Hot Chocolate at the Hotel de Crillon: A Parisian Retrospective and A Recipe

Two days ago I woke up to a surprise. Snow flakes! Floating and falling and flying just outside the kitchen window, finally it felt like winter at last! For the first time all season the outside weather matched the inside holiday spirit.

We don’t get snow very often in Nashville but when we do it’s a call for extra special cooking adventures. The last time, we had a good dose of white winter weather, I prepared a Ruth Reichl recipe – slow simmered Chicken Fricassee from her 2015 cookbook, My Kitchen Year. That cookbook centered around Ruth’s rejuvenation of herself and her spirit via her kitchen in upstate New York. This year, inspired by the snow day, we are taking a little trip too, but not to New York. In this post we are headed to Paris to highlight a winter recipe that is famous throughout the city.

On the stove there’s a warm, rich pot of homemade hot chocolate derived from a recipe that was originally born in the kitchen of a beautiful historic hotel located at 10 Place de la Concorde, just steps away from the Champs Elysee.  This isn’t your everyday, ordinary hotel and this isn’t your everyday, ordinary batch of hot chocolate. This cup of cocoa doesn’t involve powdered substances, paper envelopes or hot water. It doesn’t include high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners or a long list of ingredients. You can’t go buy it prepackaged in a store and pour it into a cup at home for convenience.  This recipe is unique, prized and unavailable online. It tastes like magic. And for me, it taste like memories. I am very pleased to introduce you to the Hotel de Crillon and the most esteemed cup of hot chocolate in all of Paris.

In my growing up years, the Crillon was our home away from home anytime my family and I visited the City of Light. From the time I was 6 months old to the time I was 16, stays at the hotel were part of the fabric of my childhood. We had a very good family friend with a beautiful sing-songy name – Michele de la Clergerie – who was the VP of Public Relations at the Crillon. Because of that friendship and all the business my dad’s company did with her company, the Crillon turned into a natural home base for us whenever we visited Paris. Sometimes we were just there for a few days as a stopover on the way to the South of France or to Switzerland or to Africa or some other destination, but often times we stayed for a week or more, taking up two suites in this dazzling building.

Photo courtesy of jetsetter.com

Photo courtesy of crillon.com

The hotel has recently gone through a renovation which has included a more modern update of the furniture and decor, so it doesn’t look exactly like it did when we stayed there in the 1980’s and 90’s – but many of the hallmarks (the black and white checkered marble floors, the gold detailing, the big, sashed curtains, the outdoor dining patio, the lavish breakfast room, the en-suite balconies and baths, the beautiful French doors and of course the exterior of the building itself) all remain exactly as I remember.

When I look at pictures of this beautiful hotel now, as an adult, and then recall the experiences my family and I had there while I was growing up, it all seems like a fairy tale. Some sort of far off, fanciful, other life escapade… gauzy, romantic and lush… with a level of luxury fit for make-believe or movie sets or circumstances beyond reality.

My passport photo – age 3:)

But real it all actually was. Thanks to my dad’s career with a French airline, by the time I was three, I was an experienced international traveler, already well on my way to filling up stamps in my second government issued passport…

Those first years of life, I traveled with my own luggage, my doll, my favorite book of the moment, and my best friend, my sister, who was only a year and a half older than me.

Growing up with my sister and traveling all around the world felt a lot of the time like riding a lion… exciting, unusual and wild. That’s me on the right (age 2), my sister on the left (age 3 1/2).

Our permanent home address was  New York, but really it felt like we lived all over the globe due to the amount of traveling we did as a family. My mom kept our suitcases in the bottom of our closet, standing ready to fill at a moment’s notice. My sister and I had two wardrobes – a regular kid wardrobe and then a traveling wardrobe. The latter, our traveling wardrobe, was mostly made up of dresses and cardigan sweaters and shiny shoes. These were clothes that were light in weight, packed well, were suitable for most occasions and ultimately subscribed to my dad’s fashion philosophy of “it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.”

