Ever since I heard that executive pastry chef Ruben Ortega makes chocolate from scratch for the desserts at Hugo’s and Caracol, I’ve wanted to watch the process. Thanks to a happy coincidence of being in the right place at the right time, I had the opportunity to do so a few days ago.

Ortega, along with pastry chef Armando Ramirez at Caracol, begin the chocolate-making process with whole, raw cacao beans. The beans are roasted on a flattop grill before going into a mill (or molino) that’s manufactured by Mexicano Embalado. The beans need two passes through the machine. The first run turns them into a pulpy paste. Almonds are sometimes added for the second run. (They also make batches without almonds to accommodate folks who might be allergic to nuts.) The second pass turns the paste into a much smoother, melted chocolate.

Unlike the European chocolate-making process, the cocoa butter is not separated from the cocoa mass by freezing and then re-adding a desired quantity. This is a Mexican-style chocolate, which is more rustic and represents the natural composition of the bean.

Raw cacao beans

The chocolate paste from the grinding machine is not at all sweet, so it goes into a large mixer to be blended with sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon. The crumbly result is then packed very firmly into pastry rings to make large tablets of chocolate. These tablets are used as needed for ice cream, cakes and hot chocolate. Once the warm mixture cools down, the tablets become very hard. Some are wrapped in wax paper, labeled, and sent to Revival Market for retail sale.

Tipping the beans into the grinder

Should you pick up some chocolate tablets at Revival Market, use one tablet with five cups of heated milk to make a hot chocolate that's extremely rich and a perfect little dessert for three to six people. If you want something less thick and rich, you can obviously use less of the chocolate or more milk.

I also found that if you want to scale down even further (like for a single serving), you can microwave a tablet for about 40 seconds. That warms the chocolate and to the same temperature it is when first created in the restaurant. It's pliable at this point, and easy to cut off an appropriately sized hunk. Even if you're making a larger batch, breaking apart the rounds help them melt into the milk faster. Just be careful to not actually boil or scald the milk.

Whether you're using it in hot chocolate or enjoying it in the desserts made at Hugo's and Caracol, one thing is certain: you need to taste for yourself the difference that freshly-made chocolate makes.

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