Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrée into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Hot Chocolate and Regret

by Libby

Armand Gamache felt he could nod off. His socks were now dry and slightly crispy, the mug of hot chocolate warmed his hands, and the heat from the stove enveloped him. (How the Light Gets In, Kindle, p.223)
Hot chocolate, what a winter warmer! It's winter's drink, isn't it? I drink coffee or tea all year round, but hot chocolate always seems to be reserved for those brisk to freezing days where the creamy, sweet richness of chocolate warms your body, comforts and seems to give you an attitude lift. Is there anything more cosy than cradling a cup of hot chocolate with its inviting aroma wafting around your face, as you prepare to savour every sip?

Louise Penny certainly understands this. She has reminded us in every book in the series, that is set in autumn or winter. Recently I was drawn to the hot chocolate references in the freezing winter of Bury Your Dead. It seems that as Gamache pursues several lines of enquiry (assisting the investigation into the death of Augustin Renaud), he stops to warm up and puzzle over the information he is collecting with a cup of chocolat chaud. 

Le Café Buade, Quebec City
Once out of the alley he found the Café Buade and went in to both warm up and think. Sitting in a banquette with a bowl of chocolat chaud he pulled out a notebook and pen. Occasionally sipping, sometimes staring into space, sometimes jotting thoughts, eventually he was ready for the next visit. From the café he hadn’t far to go. Just across the street to the great monolith that was Notre-Dame Basilica, the magnificent gilded church that wed, christened, chastised, guided and buried the highest officials and the lowest beggars. ... The entire altar appeared dipped in gold. ... It was both glorious and vaguely repulsive. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.129)
'The entire altar appeared dipped in gold.'   Notre-Dame Basilica
We've all got our favoured version of hot chocolate. My preference these days is for le chocolat chaud, in the Parisian style. This is no commercial drinking chocolate, which I've always found a bit too sickly sweet for my taste, or milky cocoa which reminds me of being a young child. But rather a rich, smooth and creamy, intensely chocolatey experience (can we have more adjectives please!) that leaves you totally satisfied with one cup. Though I guess that depends on the size of the cup! It really is an adult's drink, particularly if one goes as far as adding a dash of liqueur 'deliciousness' like Kahlua, Frangelico or Amaretto.

The key to a great chocolat chaud though, is the quality of the chocolate that is used. There is chocolate and there is chocolate!! For this drink, for me, there is only one choice and it is couverture chocolate. Couverture chocolate is chocolate which has a minimum of 32% cocoa butter. It is the chocolate that chocolatiers work with. It melts beautifully unlike most chocolate found on supermarket shelves, which is comparatively low in cocoa butter. Mouth melt is outstanding. And it also has a high cocoa mass. Most couverture has a cocoa mass of at least 55-70%. It is different to cooking chocolate which has little cocoa butter and vegetable oil (usually palm oil) substituted. 

And certain chocolate is thought to have some health benefits (research is still ongoing). Some recent research even points strongly to the beneficial effects on brain activity, including reasoning, memory and recall. But it needs to be cacao-rich, dark chocolate with a minimum cocoa mass (as opposed to cocoa butter mass) of 60%. Suits me as I've never really cared for milk chocolate, and my brain does need a bit of attention! I'm starting to think that all those cups of hot chocolate have served Gamache well in deciphering the information he has collected.

Armand Gamache sat in the Paillard bakery on rue St-Jean and stared at Augustin Renaud’s diary. Henri was curled up under the table while outside people were trudging head down through the snow and the cold. ... Gamache took a sip of hot chocolate. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.243)
Paillard bakery, rue St-Jean

This was the moment that Gamache started to make sense of the information he had been puzzling over, and identified some significant connections. It is a relief to have him so engaged with the investigation, giving respite from the voices in his head and the pain of working through Agent Morin's death and that of his other agents. He is haunted by a terrible mistake. 