A family photo on the Meditterarean Sea circa 1983! My parents are on the left. Family friends are standing behind my sister and I. That’s me on the left and my sister on the right.

It  wasn’t unusual for my mom to  wake us up from an afternoon nap  with a greeting that ran along the lines of  “Surprise, we are going to Hawaii – we leave in an hour,” or for my dad to come home from a day at the office and announce a family trip to Switzerland or the Bahamas or London with just a few day’s notice.

In the 1980’s the tourism industry was riddled with perks and freebies and gifts and complimentary tickets and special passes and personal invitations. For the most part, the industry overall was gregarious, charming, hospitable, convivial and fun. Mainly everyone who was lucky enough to be a part of it, was just out for a good time and an interesting story. Because of my dad and his job connections we always flew first class, stayed in luxury hotels, and dined in celebrated restaurants. This made us witnesses, as a family, to a pretty glamorous side of travel. One that allowed us to experience all the thrills of a high-end lifestyle without having to worry so much about how to pay for it all.

This is a photo from the family albums which captures the chaotic color and life and excitement of traveling when I was small. Lots going on, always and never in a language that I could easily read:)

Growing up as kids in this high-flying airline industry afforded my sister and I lots of special experiences and taught us so many life lessons it would take a year to write them all down. But the most important thing it taught us from the very beginning was how to be nimble. My dad always loved to tell a story about how discombobulated I could become as a kid when we traveled. Especially after waking up from a nap, opening eyes for the first time in a new city or a new country where I didn’t know the language or understand the culture. We’d be in Hawaii and I’d wake up at the age of 3 or 4 asking if we were in Monte Carlo or Germany or was it the beach in Bermuda?!

This whirlwind collage of first cities and first countries, and travel via cars and planes and boats and trains, in such frequent rotation quickly led my sister and I to associate certain small details with certain cities. Lake Geneva became known as the hotel with the herd of wild deer in back. Monte Carlo had the balconies that hung over the sea. The hotel in Abidjan had floor to ceiling green wallpaper. Hawaii had birds in the lobby.  Morocco had a walled garden. And Paris had the beautiful, welcoming Hotel de Crillon.  But my sister and I didn’t call it that. We called it the hotel with the great hot chocolate and also the place without the pool. Oh my.

The Hotel de Crillon pictured with the Fountain of River Commerce and Navigation. Photo by Eric-Cuvillier. Courtesy of the Paris Tourist Office.

The Hotel de Crillon was originally a palace built in the late 1700’s for King Louis XV – who was nicknamed the Beloved King. It was originally built to be an office building but throughout its existence seemed to beckon more like a siren than a bureaucrat, attracting a menagerie of artistic, colorful and creative inhabitants during the  18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Visitors and residents included Benjamin Franklin, Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and countless celebrities. One of it’s owners, the eventual hotel’s namesake, was the Crillon family. They were descendants of an 18th century duke revered in the French Army for not only his courageous spirit but also his chivalrous demeanor. The Crillon family lived in the palace during the entire 1800’s until it was sold in 1909 and turned into a hotel.  By the time I came to know it in the latter half of the 20th century, as a little blond baby barely walking, the building contained so many exquisite historical attributes it was easy to imagine life as a real princess.

Photo courtesy of Artelia Group.

Embarrassing to admit now, I didn’t fully appreciate the spectacular beauty of the hotel then nor understand its cultural and architectural significance even during my teenage years.  Marie Antoinette was beheaded right out front. The building itself was caught up in the middle of the French Revolution. Dignitaries, heads of states, presidents, kings, queens and movie stars from all eras of history have stayed in the very rooms that we’d stayed in and walked the very floors (that beautiful black and white marble!) that we walked. Fashion shows, photo shoots, film crews and artists from last century to this one have crawled all over the hotel property documenting and decorating it for countless creative pursuits.

