fall collection

We topped the bars with a generous sprinkling of chocolate chips, which melted onto the warm surface of the dough. Stuffed with cream cheese, a single bar is enough to throw you into a food coma. I thought that I had made a culinary discovery by combining chocolate and pumpkin, an unusual pairing. But then I realized that pumpkin is empty of flavor without the requisite spices. Although most people probably knew this, my awe burst like a child’s who just discovered Santa isn’t real. Pumpkin flavor is just cinnamon and nutmeg in disguise. As a squash vegetable, however, the pumpkin added texture and nutrition.

The following photo features a breakfast dish invented by one of my other roommates. For the past few weeks, he’s been sizzling some stuffed French toast for us on Saturday mornings. His idea began simply: French toast with cream cheese filling. Then toast was upgraded to croissants. Berries and fruit sauce were added. Last weekend, we added a final touch: cream cheese and Nutella. Voila!

Just imagine the decadence of Nutella and cream cheese enveloped inside the warm croissant, even though you can’t see it. Next time, we’ll swap cream cheese for plantains and add some tropical fruit to give it some Caribbean flavor. In the meantime, my roommates will be travelling to the Caribbean where they will likely find more inventive intercultural foods.

Finally, we arrive at my masterpiece, Olive Oil cake with Blood Oranges. After having stood by the sidelines of the baking arena for over a year, I made my first attempt to tackle it myself. I succeeded only because the recipe is fool proof. It calls for an ordinary cake batter drowned in olive oil. Blood oranges, the hoity toity relative of ordinary citrus fruit, accessorizes it inside and out to add flavor, texture and color.

As fortune would have it, my stomach could not handle consumption of this cake. But I assure you that my roommates remained perfectly healthy and ate through half the cake without my help.

I smell spring in the awful rain showers we’re having. But the sun may come out as will I; out of my winter lethargy to continue inventing in my kitchen. Until then, enjoy your remaining winter days.

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My quest for the perfect cocoa

Last post, I introduced you to my corner chocolate café by reviewing its macaroons. The cafe is a near-complete study into the art of chocolate making. They sell their own chocolate bars, chocolate martinis, chocolate desserts – and also their own hot chocolate. Although I love the café’s desserts, I cannot get onboard with their signature chocolate drink.

I ordered one to go a few nights ago when the storms were still raging outside my apartment. Upon ordering, the waiter ladled out my hot chocolate from a large soup pot. Meanwhile, another waitress took my card over to the other register and handed my drink to me. The take-away cups were simply white with black plastic caps. I removed the lid and took a cautious sip, only to find that its consistency was so thick that even one sip was too rich. I took my drink home that night, poured half of it into another cup and added hot water. The cocoa required vigorous stirring to settle down floating debris of chocolate. The café seemed to have made their hot chocolate simply by melting down their chocolate bars and produced an unoriginal and overwhelming product.

I’ve found this soupy consistency plaguing hot chocolate drinks in cafes around the country. The Naked Chocolate Café, a chocolate café chain in Philadelphia offers a rich European style drink in a small tea cup. Although I loved the café for its novelty, one cup of hot chocolate slams you against a chocolate barrier. Another blogger, who lives half-way across the country, went on a hot chocolate tour in Seattle and wrote about feeling inert after just two cups of hot chocolate.

However, this past weekend, I visited New York to catch the tail end of Hot Chocolate month. City Bakery, in the lower east side, offers a new flavor of hot chocolate every single day. But the café closes at 7 pm, so when I showed up at 6:30 on Saturday night, they had run out of their “Treasure Island Hot Chocolate”. But I had trekked up all the way from East Harlem, so I was willing to pay the full 5 dollars for whatever hot chocolate they could offer me. Aside from specialty flavors, City Bakery only offers milk and dark hot chocolate. My dark hot chocolate drink came in a very small cup, so I expected nothing more than the European style that’s become trademark of premium drinks.

Drum roll please….

My cocoa was perfect. The consistently was perfectly rich without leaving an unpleasant aftertaste of having swallowed a cube of sugar and a pitcher of cream. The dark hot chocolate provided the rich chocolate flavor while going down smoothly to warm me up on that cold, windy day. I could have definitely gone for another, barring the cost. City Bakery must guard its recipe closely. But they offer a package of instant powder, which I will definitely purchase next time.