His late night walks through the streets of Quebec City, as conversations with Agent Morin play in his mind, have recently resonated with me rather deeply. I have had the voice and face of a dear girlfriend in my head in anticipation of catching up with her husband who I had not seen for quite a few years, as he lives interstate. We are forever connected by her, and she, like Agent Morin is forever young, killed in (what seems a lifetime ago) a horrendous car accident with their eldest child. It was so terribly, numbingly shocking. I don't know if (in those days) we really understood well enough how to handle grief or support someone else through their grief. Back then there was a stultifying reserve in talking about things. And there certainly wasn't the level of counselling services that are available today. And we were all so young and relatively inexperienced, in our twenties.

So, there's a part of me that feels I didn't support my friend well enough in dealing with the death of his wife, my friend, and the care of his two other infant children, severely injured in the accident. I've spoken to him about that and as much as he reassures me, I still feel a sadness over it all, knowing that I could have done more, a little haunted by regret. It has taken him a long time to feel truly comfortable in his life and she is still with him, and is with me too, and I take solace in that. I still see her bright, smiling face and feel her bubbling spirit, wit and verve. Forever young.

But I have a lump in my throat writing this. Some things never leave you, and it is thirty plus years later (yes I am quite a bit older than Amy!). So perhaps it's true, that regrets about action not taken are more likely to stay with us over a longer period of time, than regrets for action taken that leads to a mistake being made or something not working out. But somehow we manage to find ways to accept, learn and move on, or at least try to. I know Amy has written about how books can add layers of meaning to your ideas and the thinking driving them, and how they even coincide at times with particular events or feelings you are experiencing. Well this has been one of those times for me.

I thought more about all of this while slowly immersing myself in a comforting world of chocolate.

As far as chocolate goes, the higher the cocoa mass the more intense the chocolate flavour. But it is the percentage of cocoa butter in it that indicates the quality of a chocolate, for that's what gives chocolate it's melt-in-the-mouth character. So for me, dark couverture chocolate it is for le chocolat chaud!

You can get it in blocks (which are easy to shave with a serrated knife), chips or drops. Some recognised brands of couverture chocolate are Callebaut, Valrhona, Sharfen Berger, Veliche and Michel Cluizel. The bottom line, though, is if the word 'couverture' is not on the packet then it's not couverture chocolate. For this recipe I used a mixture of Callebaut (55.5% cocoa mass) and Valrhona (I had drops of 60% and 70% cocoa mass).

Le Chocolat Chaud 

145g / 5oz couverture chocolate
2 cups whole milk
lightly whipped pure cream for serving
chocolate shavings for serving

1.  Chop or shave the chocolate into small pieces for an easy melt.

2.  Heat the milk in a saucepan until it is almost reaching simmer point.

3.  Add the chocolate pieces all at once and stir constantly with a whisk until it completely melts into the milk.

4.  Increase the heat to bring the mixture to a low boil while whisking constantly.

5.  Allow the hot chocolate mixture to reduce to thicken it slightly, lowering the temperature if necessary.

6.  Pour into a serving pot or directly into cups.

7.  Top each cup with some whipped cream and a scattering of chocolate shavings.

The amount of milk, chocolate and cooking time can be adjusted to taste. A thinner hot chocolate, for example, requires less reduction. Any leftover (highly unlikely!) can be refrigerated and heated up the next day, without any change to the texture or flavour. Great for making ahead of time!

The richness and smoothness of this hot chocolate is deeply satisfying, and soothing. There is no 'graininess', or 'fattiness' to it.  And It doesn't cry out to be accompanied by anything. I had planned to make some biscotti (double-baked Italian biscuits) to eat with it, but changed my mind.

The whipped cream elevates the drinking experience to another level. There is an amazing silkiness, sipping the hot chocolate and cream together. Serve this to family and friends and their hearts will fill with warm feelings, it is so totally distracting (there's a presumption here that they like chocolate). 

Or at least they'll want to run their finger around the inside of the cup to get out the last of the I did!


  1. What a wonderful blog. I agree that chocolate helps fire up the brain. I am also sorry that you still feel that you didn't help your friend grieve. There are life lessons that take almost a lifetime to process and understand. Losing someone tragically is never easy. There is no right way to work through it.

    1. Thanks Nancy! You're absolutely right about life's lessons. With age and experience we're so better equipped to deal with what life throws at us. I expect we all look back at times and think of things we could have done differently, or better ways to have coped with events. I guess it was all thrown into sharp relief, coinciding as it did with reading about Gamache's turmoil.