But for all the incredible circumstances, situations and events that have happened in and around the Hotel de Crillon since its beginnings, the one element that I can never forget about this special place, has nothing to with famous faces or elaborate decorating or stories from past centuries. It has to do with food. A simple cup of house hot chocolate. When we were little girls, it usually arrived via  room service on a breakfast cart, served by an attendant and poured from a silver pot.  As I got older and grew into my teenage years, my sister and I would take our hot chocolate at a table on the outdoor patio before heading out to explore the city.  Hearty, restorative and decadent, it was practically a meal in itself. But my dad taught us a little foodie secret before we even learned how to talk.  The perfect accompaniment to a cup of hot chocolate is a croissant.  As we discovered, these two foods made up a perfect pairing of flavors and forged an unforgettably indulgent tradition that we looked forward to with each visit. To this day my family still agrees.  No other cup of hot chocolate, wherever we traveled in the world, or attempted to recreate at home, ever tasted as good as the hot chocolate served at the Crillon.

We weren’t alone in thinking this. The hotel’s flagship beverage has been revered in Paris by both tourists and locals for decades. Mentions on the internet still to this day deem it one of the best, if not the best hot chocolate in the entire city. It is so beloved, it is difficult to come across an article about the Crillon that does not mention a more enjoyable cup.

Last January, I came into possession of an antique Nippon porcelain chocolate pot and a set of four matching cups and saucers. When I saw it, I immediately thought of Paris and the Hotel de Crillon and the delicious hot chocolate from decades ago. The hand-painted set was made in Japan at the turn of the 1900’s –  about the same time that the Crillon was turned into a hotel. As if fate had stepped in and lined up all the details, I knew that this chocolate set was the perfect match to pair a story and a recipe from the vintage family archives.

Just a few years ago, my sister had mentioned that she had seen the Crillon hot chocolate recipe posted on their website. But when I went to look, it was no longer there. The website had changed to reflect the hotel’s new style and new renovations. I wasn’t disappointed though because surely I thought, in our modern age, with all sorts of travel writers and food makers covering all aspects of Paris, on the internet there would be someone out there who would have shared the hotel’s hot chocolate recipe via an article or a cooking blog. Surprisingly, such was not the case.  So I contacted the hotel directly and explained the whole story about when I was young and my family’s experiences and the memorable hot chocolate. Right away, being the lovely and gracious hoteliers that they are, they promptly emailed the recipe over for use in the blog post. How wonderfully exciting!

I am so very happy to share this recipe with you. Nothing is more fun or festive, especially around the holidays, then making a big pot of hot chocolate fit for a crowd. This recipe is thick, rich and not overly sugared. It’s filling and hearty  and by the time you finish the last drop  you’ll feel delightfully satisfied. And if you live in one of those states where it snows and snow and snows  all winter long – this recipe will keep you fortified as you shovel and frolic your way through the season.

The recipe sent from the  Crillon is in hotel-size volume and contains French measurements, so I’m including the original French recipe (see photo), which makes 30 cups of hot chocolate, as well as the converted American measurements version (which also makes 30 cups!) and then further breakdowns of the American recipe into smaller quantities (15 cups and 7-8 cups) if you are entertaining a more petite crowd.

And a final note, it was tricky to find 66% dark chocolate, at least in my neck of the woods. In order to keep this recipe user friendly for all readers, I wanted to use chocolate that could be found easily in all grocery stores, so I combined two common percentages (56% and 100%) which are pretty standard here in the States when it comes to dark chocolate ratios. But for our European readers, you’ll probably be able find, more easily, the percentages the Crillon uses, so I’d recommend that.