If you’re in New York and managed to catch a flavor of the day, drop me an email and tell me how it was!

A swirl of Chai

Let’s take a step back.

Six months after graduation, I moved to a small state on the east coast, to a small town that you’ve never heard of. Most recent college graduates don’t do this. We usually congregate in New York City, Washington DC, a San Francisco or an exotic country.

But small towns often contain big wonders. Like the best pizza joint in the country that’s no one’s heard of. Or, in my town, the best chocolate café you’ve never heard of.

Every few weeks, I pop into this café for a dessert, usually a truffle or macaroon. I am rather new to macaroons, but here is the grand summary: it’s like a European Oreo. A sandwich of crispy wafer cookies with ganache filling and packaged in vibrant colors. Last month, I ordered one in magenta color – raspberry with chocolate ganache. Today, the options were lemon and dark chocolate and chai. The waitress recommended the Chai, although I might go in for the chocolate one tomorrow.

Above is a picture of the chai macaroon (although it hardly does the stuff justice because camera tints everything in a yellow hue.) The macaroon had the elegance and glamour of a prom dress. On the top wafer were small golden sparkles that glittered in the light. One level beneath it was a layer of chai-flavored cream, with a consistency between icing and cream cheese. And the macaroon was rounded off symmetrically with another chai wafer, although I am not sure that it was sparkly.

Since the macaroon is French in origin, I suspect that there’s a rule book for how to properly eat a macaroon to keep its compact structure in place. However, the macaroon was slightly larger than my mouth. After once ill-placed chomp, the entire thing fell apart. Although I’ve called the top and bottom layer wafers, these biscuits are actually fact hollow, making the entire thing precarious and total fun. The first bite made a terrific crunching noise and in the second bite, I fell into the creamy chai flavored icing.

Overall, this dessert was a dual exploration into chai flavor. The macaroon investigates in two parts. What does chai taste like in a wafer? Like delicate gingerbread. What would chai taste like if it were creamed? Like buttercream icing, but tolerably sweet with a kick. What would chai taste like if you put wafers and cream together? Mildly sweet and spicy – just what you’d expect. But in the most unexpected form.

Other than it’s ever changing assortment of macaroons, this chocolate café is well known for it’s hot chocolate and chocolate bars. Next week, I’ll revert back to the central theme of this blog to write about it in great detail. Until then…

Drinking Cocoa on Snow Days

If you’re feeling forlorn for having put away your Christmas ornaments, I bring you some good news. Hot chocolate season has begun. Despite these post-holiday months, everyday contains the possibility of a holiday if it’s cold enough outside to kindle desire for some hot chocolate.

This was my first Christmas that I spent without my family or friends. I moved to a new home that’s thousands of miles away from my parents. Brewing a cup of cocoa around Christmas, however, has become a tradition. And this tradition that I practiced around Christmas this year inaugurated my new apartment as home.

Our first snowfall was timely – the day after Christmas – and it was my cue to pull out a bar of chocolate that had been sitting in my drawers since my birthday in September. I boiled my first cup of cocoa using a bar of Scharffen Berger 70% bittersweet chocolate. The brand’s main claim is that the chocolate is processed in vintage European machinery and fruity undertones. Neither element pronounced itself in the hot chocolate – the fruity undertones blended away into the chocolate flavor and I can’t really taste the difference from expensive processing equipment. The Scharffen Berger tasted like the run of the mill artisanal chocolate – high quality without any flare.

To make the hot chocolate, I pulled in my usual tricks – a hint of vanilla and a pinch of salt with a generous heap of Ghirardelli chocolate powder. Sometimes a spoonful of chocolate powder helps to amplify the flavor extracted from dark chocolate. In the final last moments of simmering, I added some peppermint extract and stirred it with a candy cane.

I recommend adding a satisfying splash of Baileys. I received as plump bottle of the classic Irish cream whiskey from my coworker at a holiday gift exchange. Aside from the general attraction of alcohol, Bailey’s Irish cream adds some muscle to the texture of hot cocoa. But add too much and the hot chocolate transmutes into a mild milkshake, muting both the sharpness of chocolate and whiskey.