  2. oh, my,
    I love this blog, you pick out the most incredible parts of her books to bring to life. thank you, off to Amazon to order some dark chocolate.

  3. Thanks TPP! Some parts just 'popout' for us in these books, the way they can reflect our own lives! And of course if you like chocolate... :)

  4. OMG! This Chocolat Chaud looks so wonderful - I'm off to find some couverture chocolate...

  5. I don't think you'll be disappointed Julie. Quality chocolate just gives the best results. Enjoy!! :)

  6. What a lovely post, Libby. I understand your feelings of regret concerning your friend. I think we've all experienced similar times of regret, and often they involve our youth. Such a difficult journey for a young father and husband. I'm sure he knew you cared despite your reservations. We can always count on LP's books to engage with us in our present lives. And fortunately, we can count on her writing for luscious culinary temptations. I love the dark chocolates! I must try this recipe. Charming presentation as always! Oh, and the memories from QC tug at my heart always. *s*

    1. Thanks Bev. He had so much to contend with, at an age when we didn't even consider our mortality. I was single at the time, pretty self-focused and not very wise at all, looking back. Catching up with him recently was a gift though.

      It was nice to get lost in chocolate and think oh so fondly about Quebec City.:)

  7. Libby,
    I hope your meeting with your friend's husband went well.
    It's been hot here lately... but I'm definitely making this as soon as it cools off!

    1. We have a deep connection with, and affection for each other, and of course another lifetime of experiences in between. I told him about my regrets, and he shared some of his own, and we understood and reassured each other. And reminisced, but I have a lingering sadness.

      Anyway, I can attest to this hot chocolate being a mood lifter! :)

    2. I think it would be easier if we could live life backwards. Or at least if knowledge and wisdom that comes from experience could be imparted from our future selves to our younger selves. It doesn't happen that way, does it?
      I'm pretty sure you'd feel regrets no matter what happened - and so would he. It's one of those times when the loss is so great that no matter what you do you feel like things aren't quite right. Because they aren't.
      I think it's wonderful that you both have someone to reminisce with. I'm sure it helps - knowing that there's someone else that understands and that remembers.
      As for the hot chocolate, I'll have guests tomorrow (they'll be staying a few days, although I haven't met them yet). I'm tempted to buy the chocolate tomorrow when I go grocery shopping and keep them on hand. If the weather cools off a bit I'll just surprise everyone with a late night snack. I'm sure it'll go over well. My son actually likes hot chocolate (the dark chocolate not too sweet version). But he lets it cool to the point where it's lukewarm (ewwww) and not hot at all. Then I think it's kind of gross. I like my drinks cold or hot. Never lukewarm.

    3. I'm so glad we had the opportunity to be open with each other. And you're right Amy, it does help that there's someone else who understands and who you can remember with.

      Buy the chocolate Amy! If your guests like chocolate, they will LOVE you! I keep thinking about the next time I will have it...and it's a hot summer here. Does not matter!! LOL

  8. Oh, Libby, what a reflective post. Isn't it true, if we only knew then what we know now? That's the way life is. We learn more from our personal journeys and experiences than from any other way and then are often prompted by a novel or someone else's sharing to reflect on choices we made, whether they were correct, or if there was something we could have done differently. I think we're meant to have those reflective moments and to make peace with our choices of the past. It reveals to us us how we have matured and grown in wisdom from our life experiences. After all, what else can you do with the past except learn from it? That is so much better than regret.
    Now about that hot chocolate...OMG! A flashback from "Chocolat!" I really must find that chocolate. I just might have trouble sharing any of it, though"

    1. Mary, you are one wise woman! I take heart. We learn and understand so much more over the passage of time, but I guess when 'the hard bits' of our past are thrown into sharp relief all of a sudden, we can be less kind on ourselves when reflecting on some of our choices.

      This hot chocolate is ridiculously easy to consume all by yourself! I assuage any guilt about over-indulging by remembering the potential health benefits!! :) And it is just like the one in the film 'Chocolat'!

  9. Health benefits. Yes, I must remember to focus on those!