Hot for Santa

A brief but startling history of the chocolate Santa Claus

When Santa first came to town, brought by Dutch settlers in the 18th century, he was a skinny mournful dude riding a white horse. Alongside strolled an elf, swinging a stick to punish unruly children. How the elf lost his stick and became helpful and artisanal, how the white horse transformed into a flying sleigh, and how Santa took up the white hash pipe and turned slack-jawed and obese is a story best left to Disney. There's evidence that the Germans are to blame for crafting the first chocolate Santa. In Deutschland, December 6 was known as Nikolaus Tag, and on that day children received a chocolate Santa and a toy. One assumes that, like kids today, they gobbled the Santa in one sitting and then—high on sugar and caffeine—smashed the toy.

We can date the birth of chocolate Santa because his creation depended upon scientific innovations that occurred in the 19th century. Though chocolate had been enjoyed by the Mayans (who called it ka-ka-w, the root word of cocoa), it was the Aztecs who developed the greatest passion for it—grinding the beans, adding chile peppers, and making a warm and bitter beverage they claimed could help them screw all night. Blind to the broad appeal of chocolate, Columbus ignored it, demurely watching canoes full of cocoa beans float by without grabbing a handful. It was the conquistadores under Cortés who brought back the bean to their pale-skinned homies, probably around 1528, spawning hot cocoa crazes in Spain, Italy, France, and England that lasted through the end of the 18th century. It wasn't until 1847, though, that a process was developed allowing cocoa powder to be remixed with its cocoa butter to create a pourable and moldable form of chocolate. The candy bar was born and so was the chocolate Santa.

Visit Macy's Cellar around Halloween and discover the mythological hegemony of the chocolate Santa. Despite the early date, he already guards the front entrance of the candy department, phalanxed in one-foot ($36) and six-inch ($17) sizes, created by Joseph Schmidt of San Francisco's Castro district, sometimes called the Michelangelo of Chocolate. Eschewing the dull brownness of the usual Santa, this avatar has a flowing white beard, kidney-shaped red bag, and skin tone that the crayon box once called "flesh," all made of tinted chocolate. His beady eyes seem to be looking nervously over his shoulder, as if he expects to be mugged at any moment. Clearly, this is the perfect Santa for urbanites.

photo: Kate Lacey

Details

Holiday Preview

"A Brief but Startling History of the Chocolate Santa Claus" by Robert Sietsema

"Season's Spirits: Bars With Cheer"

"No-Sweat Gift Guide"

"Merry Mayem: Holiday Events"

If you prefer a more old-fashioned chocolate Santa, there's no better place than Elk Candy in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. The shelves of marzipan and the dense yuletide pastry called stollen testify to the continuing Teutonic tone of this chocolatier, founded in 1933. Santa is available in dark and milk chocolate, in quarter-pound ($5.50), half-pound ($8.95), and one-pound ($15.95) versions. The dark chocolate is dense and rich, while the milk chocolate is too creamy, light, and sweet for modern tastes. In addition to Santas, Elk also purveys other seasonal products, such as Advent calendars ($2.75) in the form of a shallow box with 24 windows that, when opened, reveal tiny wafers of chocolate. A cardboard container shaped like a Christmas tree ($16.75) conceals 16 cordial-filled chocolates that dump raw alcohol into your mouth when you bite into them, a good start to a holiday drinking binge.

Other old-time New York places that make their own chocolate Kris Kringles include Evelyn's Hand Dipped Chocolates, located on John Street for over 40 years. From a vast range of sizes in dark and milk chocolate, the largest is approximately two and a half feet tall and retails for $150. It's usually used for a centerpiece at Wall Street Christmas parties, one store clerk told me. Nosing around the tiny establishment you'll find other long-forgotten chocolates, including "sponges" (a quarter-pound, $5.24) that sport a creepy-looking honeycomb filling that resolves into something midway between nougat and caramel when you chomp down on it, recommended warmly by an old codger who stood next to me in line. "It's like a fancy Butterfinger," he exclaimed. Christopher Street stalwart Li-Lac Chocolates also births chocolate effigies in the usual dark, milk, and white, with the dark preferred by me—denser and grainier than the European-style luxury chocolates that dominate the New York market. A Bay Ridge institution with the tortured name of Choc-Oh!-Lot Plus sells not only chocolate Santas, but the two-part molds that allow to you to make your own—and fill them with whatever substance you choose. A Santa with a K-Y gel center? It's your call.

While the Guinness Book doesn't record a world's largest chocolate Santa, it notes records for the biggest candy bar (12 feet long, 1,526 pounds) and the world's largest Hershey's kiss (who cares?). The hugest I've heard about was made by DUMBO celebrity chocolatier Jacques Torres for a Christmas-season charity event in 2001, molding a life-size Santa climbing into a life-size chimney. You won't get one of these in your stocking, unless you have very big feet. You can, however, buy chocolate assortments right at the Brooklyn factory, but you have to step over the prone bodies of the folks who've just finished a cup of the thick and luxuriant hot cocoa sold in their tiny coffee shop.


Lip service: Mrs. Claus gets a lickin'.
photo: Kate Lacey
At a recent tasting conducted in a friend's apartment, we voted Jacques Torres, with its startling fillings and handsomely decorated pieces (including one that looked as if a tiny rake had been drawn across it, and, my favorite, creamy caramel), as the best chocolates in town (23-piece box, $24). Torres's only competition was provided by staid Upper East Sider La Maison du Chocolat, where the attendants wear somber, dark-colored uniforms and speak in hushed tones, reminding me of the Aztec priests who administered chocolate beverages long ago. Cast and decorated in dark colors, and made with French chocolate of thrilling smoothness and flavor, these chocolates (27 pieces, 0.55 pounds, $44) provoked a taster to intone: "These are the kind of chocolates I'd bring to a funeral." Though sometimes shaped like tiny Volkswagens or surmounted by entire perfect nuts, the Swiss-made chocolates at Teuscher, which fall into the same mind-boggling price range as Torres and La Maison, were a disappointment; there was something coarse about them and the fillings overpowered the chocolate coatings. We thought the product at Belgian chocolatier Leonidas—often regarded as the gals' favorite, perhaps because the pieces have a thicker chocolate coating—a shade better than Teuscher. A pair of chocolates called Satan and Mephistopheles caused us to rank Neuhaus, available at Macy's and elsewhere, in third place, and the dark chocolate bar by the same manufacturer scented with Earl Grey tea ($5) was one of the best we'd ever tasted.

Though I do so with a deep blush on my face, I've got to mention the most unusual chocolate Santa of all. In one way, at least, he's also the largest. Eddyville, Kentucky, confectioner Sexy Desserts crafts a Horny Santa with an extravagantly large erection in white, dark, and milk. You can view this Santa in the privacy of your home at www.sexydesserts.com/holidays.html. It gives new meaning to the old favorites "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Who would have imagined Santa was so well hung?


Best Luxury Chocolates

1. Jacques Torres Chocolate
66 Water Street, Brooklyn, 718.875.9772

2. La Maison du Chocolat
1018 Madison Avenue, 212.744.7117

3. Neuhaus
Available at various locales


Macy's Cellar, Broadway and 34th Street, 212.695.4400; Elk Candy, 1628 Second Avenue, 212.650.1177; Evelyn's Hand Dipped Chocolates, 4 John Street, 212.267.5170; Li-Lac Chocolates, 120 Christopher Street, 212.242.7374; Choc-Oh!-Lot Plus, 7911 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718.748.2100;Teuscher, 620 Fifth Avenue, 212.246.4416; Leonidas, 485 Madison Avenue, 212.980.2608

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