Between the cocoa, candy cane and Bailey’s, I had myself a sweet holiday cocktail to stave off cold and loneliness. I’ll keep experimenting with hot cocoa until the snow melts away.

A second blizzard came eastwards last week. I scraped a mountain of snow off the top of my car, using both arms and swinging the snowbrush with both hands like a baseball bat. As a prize for my hard work, I bought myself a tall canister of trade organic Trader’s Joe hot chocolate mix.

A third blizzard just came around last night! I am getting lucky to be able to spend today curling up with some hot chocolate…many excel files for work. Enjoy your snow day.

CocoaCaliente D’Orange

For christmas when I was in 7th grade, I received a present of a chocolate orange. Not only did the chocolate taste like orange, it was in the shape of an orange with six different wedges and imprints marking imaginary seeds.

Fastforward ten years later, to my residence in London. Along the bank of the Thames, I discovered orange hot chocolate in a chain coffee shop called Costa’s. The barista drizzled flavoring syrup at the bottom of a tall mug and filled the rest with Costa’s house hot cocoa.

Tina caught me in my moment of discovery.

But syrups come in many flavors. You can make many variations on hot chocolate by asking for any type of syrup from almond, to mint, to even raspberry, one might say in protest to my embrace of the orange flavor in particular. Why should orange be any better?

Except, orange flavor is one of the few fruity tastes that’s classic with chocolate – it complements chocolate’s sweetness but it also introduces some slight tang. Blackberry, for example, is not strong enough and hides under the cocoa flavor. Raspberry syrups can’t mimic the actual berry very well and the nuttiness of almond and hazelnut do not provide a strong enough contrast to the chocolate. mmm, I love that citrus attitude!

I’ve not come across a single chocolate store in America, so far, that sells orange hot chocolate on the menu. But it’s popular online as a variation on traditional hot chocolate. The drink’s online aliases include “orange kissed hot chocolate,” and “citrus hot chocolate.” I persist in calling mine CocoaCaliente D’orange, absurdly mixing french and spanish although its roots herald neither.

Now that I’ve cooked/baked/cultivated hot chocolate a few times, the overall cooking process has shortened. No more disastrous mistakes where the milk, unguarded, boils over.

I chose a safe brand of chocolate – Ghiradelli’s 72% cocoa, fancily called “Twilight Delight”.

To make to three small cups of hot chocolate, combine four squares of chocolate with 16 oz. of skim milk. Skim, not “whole dry milk powder,” as Jacques Torres suggests in his recipe published on FoodNetwork.

Having returned from home to commemorate the fading away of my spring break, I brought back vanilla and orange extract. A drop of each, while chanting, “double, double, toil and trouble,” should do the trick.

And, most importantly, I brought back my strainer. All the excess cocoa solids, mass and fat disappeared, leaving a only a smooth and light drink.

Clink! In Italian cups, share a bit of cocoa between friends.

A tentative recipe:

Half a bar of dark chocolate
16 oz. skim milk
A drop or two of orange extract or liqueur (vanilla and cinnamon are optional)

Prep and cook time: 15 minute.

Other recipes suggest using orange zest, and some even instruct you to grate your own chocolate. Both these are unnecessary since my simpler methods can yield the same taste at a lower price.

College Student Cocoa Recipe

A simple no-frills recipe is often better a recipe with a too many ingredients and complicated methods. This seems to be the theme drawing from my adventures with cocoa as I’ve returned to college, from winter break. Indeed, this next recipe shall be called the “College Student Cocoa,” which I dedicate to Francesca Jones, a friend of mine from when I studied abroad in King’s College London.

In preparation for creating an entry for this blog, I attempted to create an “adult” hot chocolate drink that could be appreciated by experienced palettes. The key ingredients to this drink’s maturity were baking chocolate powder and rum. Since this was my first time properly baking hot cocoa, however, I made the mistake of pouring in too much baking cocoa without enough sugar, and too much rum. While it may have been easier to simply add rum to the hot cocoa, I wanted the alcohol to burn away.

