Hot Cocoa, Yes. And Also Hot Butterscotch

Maggie Hoffman
·3 min read

Please don’t tell my child that you could drink a different kind of hot cocoa every day of the week, but you could: Milky and light, or thick and dark. Scented with orange or mint or chiles, or fragrant with coconut and rose petals. Those who drink booze can spike it with rum, Chartreuse, amaro, or anise (I personally have a soft spot for hot chocolate with mint schnapps and tequila). But sipping through all the possible combinations would likely get old after a while, even if you’re really, really into cocoa.

If you find yourself cocoa-bored in the coming wintry weeks at home, you should know about chef Michelle Polzine’s Hot Butterscotch, which appeared in her lovely book, Baking at the 20th Century Cafe.

Baking at the 20th Century Cafe by Michelle Polzine

$35.00, Bookshop

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“Butterscotch always sounded so wonderful to me,” Polzine explained on a recent phone call. “But then I always thought butterscotch things were disgusting, like butterscotch chips for baking, and butterscotch candy. It was all gross.” One day, her husband came across the Wikipedia entry for butterscotch: “He said, ‘Oh, look, originally, they were saying butter-scorch!’ and I was like, ‘That’s it! We’re gonna burn it!’”

And so this drink comes together essentially as a burnt caramel, which begins to smell like toasting marshmallows in the pan as you stir. The sugar base is equal parts dark brown sugar and light muscovado, which Polzine loves for its subtle caramel flavor. “I don’t really have much of a sweet tooth,” she says, “but I’ll take pieces of that sugar and eat it.” (The light muscovado, it should be noted, has less earthy molasses flavor than dark muscovado. If you can only find dark, Polzine recommends skipping the brown sugar in the mix and just using granulated white sugar instead.) A few tablespoons of rum enhance the caramel flavor; Polzine uses Santa Teresa 1796.

Hot butterscotch is nice with a little whipped cream. Then again, everything is nice with a little whipped cream.

Hot Butterscotch Drink - IG

Hot butterscotch is nice with a little whipped cream. Then again, everything is nice with a little whipped cream.
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Micah Marie Morton

There’s a bit of bravery involved—essentially, you stir the butter and sugar in a pan until the butter browns and the sugar begins to smoke a little, darkening a shade or two. “You want it to smoke some, but not be a burnt acrid mess,” she explains, noting that when it starts to smoke, you’ll turn down the heat. Polzine provides temperature guides in her recipe, but warns that it can be challenging to get a good reading with a thermometer because there’s not a ton of caramel in the pan.

Instead, she urges cooks to trust themselves a little and go by taste—have a cup of water next to you at the stove, and put a drip of the caramel in it to cool so you can safely taste its progress. “What you’re going for is a point of almost zero sweetness,” she says. “It shouldn’t be overwhelmingly bitter, but also not sweet at all. You’re trying to get it on that line, and tasting it is the only way to do it.”

If you quit early, you’ll get at least partial credit: a perfectly luscious sweet caramel beverage, that’s creamy and buttery and comforting. It’s not a bad way to go. But if you really get your sugar cooked and catch that toasty moment, you’re rewarded with a drink that tastes like brown-butter toffee with hints of dates and a coffee-like edge. It’s lovely hot in a demitasse with a little whipped cream, but Polzine also likes it cold. That way, instead of subbing in for cocoa, it can replace your holiday eggnog.

Hot Butterscotch

Michelle Polzine

Originally Appeared on Epicurious