Welcome back to a very special episode of The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition! As the temperature dropped, our thoughts turned to that age old salve that soothes all ills and chills: alcohol. So, while the hustle and bustle of the holiday season ramped up around us, we chose to counter it by foregoing the labor of creating a meal, and instead focusing on the relaxing properties of potent potables shared in good company. That’s right, friends, it’s Cocktail Week!
Mark showed up in a huff, because “in a huff” is Mark’s default state of being. Mark is so often in a huff that he has grown weary of us asking what all the huff is about. We’ve had occasion to ask him so frequently that the question itself now generates more huff. This time His Royal Huffiness seemed to gain a degree of unexpected huff when we DIDN’T inquire about the source of his initial huff; not acknowledging huff, we discovered, also serves to dangerously increase the overall huff potential of the Mains internal huff system. It’s a no-win scenario Mark has invented specifically because he wants to be huffy. The Mains Huffworks is a precarious and convoluted machine, with many emotional safety valves and huff outlets, some of which are effective huff mitigators, and others which exist only to trick the unaware into inadvertently exacerbating huff overload. And all the valves and controls look the same. This, in essence, is the nature of Mark Mains.
Mark announced with great puffs of huffy gusto that he would not be participating in the challenge. I’m sure Mr. Hasselhuff said why, but I wasn’t listening. Mark has more alcohol in his home than the rest of us combined, so he could have easily done SOMETHING. But the cloud of huff surrounding him obscured his vision, and he huffily sat this one out. If you listen closely, you can hear him out there, right now, huffing as he reads this, his huff building up catastrophic pressure like the locomotive at the end of Back To The Future Part III. You can practically hear the rivets popping. Huff overload is imminent. Even now you can feel him positively aching to respond with great peals of huffy bluster! But will he?! ONLY THE HUFF KNOWS!
As Mrs. Huffington’s huff filled her like an overfull balloon – a huffaloon, if you will – the rest of us got down to business. Despite the fact that we were making beverages, Mandy and I were very much still viewing this as a cooking competition. So it went unnoticed to us that, while we were hunkered over the stove top manning our brews, Dan was making something… weird.
If I recall correctly, Mandy and Mark did not like Dan’s drink. I didn’t think it was bad, just hard to understand, both intellectually and gastronomically. Dan’s recipe called for a mixture of limoncello, that most magical of all Italian liqueurs, and RumChata. RumChata is designed to mimic the flavor of horchata, specifically the flavor of horchata de arroz which was perfected in Mexico and Guatemala and brought to us by our neighbors to the south. If you’ve never had horchata, your life is incomplete. Go drink some right now. I’ll wait.
Good, isn’t it? RumChata is a delicious blend of of rum, cream, cinnamon, and vanilla, but the standout star is absolutely the cinnamon. Limoncello is lemony in the extreme; the only reason it exists is because of lemon oil’s ability to form a spontaneous emulsification with the water in strong vodka or grain alcohols. And while strong lemon flavor goes well with rum, cream, cinnamon, and vanilla, it doesn’t necessarily go well with all four at the same time. It was an odd blend made even odder by the fact that it really DIDN’T blend. Not that the drinks separated or curdled, but the flavors never melded. I took a sip and immediately tasted lemon. I could tell the cinnamon and cream had come to the party, but they were over in the corner talking quietly to themselves. A moment later the lemon flavor drifted off to mingle, and the cinnamon and cream came over to talk. Then they went away and the rum paid me a visit. I could taste every flavor Dan had used, just not at once. The flavors seemed to come and go of their own accord. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was confusing. I was like a hooker hired by two swinging couples. I had assumed we would all be getting in bed together, but it turns out I would be servicing each client individually. Not really a problem, just a little less enjoyable than I was expecting.
