Katherine Duncan recently had a customer in her Logan Square cafe who was blown away by how much he could taste the terroir of an Ecuadorian chocolate—and how different that was from the chocolate from his native Columbia.
“I have started to think of chocolate more like I think about wine, as far as how much interesting complexity and variance there is,” Duncan says.
As the owner and chocolatier at Katherine Anne Confections, she thinks about chocolate a lot. A Western Wisconsin native, Duncan grew up on a farm and began making caramels with the cream from her family’s cows and honey from a neighbor to sell at local co-ops. She even had a business at age 15 called Katherine’s Caramels.
After moving to Chicago, she continued making caramels and truffles as holiday gifts. In 2006, she started her chocolate business, mostly working out of rental kitchens. She opened her own production kitchen—and later, a shop—in 2012. She frequents farmers markets in Evanston, Rogers Park, Andersonville, Logan Square, and Daley Plaza, and she’s opening a new, larger production and retail location in 2023 with plans to dive into espresso, too.
“It just started off very, very simply. Lots of tenacity and a good dose of naivete with just this idea of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” she says.
And they did come, often in search of truffles, caramels, and the biggest part of the menu: drinking chocolate. So why “drinking chocolate” instead of “hot cocoa” or “hot chocolate?”
“It helps make it apparent to folks that this is a different experience than Starbucks. This isn't hot cocoa,” Duncan says. “It's funny, because my eight year old had a Starbucks hot chocolate. She's like, ‘Mom, I think they forgot to put the chocolate in there.’”
When Duncan visited France in 2011, she had chocolate or drinking chocolate nearly every day. She described it as very rich, and much thicker than what Americans think of when it comes to hot chocolate. When she began selling it herself, she thinned it out a little, perfected it, and quickly found her drinking chocolate on a lot of “best of” lists in Chicago.
The drinking chocolate at Katherine Anne Confections is a lot different than the packets of cocoa powder that are ubiquitous at grocery stores. Her drinking chocolate, which is sold in the shop and in jars for people to make in their own kitchens, comes in a variety of flavors: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, salted caramel, Mexican-style hot chocolate, and more. Her homemade marshmallows also have different flavors, such as cinnamon sugar, vanilla bean, or seasonal flavors like gingerbread or champagne and rose.
Tips for Making Your Own Decadent Hot Chocolate At Home
“I tell people with any kitchen experience all the time, 'Don't buy the mix. you can make this at home,'” Duncan says.
The drinking chocolate mix from Katherine Anne Confections is simply a high-quality ground chocolate and a little bit of sea salt—no cocoa powder. As opposed to a powdered mix, with real chocolate, Duncan says, you get the cocoa butter, too. All of this can be replicated in your own kitchen in an approachable way, she says.
First, get a good chocolate bar. It doesn’t matter whether it’s milk chocolate or dark chocolate, Duncan says. Whatever you prefer.
Take one part chocolate, one part cream, a pinch of salt, and heat it until it’s warm.
“I honestly just use a microwave,” she says.
Whisk the heated mixture together until smooth.
“It should actually look like a really smooth, thick, shiny ganache,” she says.
Then, add two more parts of milk.
“Let's say you want to make a 16-ounce pour. You start with four ounces of chocolate, four ounces of cream, and then after that was all whisked together, add eight ounces of milk,” she offers as an example.
Duncan says there are lots of ways to get creative. For starters, you can infuse your cream. As an example, you can add orange peels to heated cream, let it sit for 10 to15 minutes, then strain it over the chocolate.
She encourages people to experiment with spices, too. While salt is the essential component, adding in cinnamon, or a touch of cayenne with the cinnamon in the Mexican style, can take it to the next level.
Or, when you add the final two parts of milk after it’s been warmed and whisked, try adding one part coffee instead. If you’re vegan, Duncan says that coconut milk is her favorite alternative.
You can always add more or less milk depending on how thick or rich you want your hot chocolate to be. Duncan says it gets easier the more you do it. If you see lumps, just keep whisking.
“This is something we make at home like a few nights a week,” she says. “I would love it if more people did that.”