 

The Hotel de Crillon’s Hot Chocolate Recipe

(American conversion) Makes 30 cups

  • 15 cups heavy cream
  • 15 cups whole milk
  • 3 oz sugar
  • 8oz 56% semi-sweet chocolate (56% cacao)
  • 4 oz. 100% unsweetened chocolate (100% cacao)
  • 4 1/2 oz. milk chocolate (3/4 cup)

For 15 cups:

  • 7 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 7 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1.5 oz of sugar
  • 4 oz 56% semi-sweet chocolate (56% cacao)
  • 2 oz 100% unsweetened chocolate (100% cacao)
  • 2 1/4 oz milk chocolate

For 7-8 cups:

  • 3 3/4 cups heavy cream
  • 3 3/4 cups whole milk
  • .75 oz of sugar
  • 2 oz 56% semi-sweet chocolate (56% cacao)
  • 1 oz 100% unsweetened chocolate (100% cacao)
  • 1 1/8 oz milk chocolate

In a large pot, combine the cream and the milk over medium heat, stirring frequently until just beginning to boil. Remove from heat, cover with a tight fitting lid and set aside.

In a double boiler, melt all the chocolate together. And then add in the sugar and stir to combine.

Pour the melted chocolate into a medium size bowl. Add one cup of the hot milk/cream mixture to the chocolate and whisk to combine until the texture resembles soft whipped cream.

Gradually incorporate the chocolate mixture into the big pot of milk and cream, whisking until well combined.

Warm the hot chocolate over medium heat for 5-10 minutes until it reaches a temperature warm enough to your liking. It is best served right away. If you have any leftover (which will probably not be likely!) you can refrigerate it and slowly reheat it the next day or simply enjoy it cold, like a glass of chocolate milk.

I love this hot chocolate just as it is without any adornment. But feel free to add some marshmallows or a peppermint stick, some flavored liqueur or a dash of whiskey, if you want to jazz it up in your own way. And definitely serve it alongside a basket of fresh croissants. (Side note: for anyone who does not live near a french bakery, Trader Joe’s sells wonderful frozen croissants that you can heat up at home in the oven). 

After my dad retired in the mid-1990’s, we rarely traveled to such glamorous locales or on such a glamorous scale as the childhood days. Instead we explored our hometown more (the great city of New York) and traveled around the United States, of which we didn’t know nearly as well as Europe. My sister and I grew into our adult selves, got married, explored careers, and forged ahead into lives of our own making. The flutter of those early travel experiences, and the decadence with which we enjoyed them, became cherished parts of our past… wonderful memories to be tucked away in our hearts and our minds.

I grew up in the time before Instagram and iphones and the modern desire to record every moment of every situation at whim. There are no day by day, detail by detail photo streams of all my sister and I saw and did in the first half of our lives. Just a few handfuls of random pictures taken on the run from one place to another. But what we do have are our memories swirling around in our heads.  Even though some of those are now slightly hazy and somewhat dim due to time,  I’ll never forget the Hotel de Crillon and their majestic building and their gorgeous hospitality. And now, thanks to their graciousness in sharing this treasured recipe, I’ll never forget the taste of their hot chocolate either.

The next time you are in Paris, I hope you get a chance to visit the Hotel de Crillon, if not to stay, than at least just to peek inside and treat yourself to a cup of their house hot chocolate.  It has been over 20 years since I last visited the Crillon, but if I could partake in some sort of magical time travel, my 2019 self would meet up with my 1980’s self in the foyer of the hotel and whisper into that little girl’s ear… “Chin up, they have a pool now.”

A big cheers and a big thank you to Sofie, Elcie and Victoria at the Hotel de Crillon for sharing this memorable recipe. Cheers to my dad for all the adventures big and small, to my mom for always letting us go, and to my sister, my forever travel pal, without whom these trips would not nearly have been as fun.

If you’d like to learn more about the antique chocolate pot, find it in the shop here. If you’d like to learn more about the hotel, please their website here. And finally, dear readers, if you try this recipe, please let me know what you think in the comments below.  I hope it becomes a new wintertime favorite for you too. Cheers!