Dan and I both felt cinnamon was the way to go, but I took it in a different direction. Way back in 2011, while shopping at Target, I happened upon a shopping cart filled with hundreds of packages of Cinnamon M&M’s on deep clearance. I often allow myself to impulse buy cheap things that seems odd but pique my curiosity, and these were definitely pressing all the right buttons. I’d never heard of them, and it seemed like there was the potential for a lot to be wrong with these, and I’ve learned that the very best stories almost always come from unpleasant experiences. So I took them home and forgot about them for a few days. When the weekend came I found myself at home with a free Saturday night, so I fired up the tree, put some Christmas vinyl on the platter, pulled out my guitar, and tore open a bag of Cinnamon M&M’s.
I never played the guitar that night.
Cinnamon M&M’s are PHENOMENAL. It would be difficult to describe to you what the perfect, most sublime balance between chocolate and cinnamon tastes like without throwing some Cinnamon M&M’s in your mouth and commanding you to chew. I didn’t think those two flavors could possibly taste that good together. Before I knew it I had eaten both bags, and, like a junkie scratching for his next fix, I full on panicked. I didn’t have any more Cinnamon M&M’s! What was I going to do?! I put on my shoes and coat like I was racing The Flash, and went to Target, where I found that the entire cart of Cinnamon M&M’s had been sold. SON OF A BITCH! Off to Kroger, where they looked at me like I was crazy. They’d never heard of Cinnamon M&M’s. A single lucid thought broke through my madness: maybe Cinnamon M&M’s are a Target exclusive. I lived in Newport at the time, and the next closest Target I knew of was in Florence, which is a stupidly long way to drive for candy. I was there in under 15 minutes, scrounging through their candy aisle like starving dog pawing at the ground to catch a mole. Bags of gaudy, Christmas colored confections flew this way and that, but I never found my precious. In fact, I never saw Cinnamon M&M’s ever again. It turns out they only made them in 2011, and have never done so since. I’ve never spoken to another living soul who has tasted the glory that was Cinnamon M&M’s. You can still read legends of them online, told by sad, lonely people in dark corners of the internet, misty-eyed dreamers staring woefully into the distance, longing like fools to relive some small semblance of the perfect chocolate/cinnamon experience, hoping against all hope to taste that flavor which they know will never come again. Sad, haunted fools like me…
Cinnamon M&M’s may be gone forever, but I have never stopped searching for that flavor. I’ve tried to recreate it with varying degrees of success over the years. The chocolate glaze I made for my schichttorte on our very first episode had cinnamon in it. That was no accident. I’m forever searching to recreate that balance. So, I thought, why not try it in a drink?
Despite my constant efforts to reduce clean up and make cooking as mess free as possible, I’ve come to accept that truly great hot cocoa can only be made in a pot on a stove top or over an open fire. Every effort I’ve made to produce great cocoa in the mug in which it is served has been met with failure. I don’t know why this should be, but I have come to accept that it is. And since I was here to win, stove top cocoa it would be.
I started off with a half gallon of whole milk chocolate milk, Kroger brand. I have never tasted another chocolate milk that is its equal, and so I chose that to be the base of my cocoa. I let this warm on the counter for a few hours before cooking, then heated it on the stove over medium to medium high heat. You need to monitor your heat VERY closely when working with chocolate and/or milk; anyone who has ever scorched chocolate or over-scalded milk will testify that once these two foods are burned, they cannot be salvaged. The nasty flavor of burnt milk fat or scorched cocoa solids will pervade your dish. So I let this heat up nice and slowly until it was just giving off the thinnest wisps of steam. Into this I stirred two large dark chocolate bars, which I had chopped to the point of being flakes. I probably could have used bigger chunks, or even dark chocolate chips, because the chocolate melted far more easily than I expected. That’s good to know for next time, because I will DEFINITELY be making this again.
If you’re cooking along at home, you will notice that your cocoa is still as thin as chocolate milk at this point, despite all the chocolate we added. Part of what sets great cocoa apart from hot chocolate milk is viscosity. You need more body, and I can think of nothing that can provide that body better than marshmallows. Into my pot I added half a bag of miniature marshmallows; in retrospect, I should have used the whole bag. It looks like a lot at first, but they melt quickly with constant stirring, and the thickening provided by the gelatin and cornstarch, along with the flavor added by the vanilla in the marshmallows, is absolutely wonderful. If I were going to make regular hot cocoa, I would have added another dark chocolate bar, stirred until completely integrated, and called it a day. But this was a cocktail competition, and I needed booze.
