Nothing conjures memories of winters past like a sweet cup of hot chocolate. As temperatures dip, restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses whip up their favorite recipes for Elizabeth City’s annual Hot Cocoa Crawl.
I’m dreaming of hot chocolate. The rich and creamy flavor, the whipped cream dotting my nose, the warmth of the mug in my hands. I’m walking the streets of downtown Elizabeth City, bundled up in a hat, gloves, scarf, and boots. A brisk wind whips off the Pasquotank River a few blocks away and gains strength as it blows between the historic brick buildings on either side of me. My cheeks are numb. My eyes begin to water. But, oh, how good that first sip will taste. How sweet. How warm.
Elizabeth City is hosting its second annual Hot Cocoa Crawl this winter. Restaurants, cafés, shops, and inns have all come up with a variety of cocoa creations for the occasion. Some will serve classic hot chocolate. Others will mix in flavored syrups and sprinkles of candy. A handful will add splashes of liquor. All of the drinks on the menu will be made with care and consideration — so unlike the hot chocolate of my youth.
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As a kid, making hot chocolate was always a hurried affair. I would scurry inside the house after a long day at school, my arms making a swish, swish, swish sound as they rubbed against the puffy polyester of my down jacket. I’d rip open a box of Swiss Miss, grab a packet of instant cocoa mix, and give it a shake to push the powder to the bottom. A fruitless gesture. When I opened the packet, brown powder still got everywhere, much to my mother’s chagrin. After dumping the cocoa and freeze-dried marshmallows into a mug of steaming water, I’d give it a stir. Powdery clumps of cocoa invariably rose to the surface, so I would stir it a few more times. Still clumpy? Eh, good enough.
The first sip almost always burned the roof of my mouth. The second was cooler and slightly bitter. But it was perfect. Well, actually, it was watered down — with bits of undissolved Swiss Miss crunching between my teeth as I sipped — but the moment that I had created was perfect.
Enjoy hot cocoa on the boardwalk. photograph by Baxter Miller
As I walk to the first stop on the Cocoa Crawl, I smile thinking of the younger me, completely content to drink hot chocolate made with tap water. Because even then, I knew that drinking hot chocolate was about making a memory. A time to pause and appreciate the stillness. To enjoy the middle of winter, when holiday decorations have been packed away, tree limbs are bare, and life seems to have slowed down. To sip and savor something that’s simple to make — whether you’re using water or milk. To sit suspended in that time before the grass turns green again and the world buzzes back to life. I think that’s why, as a child, I breezed through the process of making hot cocoa so quickly. I wanted to live in that moment.
Stepping inside Muddy Waters Coffeehouse on West Main Street, the scent of coffee and baked goods hits me. Ah, yes, finally … warmth. I’d better get started. I’ve got a full day of hot chocolate tasting ahead of me, which means that I’ll have plenty of time to ponder how much better cocoa is when it’s made with care.
At Muddy Waters Coffeehouse you can relax with your Liquid Brownie hot chocolate at a table next to a mural painted by local artist Holly Cole Luke. photograph by Baxter Miller
Liquid Brownie Hot Chocolate Muddy Waters Coffeehouse
For this Cocoa Crawl creation, Muddy Waters Coffeehouse owners John and Audra Marx thought it fitting to pay tribute to the shop’s Liquid Brownie latte, one of the oldest — 20 years! — and most popular beverages on the menu. The hot chocolate version eighty-sixes the espresso but still incorporates hazelnut, caramel, and chocolate syrups, as well as whipped cream. Curl up on one of the coffeehouse’s couches or armchairs and take your time drinking this creamy cup: It’s served in a mug so large that it’s essentially a bowl with a handle.
Talk about a tall glass of chocolate. The Dirty Snowman is made with chocolate shavings that have been melted in steamed milk, mixed with full-fat vanilla ice cream, Baileys Original Irish Cream, and Godiva Chocolate Liqueur poured into an Irish coffee mug, and crowned with whipped cream and more chocolate shavings. Despite sounding incredibly rich, a sip of this drink won’t leave you feeling bloated. It’s neither too hot nor too cold, and it strikes just the right balance of milk and chocolate.
Hot chocolate from The SweetEasy pairs well with the bakery’s pistachio, birthday cake, and lavender macarons. photograph by Baxter Miller
Pleasing Peppermint The SweetEasy
This French café-themed bakery is keeping its hot chocolate offerings sweet and simple for the Cocoa Crawl, with peppermint hot chocolate that can be topped with whipped cream and marshmallows. Part of owner Casey Heard’s philosophy is to offer a wide range of drinks and other goodies, including cannoli and macarons.
For a more potent brew, try Ghost Harbor’s House of the Maker stout. photograph by Baxter Miller
House of the Maker Stout Ghost Harbor Brewing Company
This mocha vanilla latte stout looks striking: dark as night in a chilled Belgian beer glass. Bring it close, and the robust scent of coffee emanates from its caramel-colored foam. The drink’s base is a traditional American stout, made with roasted malt and hops. The smooth, sweet flavor twist comes from the addition of vanilla, cocoa nibs, and cold-brew coffee made by Muddy Waters Coffeehouse.
Almost everything at Paradiso Roma Ristorante is made from scratch — even the cocoa bombs that burst with flavor in the Sleigh No More. Try it with a shot of bourbon. photograph by Baxter Miller
Sleigh No More Paradiso Roma Ristorante
Cozy up with a mug of hot cocoa and a view of the Pasquotank River at this waterside Italian restaurant. For the Sleigh No More, warm heavy cream is poured over a palm-size white or dark hot cocoa bomb (a tempered chocolate ball filled with cocoa mix and marshmallows). The cream melts the bomb’s hard outer shell, sending the mix and ’mallows inside swirling to the surface. And for the finishing touch? A splash of bourbon gives this toasty drink some added oomph.
Wine and chocolate make for a classic pairing, but at 2 Souls Wine Bar, a third component is necessary to whip up this hot and chocolaty red wine beverage. The Mr. Coffee-brand Cocomotion that sits prominently on the counter is what co-owner Mel Martine uses to gently mix and heat a blend of chocolate milk and red wine. (Don’t worry: It tastes better than it sounds.) Martine borrowed her kids’ cocoa-making machine to devise a drink that tastes like a warm cherry cordial. Making beverages with booze isn’t exactly in the Cocomotion’s job description, though, so Martine is careful not to overwork the mixer.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.