This process took me a good half an hour. Meanwhile, Frankie heats up a cup of milk and melts a bar Green and Blacks. At the end of each of our cooking processes, we passed our drinks around to our friends. The votes were unanimous – her drink tasted far better.

I haven’t given up on the idea of combining rum and chocolate, which was a inspired by a crepe I ate in Paris where burning rum was poured across my chocolate crepe. But this cup of green and blacks hot cocoa was quite good, definitely a step up from ordinary grocery store blends and not very expensive. Green and Blacks may have their own cocoa blend, I believe, but if you want hot cocoa and don’t have any blends on hand…

Anyways, if you have been following my blog consistently, you should be able to recite with me the main procedures for baking. Boil milk on a burner and toss in a few blocks of chocolate. My parents forgot to mail me my vanilla and other tasty extracts, but I would recommend a few drops if you have it on hand.

Happy Valentine’s! I spent Friday night trying to work in preparation for an epic an epic evening out on Saturday night. After a long day of self-imposed exile in McCabe, in fruitless attempts to be productive, a cup of hot cocoa was wonderful treat.

From a waterfall of chocolate to a looming pan of emptiness, I offer you a portrait of the journey of the drink from the pan to the cup.

My co-cook enjoyed the little balls of fat that formed between the fat from the chocolate and the 2% milk that we used – he compared to little “malt balls – it’s like a rich milkshake”. I’m glad that someone can enjoy those dreadful solids that are a necessary part of the process. I did not bring my strainer with me, but by the time I had extracted these solids from drink, little was left over to enjoy. This is an issue that I have not yet resolved- so if you are making some yourself and figure out a way to enjoy these dregs or recycle them into something useful, please let me know.

Otherwise, the final part of the process was cleaning up. I claimed the responsibility of photographing our journey, so I left my compatriot to perform this unsavory duty. He looked at me resignedly – “Are you kidding me? I have to clean up after I bought you the chocolate bar for Valentine’s? And you are taking a photo of me?”

My dorm’s kitchen is a glass box, from which people walking by can watch you, and you can watch them: a forgiving Panopticon.

Sometimes, the Occassion Calls for Tea

It is snowing, it is February and cold, so it would seem as if the occasion would call for cocoa. But an incident related to a snowball caused me to fall ill for the weekend and thus some tea-healing was needed.

A dorm-wide snowball fight took place on Friday night. As I was leaving this dorm, I got caught in the crossfire and a snowball hit me squarely in the neck. This unleashed the beast in me and I grabbed a handful of the powdery substance with my naked hand and pummeled my assaulter with an intensity that surprised bystanders – in a friendly spirit of course. But then I fell to a cold which prevented my participation in the epic campus-wide snowball fight that transpired the following afternoon.

To recover from my sickness, I turned to a traditional organic remedy: tea. I purchased a set of Darjeeling tea bags and I have drunk through half of it within only a few days.

The honeybear remains triumphant, despite the spoon lodged in its head like an icepick.

Nothing could make me happier as I sat against a window, watching the snow blow violently in the wind, knowing comfortingly that I was cozy and warm.

Once again, it’s a very simple and familiar recipe, but it’s worth remembering. When I was legal to drink as a student in London, I found that whiskey was a wonderful complement to tea. It enhanced the deep flavor and the sloshing of inner warmth I prefer my tea weak, but I accidentally let the lemon wedge drift as the tea bag was steeping. In such a case, let the tea bag steep for a long time to meet the sourness of the lemon.

I recommend a side of crackers (sesame) or digestives. And a dose of Nietzsche.

A Winter Cocoa Recipe

Although this post is seemingly anachronistic given that the instigating photo was taken in December, it’s telling about my current state of affairs since history is cyclical. Meteorological history too. Caitlin and I, along with several hundred other Swarthmore students, were confined to the campus after a snowfall with a foot of precipitation perplexed the city of Philadelphia – the airport closed down and our flights were delayed by several days after final period had ended.

It was liberating to discover Swarthmore again without the pressures of academics and I found a quiet winter time niche through my experiments with hot chocolate. With so few students around, the snow was untouched, unprinted by feet and unmarked.

