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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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!