Like Dan, when I think of creamy cinnamon, I think horchata. It’s damned hard to beat. But where Dan is a dedicated rum fan, I just wanted the cinnamon and cream, and for that I turned to Chila Horchata Cinnamon Cream. It was exactly what I was looking for. I added it to taste, so I can’t give you exact measurements, but it works very well with hot cocoa. I used a few remaining marshmallows for garnish, and thus was born my Cinnamon Cocoa Cocktail. Not exactly the flavor of Cinnamon M&M’s, but the closest I’ve managed to get so far. If I were to change one thing, I would have gone ahead and put in a third dark chocolate bar. The cinnamon blended wonderfully with my hot cocoa, but I think the amount of cream somewhat overwhelmed the chocolate. And, as Mandy was about to show us, when it comes to hot cocoa, chocolate must take center stage.
I think I’m starting to understand one of Mandy’s core strategies in this competition. The less complex her dish’s name, the better she knows it is. Looking back, when I asked what she was making, she simply said it was hot cocoa. I should have known something was up. Mandy often makes more than one dish, and she is quick to make it clear that the side dishes are not part of her entry. Fair enough; we never have reason to complain when Mandy makes extra food for us. She’s one hell of a cook. But this time it was a trick! I thought the Oreos were just there as a little fun snack, but they would actually provide the final garnish for her liquid chocolate masterpiece.
I was too busy tending to my own cocoa to see what Mandy was doing with hers. I knew it was going to have Baileys and, because we were both using the same stove, I knew hers smelled damned good. But it wasn’t until I turned around and saw that she was also working a double boiler full of cocoa and what I believe was both whole cream and half-and-half that I knew I was in trouble. I was breaking chocolate down for use, but she was building it up. I’ve worked with cream before, and I’ve broken it. I don’t know what I did wrong, but the gravy I was making turned out oily and milky, and I swore off cream as an ingredient then and there. Instead, I turned to the stabilizing power of gelatin in the form of marshmallows to provide the creaminess in my cocoa. I knew if Mandy made a misstep and scalded or broke the cream, her cocoa would be ruined. I also knew that Mandy very much knows what she’s doing in the kitchen, and the likelihood of her ruining the dish was very, very remote. As usual, she did not disappoint.
I couldn’t taste much of the Bailey’s in Mandy’s Hot Cocoa, but I couldn’t have cared less. As far as I’m concerned, Mandy’s is THE hot cocoa from now on. The chocolate was just so front and center, so undeniably present in the flavor, that it’s hard to imagine any other hot cocoa topping this. And while I couldn’t distinguish the Bailey’s specifically, I’m convinced that the sweet vanilla of the Irish whiskey would be missed if she had left it out.
Usually I am annoyed by cute toppings on drinks; if I’m paying for a drink I don’t want to be given obstacles to it’s consumption. However, Mandy’s whipped cream and crushed Oreo garnish was not at all distracting from the drink. Oreos contain so much fat that under modest heat even the cookie part will essentially melt, so it was soft and easily incorporated into the drink. The topping could have been left off, but it’s inclusion was in no way detrimental to the cocktail. Not only that, but Mandy had gotten festive holiday glasses and rimmed them with the very chocolate she made for the cocoa! Simply put, there was no part of Mandy’s dish that wasn’t done with precision and a mind toward making a cohesive whole. Even Mr. Huffleupagus couldn’t find fault with it. And that’s why I’m certain that it will come as no surprise that, for the second week in a row, Mandy was unanimously voted as our Star Baker! Congratulations, Mandy, and be sure to tune in next time for our holiday celebration as we go head to head during Friendsgiving!
Until next time, bon appétit!