Philadelphia is continuing to beat it’s record for the worst snow storm in recent memory – it is a winter wonderland outside. I just now stepped outside as the snow was falling, to catch a few flakes on my tongue and march across the white hill. With snow so fresh and powdery, I felt like I was crossing a sandy white beach. The cold flakes simply dusted themselves off my boots on their own.

This was your heroine’s journey to the room of Caitlin where the hot cocoa was to be made. I appreciated the symbolism of walking into a winter sunset and how the the white silence of the snow became so tangible.

Our experiments were not so pretty. I had developed a collection of hot cocoa mixes, including one from Godiva, Safeway and a Starbucks mocha mix. I also brought along a collection of accessories such as marshmallows and whipped cream. Alas, we never reached the final stages of the toppings, our failings commencing from Part 1. Between the two of us we didn’t realize that it would be unwise to boil milk in a water heater.

The mug scripted with the words Hot Chocolate in fancy lettering comes with a battery-powered mixer that foams the milk wonderfully. It’s equally enjoyable foaming the milk and drinking the hot chocolate.

We had an impressive array of tools for a project that failed technically, ultimately

Between the multiple cocoa powders, I discovered a strategy of mixing ordinary store bought powders with 100% baking cocoa or other dark chocolate mixes. Traditionally, as I have often commented on this blog, most ordinary commercial cocoa mixes use a very high proportion of sugar which mask the desired chocolate flavor, as did this particular mix that accompanied the hot chocolate set. Our first batch was not bad. We mixed part soymilk with regular milk and it created a creamy full-bodied flavor without too much of the sac-flavor.

However, it was clear during our second cooking process that the milk was burned. We discovered that the milk had coated the metal coils with a black substance. I apologize to Caitlin for having injured her water heater.

But it hardly mattered since we got a bit of cocoa, the peaceful snow, and curled up under the covers to watch a sweet movie called Love and Other Disasters. My winter cocoa recipe is simply the experience of making drinks with friends – it’s a recipe for success.

Freshen your Cocoa, Basil-Mint style

Peppermint hot chocolate has quickly become a favorite flavoring of cocoa, probably due to Starbucks offering it as a seasonal drink. I can partially credit Starbucks for reintroducing my interest in hot chocolate with their signature and salted drinks that came onboard the family, last winter. But real mint flavor is not overcome by simple sweetness like the Starbucks peppermint syrup. Rather, this herb flavor infuses a freshness to cocoa reminiscent of Andes chocolate that Olive Garden provides after the end of the meal. It makes you go “ahhh.” I couldn’t quite isolate and identify the impact from the basil, but the herb flavor is generally subtle and simply adds to the freshness.

Starring, the one and only:

I bought this brand of chocolate at a bakery/cafe called the Curious Palate, which I’ll discuss more in detail in another post. A variety of chocolates in flavor, strength and brands were offered in this cafe. Some, like the orange flavor, I can easily recreate by adding orange extract or even creating my own orange zest. I could potentially buy mint and basil leaves, but this was easier.

The treat was enveloped in gold paper. Would a ticket for the Wonka factory spill out as I unwrapped it?

Nope, just three pieces of chocolate. I nibbled at it in raw form – I think I prefer it in liquid.

This hot chocolate’s co-star is the Vanilla extract. I thought I was being ingenious in discovering that vanilla enhances the chocolate flavor. But I found this book on hot chocolate that suggested this culinary partnership has been around for ages. Chocolate connoisseurs should use a “plump” Vanilla bean (why always plump? How about “homely,” or “pleasantly curvaceous”?), preferably of Mexican origin, dictates the expert book.

For a more cost-effective option, use vanilla extract. Pure. My bottle is mostly water, alcohol, and then a little bit vanilla, BAD.

It is an imposing ingredient.

Another subtle ingredient to add is salt. As Jo instructs to Daisy in Little Men, salt is the secret ingredient for sweet baked goods, a pinch of reason and rationality.

Great, I know the ingredients that go into making a the perfect drink. But I’m still a novice when it comes to mixing them together properly. I thought that it must be so simple. Just kind of throw them all together at one time chaotically and make it up as I go along. There are many ways this can go wrong. Displaying figure 1, a chocolate mushroom cloud.

