The molinillo, a wooden whisk native to Mexico, has just one (albeit important) purpose: helping people whip hot chocolate into foamy perfection. To use one, you’ll need to do a little twist.
The molinillo’s roots lie in colonization. When Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they didn’t care for the local chocolate drink. Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors initially refused to drink it, and in 1590, a Jesuit writing about the sweet beverage compared its foamy consistency to feces. But in recognition of its value as a status symbol—Aztecs used it in ceremonies and demanded tribute payments in chocolate—the Spanish kept it around. They eventually developed a taste for it, and so did Europe. Historians even suspect that the molinillo was a Spanish innovation—a contrast to the common Mesoamerican style of pouring molten chocolate from one pot to another to mix it and foam it up.
The molinillo is a pleasing example of functional design creating a beautiful object. A long handle with a ball or square at the end makes whisking easier, while rings at the end speed up mixing. Today, woodworkers carve molinillos from a single piece of wood. Cutting symmetrical shapes around the wood lathe’s axis allows carvers to create its elaborate central carvings.
While the molinillo’s look has evolved over the years, the technique has remained the same for centuries. Hot chocolate aficionados in Mexico, Colombia, and the Philippines use the molinillo by taking it in both hands and placing it in a jarro, a special jug that contains the ingredients. Pressing their palms together, they twist the molinillo back and forth until the chocolate blends into a fabulous, frothy confection.
Foamy hot chocolate is delicious; it has also been regarded as quite the aphrodisiac: Legend has it that in some regions of Mexico, the key to finding a husband was a young woman’s ability to impress with perfectly frothed hot chocolate.