Drink of the Week: Hot Chocolate at Bittersweet Bakery, Kakao and Rue Lafayette

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We are contemplating the meager Christmas decorations we have managed to get up this year, which must be taken down and packed away again. This task will be made easier by the fact that most of the boxes still lie about the living room. We started the month with twinkly eyes and big plans. We would take in White Christmas at the Fox and Handel's Messiah at Powell Hall and go ice skating at Steinberg Skating Rink in Forest Park.

We would get a real tree to make the house smell like pine, but time kept getting shorter, and we started thinking what a pain it is to tie the thing to the roof of the car in the cold, and they're so expensive, and the needles everywhere, and, oh, screw it. This from a girl who once, not so long ago, hand-stamped her own homemade Christmas paper.

A carton of eggnog sits untouched in our fridge, but we have been guzzling hot chocolate at every opportunity. Warm and familiar, it is good medicine for frayed nerves and winter blues. Hung over from a Christmas party the night before, we misremember the meet-up time for a Christmas-gift strategy-session with our siblings, so we arrive at Bittersweet Bakery on Gravois half an hour late, thus narrowly missing the breakfast service. Fortunately, the hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows is a meal in a cup.

Chef Nancy Bosch explains that this is essentially a thin ganache, made by pouring hot whole milk over Valrhona chocolate from France and whisking them together. She uses mostly 70% cacao bittersweet chocolate but does add a splash of milk chocolate for that caramelly, creamy flavor that evokes childhood memories. Your choice of peppermint, espresso or vanilla-bean marshmallows flavor the chocolate as they melt into an ooey-gooey, sticky delicious layer on top. The eight-ounce cup looks small at first, but it's enough -- we are practically vibrating from our sugar-buzz by the time we hit the stores.

Just two days before Christmas, we stop at nearby Kakao Chocolate, on Jefferson, for some last-minute stocking stuffers. Kakao is (predictably) sold out of the truffles we have in mind. We grab a few things that will work and reward our efforts with the very grown-up take on hot chocolate.

Wrapped up in our down parka, we look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, so we opt for whole milk, but 2% is available. The milk is steamed on the wand of an espresso machine and then stirred into Kakao's proprietary blend of ground dark chocolate, cocoa powder and a little sugar. Reminiscent of a latte, it has a noticeable caffeine kick, a pleasing bitterness and a dark chocolate intensity that is softened, but not overwhelmed, by a subtle sweetness.

We'd imagined that we would attend the Lafayette Square Holiday Parlour Tour, maybe even take advantage of their carriage rides in the park. We thought Rue Lafayette, the new coffee shop we've been hearing about, would be a lovely place to have a cappuccino and croissant beforehand. That didn't pan out, but we do stop in for a hot chocolate to-go on our way to a post-Christmas family gathering.

Rue Lafayette's version, made with Ghirardelli syrup and steamed milk, looks pretty typical until our barista asks if we want whipped cream. We do indeed. She pulls a plastic-wrapped metal container out of the cooler and plops a spoonful into our drink. We are pleased to see the real deal and not the spray-can stuff. She goes in for a second spoonful, and we are more pleased still. When she drops in a third heaping spoonful, even we are growing concerned that this may be excessive. The result is creamy and sweet, with a frothy texture and a mild chocolaty-ness.

Then we are eastward bound into the belly of this unexpected snowstorm, the hilly, curvy country roads already covered by several inches. Occasionally, we peel one hand from its death grip on the steering wheel long enough to take a soothing sip of our hot chocolate. We are so soothed, in fact, that after piloting our car into a shallow ditch by the side of the road, when one of our passengers points out that we failed to "pump the brakes," we manage to refrain from suggesting that he get out and walk the rest of the way.

Alicia Lohmar is a south-city dweller and accomplished drinker, to which she credits her German ancestry and Catholic upbringing.
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