Before you look at this image and wonder about my qualifications (I have none), let me assure you that this blog is a learning process. We’re in this together – I’m learning that it’s not a good idea to continue boiling and boiling your chocolate.

I was wondering why there were little pieces that still hadn’t dissolved, until I realised that the ingredients of the chocolate bar include “candied chocolate nuts.” I’ve passed this wisdom to you, now. You know exactly what to expect from my instructions. I’m not sure exactly what the solution is, except perhaps add your other ingredients to the boiling milk first and then chocolate? Or simply let it simmer? Suggestions? The consequences are not dire, only:

HOLY SHIT, ALL MY MILK EVAPORATED. The volume reduced dramatically even after I added half a cup of water.

But the flavor was untouched perfection – a semi-sweet blend of chocolate and natural freshness. It went down smooth, not too rich or too sweet. Just…half a cup vanished in the cooking process. But, Progress, is what I call this.

And I encourage you to try this at home and improve upon my primitive attempts.

If you have a bar of chocolate, vanilla, salt, and green leaves lying around, whip up a cup and snuggle with a book. (Warning: Do not try with Kindle. It is not Snuggle Certified.)

My current read is The Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx.

Signature Cocoa Caliente

My new web name was inspired my former roommate Erin who would often say, “muy caliente,” to flatter us – caliente referring to the allure of a woman rather than her bodily temperature. But I adapted it to describe hot cocoa because cocoa in steaming cup between your hands is cocoa in its most alluring form. Coincidentally, I found recipes for a type of drink called cocoa caliente and I attempted to make such a recipe in my amateur kitchen. Each recipe is pretty simple, using only a few ingredients besides chocolate.

Luckily, the square of Baker’s chocolate were already semi-sweetened – the last time I attempted to use baking cocoa, I forgot to add sugar and it became unbearably bitter.

I adapted the recipe from CDKitchen because it’s simple. For a single serving:

2 squares Baker’s chocolate broken into small pieces
1 cup skim milk
1 drop vanilla extract
1/2 pinch cinnamon
1/2 pinch ground cloves

My parents’ pantry was absent of cinnamon or cloves, so I chose to use chai powder instead which is a mixture of familiar cozy spices. I also upped the proportion of vanilla extract and added half a cup of milk, since both took the rich edge off the chocolate flavor. I like this recipe because it uses skim milk instead of whole milk, whipping cream or other types heavy dairy ingredients, used, for example, in this 2005 Bon Appetit recipe:

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup golden brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
4 ounces chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

It would make for a great dessert, but what if you just wanted quick indulgence?

With all of these recipes, start boiling the milk in a saucepan and add chocolate chunks half-way. Wait for all the chocolate to melt away and watch out for the fat solids that float up until the top. The patchiness of the color in the photo above is a result of the separation of the fat.

Ew….

But strain away the fat, sometimes multiple times if, like me, you are using a strainer that immigrated to this country over twenty years ago.

And in all my efforts to mold my drink perfectly, I neglected to capture the final moment of triumph when the colors and textures settled down. I achieved the rich consistency that differentiates mass marketed cocoa powders from the “gourmet”. But I still found the texture to be too thick, either from the type of chocolate I used or the amount of milk. Maybe I’ll try it with more water, next time.

Feel free to garnish with whipped cream, sticks of chocolate, Cinnamon sticks, and all the other topical frivolities applied by Starbucks and similar cafes. (My whipped cream layer always falls to the bottom of the cup, as does my foam!) Add some red pepper powder for a spontaneous kick at the end.

Cocoa has become a seasonal drink, a heart warmer as you sit against the hearth and watch the snow fall as you smugly snuggle under your blankets knowing that you are far far away from the snow.

Now that I am Cali, I am actually much farther from the snow then I would like to be! This steaming cup conjures memories of drinking hot chocolate while crouching under under the sink cupboard, to press my feet against the heater. Back in Michigan, my family would live in the warmth of the kitchen during the winters, our feet submerged under layers of socks and stuck to these metal graters emanating heat.

These memories are only precious in nostalgia – how I relish the freedom to be mobile and detach myself from fixed heat sources. The weather is just cool enough to be able to enjoy a good cup of cocoa.

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