A Trip to the Cabbage Patch: Returning to 1980’s Nostalgia

drive

Beware. Blood. Hairpin. Signal Loss. Trail. Inclement. Cabin. Fog.

Laid out like plot points in a murder mystery novel, these are just a handful of words that greet you on signs every few hundred feet as you climb the mountain roads of rural Georgia.

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Depending on the time of day and the season, the atmosphere is fitting for a spooky story. If it is raining or if there is any threat of rain, the mountain is covered in grey light and misty fog. The trees are dense, the hills are very steep and the trajectory is very, very curvy.

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Wild, serene and untouched by commercialism, indicators of human existence are completely void except for a hiker’s rest stop area near the top. Leading through the Chatthoochee National Forest and along the Appalachian Trail this particular hilly incline is called Blood Mountain. Murder mystery material indeed!

Just up and slightly over the top crest of the mountain a large white weather-beaten sign declares Babyland General Hospital is a quick right down a rugged road. On her way to somewhere else, Ms. Jeannie  passed the sign by, but in doing so, something familiar from a long time ago tickled her memory. Curiosity got the better of her and she turned the car around heading in the arrow’s direction. Paved but narrow, unkempt and heavily wooded on each side, Ms. Jeannie passed a couple of commercial office parks and a manufacturing plant before the landscape opened up into a panoramic vista that looked this…

Babyland General Hospital

And that’s when Ms. Jeannie realized why Babyland was so familiar. Her six year old self knew exactly what this place was… the famous garden of the Cabbage Patch.

A marketing phenomenon in the 1980s Cabbage Patch Kids were created by Georgia native Xavier Roberts. Beginning as a local handicraft, his cloth folk art dolls quickly evolved into an assembly line of characters that were sold by the millions all over the world. Xavier became a toy manufacturing genius, a multi-millionaire and a household name all within a ten year timespan.

xavier-roberts
Xavier Roberts

As a dynamic storyteller and a natural promoter, Xavier created a whole entire world revolving around the Kids – their origin story beginning with birth in the cabbage patch, the assorted pals that friended them along the way including Bunny Bees, Farm Cuties, dogs and mountain bears and all the adoption paperwork that made Cabbage Patch Kids such a novelty in the early 1980’s toy world.

Ms. Jeannie got one herself for Christmas when she was six. Her kid came all the way from France because it was so difficult to find any available ones in the US. To celebrate her heritage, Ms. Jeannie gave her a French name  – Marie Rose – the epitome of six year old sophistication! With her green eyes, light brown hair and small chip (a shipping adventure!) on her cheek, Ms. Jeannie loved her. But as fun and engaging as Marie Rose’s story was to Ms. Jeannie as a little girl there is something unsettling about the whole Cabbage Patch world now.

Headquarters for Babyland General started out in a small historic medical facility in downtown Cleveland, Georgia, in the late 1970’s but ten years ago they moved to a brand new $2 million facility outside of town that sits on 500 plus acres. Like a bright light beacon, the hospital is beautiful on the outside with wide porches, rocking chairs…

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and flower pots that are spilling over with bright and bold arrangements…

cabbage_flowers_collage

Because Xavier took his theme and totally ran with it from the very beginning, his Cabbage Patch detailng creeps into every aspect of the story experience beginning on the front lawn with the giant four foott wide plaster cabbage patch kid sculptures found randomly placed around the property.

cabbage_gardencollage

From far away in the driveway and parking areas they look like flowers. But up close they are faces!

babyland general hospital

Inside, past a wall of framed celebrity photographs all autographed to Xavier and/or the Cabbage kids, the hospital opens up into essentially a very large gift shop. Ms. Jeannie, thinking it would somehow be like a Disney experience, was ready to suspend disbelief and soak up the scene as a nurse greeted visitors.  As soon as she announced that she was an L.P.N. (a licensed patch nurse) and that everything was for sale all in the same sentence, Ms. Jeannie began to lose a little hope in this presentation.

