The molinillo is both a kitchen utensil and an artistic object derived from centuries of Mexican gastronomic tradition. Made in all shapes and sizes, this sculptural tool is used to create foam on top of cacao drinks, adding a layer of texture to the much-adored hot chocolate.
To use a molinillo, you hold the handle between your hands, rubbing them together with strong but gentle movements until a sea-like foam is created on the surface of the liquid. The textured, carved rings at the base vary in width, and they knock and spin as they touch like an armful of delicate bracelets.
Dating back to pre-Hispanic times, the molinillo has an ancient association with cacao, the ceremonial seed that fascinated the world. In addition to its gastronomic qualities, cacao was used as currency in Mexico. Legend has it that a cacao and chilli beverage was enjoyed by Moctezuma, ruler of the Aztec empire. Wearing his feathered headdress, he would sip the drink slowly, and enter a meditative state.
Molinillos also appear in Mexican literature. In her novel Like Water for Chocolate, the author Laura Esquivel writes of the cacao-making ritual: the temperature of the water must be extremely hot when the sweet, chilli-spiced chocolate — made by grinding cacao beans on a metate, or grindstone — is dissolved to create the drink. In the novel, the molinillo creates magical bubbles on top of the hot chocolate, casting a spell on the characters and making them fall in love with one another.
My appreciation of molinillos began in childhood. I have memories of them perfectly lined up in a row in my mother’s kitchen — to me they looked like artist’s instruments. In all the Mexican households that I used to visit, this beautiful tool was always included among people’s most treasured possessions. I remember when I secretly used it to try to make a hot chocolate: I whisked and whisked but could not create the soft, cloudlike foam.
It was not until several years later, in the city of Cholula, Puebla, in the midst of its churches and domes, that I found a traditional cook at a small street stall who kindly taught me how to grasp the molinillo like a sword, making it spin and dance. I also learnt the secret of adding a pinch of powdered fava beans to the chocolate and milk, to speed up the process and provide a little firmness to the bubbles.
In my kitchens, both at my restaurants and at home, I like to mix the Royal Soconusco cacao of Chiapas with sugar or honey, charred avocado leaf, cinnamon, clover, star anise and cardamom, and add either milk or water to make a delicious drink fit for the empresses and emperors of fine dining.
In my London restaurant Ella Canta, we use molinillos to create modern articulations of the grand old recipes: vegan hot chocolate with pumpkin seeds and coconut; lightly salted pre-Hispanic chocolate with a touch of smoked chilli; and baroque chocolate, loaded with spices. Using a molinillo every day reminds me of the incredibly important role it still plays in Mexico.
Martha Ortiz is chef patron of Dulce Patria in Mexico City and Ella Canta, a new contemporary Mexican restaurant on London’s Park Lane
Get alerts on Food & Drink when a new story is published