If there were a contest for the most comforting thing in the world, hot cocoa would surely be in the running for the crown, along with teddy bears, cozy sweaters and the occasional brandy-filled flask. Hot cocoa warms a winter-chilled body, incites nostalgic reverie, and has the ability to hit the spot like few other libations. And beyond that, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, it can be abundantly healthy — as in, possessing three times more antioxidants than green tea! (Get the whole skinny here: 7 health benefits of drinking hot cocoa.)
Hot cocoa is one of the best ways to get chocolate's antioxidants, but unless you are using a healthy recipe, the benefits of cocoa's powerhouse nutrients can be negated by the ill effects of too much sugar and a host of synthetic ingredients.
The main ingredient in most commercial hot cocoa mixes is sugar, followed by corn syrup, with actual cocoa hiding somewhere in the middle of the list of disturbingly polysyllabic ingredients. In fact, a look at the nutrition panels of the most popular brands reveals a whole hodgepodge of ingredients that just have no business being in a simple cup of cocoa. Case in point? Hydrogenated coconut oil, partially hydrogenated palm oil, gelatin, artificial flavor, sodium hexametaphosphate, blue 1, dipotassium phosphate, sodium aluminosilicate, sucralose, sodium phosphate, and acesulfame potassium, to name a few.
Who wants a hot cup of that?
In the United States, the terms hot cocoa and hot chocolate seem to be used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Hot cocoa is made by dissolving cocoa powder in a hot water or milk, while hot chocolate involves melting a piece of chocolate into the hot liquid. Drinking chocolate, which is often what hot chocolate is called in Europe, is the same as hot chocolate. Hot chocolate yields a richer drink than hot cocoa because chocolate has cocoa butter in it, so there's more fat. Cocoa powder has the fat removed, so it's a healthier way to get the all the salubrious nutrients which chocolate offers — but with these recipes there is no richness sacrificed.
In all of the recipes here, you can play around with the proportions, adding more or less sweetener as you prefer — and you can also mix and match the milks, as these were developed so that either dairy or nut milks could be used. All of these will yield one regular or two small servings, you can double or quadruple as desired.
1. Traditional Hot Chocolate
This is the only one of the group here that includes chocolate pieces, which as mentioned before creates a beverage with more fat. That said, this recipe will yield a beautiful cup of hot chocolate that will still be better for you than a chemical- and preservative-laden cup made from a crummy instant mix. Using the full three ounces of chocolate will yield a very thick drinking chocolate that may be too rich for some, so adjust to your taste.
1 cup milk (or nut milk)
1/2 vanilla bean, split
1-3 ounces semisweet or milk chocolate, cut into small pieces
Heat milk to scalding in a medium saucepan, add vanilla, and let steep with the heat off for 10 minutes. Strain and return milk to saucepan to reheat milk. (You can use 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract instead and skip the steeping process.) Whisk in chocolate until melted and frothy. Serve, savor.
2. Dried Plum Cocoa
Okay, okay. Yes, you could call this one the "hot prune smoothie," but we're going to stand by it anyway. After all, if the French can make Pruneaux d'Agen (the decadent prune and chocolate cake) then we can make pruneaux d' cocoa, by golly. (We're just going to follow the lead of the prune industry and rename it dried plum cocoa.) The truth is, this one is so thick and rich it's closer to drinking chocolate, and instead of sugar's empty calories, you get a healthy dose of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
1 cup almond milk (or regular milk)
3 medium plums
2 tablespoons dark cocoa powder
1 pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Put all ingredients in the blender and puree until very smooth, gently heat in a pot on the stove. Voila.
3. Coconut Hot Cocoa
Somehow, mixing the products of a tropical tree — coconut milk and dates — just seems all wrong for making the perfect drink for a blizzardy afternoon. And it's true this one may not be the best if you're considering food miles. But for dairy-free, sugar-free, nut-free diets, this recipe may be as close as you get to cocoa nirvana. And for anyone else, if you've got the ingredients, this version is super salubrious and delicious.
3 tablespoons canned coconut milk
3/4 cup water
3 soft pitted Medjool dates
1 tablespoon cacao powder
Dash of cinnamon
Put all ingredients in the blender and puree until very smooth, gently heat in a pot on the stove. Sip and dream of the tropics.
4. Maple Cocoa
Maple syrup is one of a wholesome-cooking cook's best-kept weapons in avoiding refined sugar. It not only adds a punch of sweetness, but that special almost-smoky maple taste adds incredible depth to baked goods and sweets that are hearty in flavor (meaning, great with chocolate and nutty things;not so good for angel food cake). This one is nice with the neutral flavors of regular dairy, but you can use any alternative milk you'd like as well.
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pinch of salt
Combine ingredients in a medium pot and warm on medium-low heat, whisking until frothy and hot.
5. Mexican Hot Cocoa
The original chocolate beverage lauded by the Mayans was a bitter spicy slurry drunk cold and nothing like the Swiss Miss we have come to rely on. Hot cocoa in Mexico and other southern realms retains the heat, which is very clever since chocolate and spice go together as well any pair of flavors possibly could.
1 cup soy milk (or regular milk)
1 tablespoon Sucanat (see note)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pinch of salt
1 pinch of cinnamon
1 pinch (or more, go crazy!) of cayenne
Combine ingredients in a medium pot and warm on medium-low heat, whisking until frothy and hot. Say "salud" to the Mayans for bringing us drinkable chocolate.
Note: Sucanat is the trade name for "Sugar Cane Natural," a non-refined cane sugar that is made by crushing sugar cane, extracting the juice then heating and drying it. It's a more wholesome sweetener than refined sugar – but if you don't have it, agave syrup, stevia, or regular sugar can be used instead.