babyland general hospital

Cabbage Patch Kids were everywhere and arranged in settings and scenes that ran the gamut from newborn nurseries to schoolrooms to playhouses. Literally thousands of faces greeted her throughout the walk around the room.

babyland general hospital

babyland general hospital

Crying baby noises and gurgles played on a speaker system, a Christmas corner announced all the holiday fun one could have with their Kid and racks of clothing for both dolls and their human parents were available at every turn. It was a megaplex of merchandising.

babyland general hospital

While there is something inherently cute about these faces, to Ms. Jeannie they also looked a little bit sad.  Part of what made Cabbage Patch Kids appealing as a little girl – was their unique factor. You could pick a doll that matched your gender and your hair, eye and skin color. You could name it whatever you wanted and you had to sign an oath that you promised to take care of it under any and all situations. It was a highly personable shopping experience back then in the age before the internet. But now seeing so many of them lumped together in a mass produced, forced style of merchandising “fun” made these Kids seem anything but unique and personal. There were just so many.

Ms. Jeannie was getting ready to leave when a message came over the loud speaker announcing a delivery that would soon occur. Visitors were directed to the big tree in the middle area of the room where Mother Cabbage was going to give birth any minute.

babyland general hospital

Bright colorful crystals hung from the branches of the big tree and lit up as cabbage baby heads at the base rolled around in excitement.

babyland general hospital

Anticipation culminated with the appearance of the head nurse who walked visitors through the birth of a new cabbage in exquisite detail. Ms. Jeannie will spare you the uncomfortable dialogue but the words dilation, stretching, sonogram, massaging oils and deep breathing were discussed in good measure before the nurse leaned in to have a look at Mother Cabbage’s progress. Thank goodness the baby was coming out head first, otherwise, if it was feet first it would be known as a branch birth, so she said. Oh my.

Up to her elbows in cabbage leaves the nurse finally pulled a naked baby out of Mother Cabbage, spanked its bottom, wrapped it in a blanket and then called on visitors to name it before the new baby was whisked off to the nursery where its vitals were checked and an outfit was selected. At that point Ms. Jeannie headed for the exit door.

On the drive out, a final sign from the cabbage gang bid Ms. Jeannie goodbye.

babyland general hospital

It took a few days to figure out what that whole experience was exactly. Some further research on Xavier explained that he was not actually the original designer of his dolls. Back in the 70’s he noticed the handmade dolls of Martha Nelson Thomas at a craft fair. She built a family centric persona around each of her handmade dolls, referring to them all as babies, and offered kids the ability to “adopt” them. Xavier picked up on the charm of that notion, bought one of her dolls and began creating his own versions in duplicitous style.

Martha Nelson Thomas

Eventually after ten years of legal battles over rightful ownership of the original cabbage patch kid designs, Martha and Xavier settled out of court in the mid-1980’s. Martha was paid an undisclosed amount to forgive and forget and Xavier went on to grow his empire.

Since their inception over 95 million Cabbage Patch Kids have been sold around the world. They morphed into books and movies, cartoons, television shows and video games and a million different merchandising pieces from key chains to coffee mugs. They’ve been launched into space, opened the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. But perhaps most importantly they have captivated kids and collectors hearts for thirty plus years, securing their place as one of the most iconic toys of the 20th century.

So why did visiting Babyland General leave such a strange taste in Ms. Jeannie’s mouth?  Like the drive up there, with its murder mystery stylings and foreboding signage, this trip to the Cabbage Patch presented an unsettling look at a situation that wasn’t quite what it appeared to be. Blood Mountain is a beautiful spot in Georgia, one of the highest vistas in the state but it is also a dangerous natural landscape. Babyland General is a beautiful light-filled building on a gorgeous piece of property, but it behind all that polish, shine, and kid-friendly disguise there lurks a darker world of commercial motivations.

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If you’ve been to the Cabbage Patch please share your experience in the comments section below. Ms. Jeannie would love to hear your thoughts!