There are few better rewards for a day spent outside in the cold than a steaming cup of hot cocoa, whether it’s that frothy mixture straight out of a ski lodge machine or a warming Swiss Miss packet savored at a campsite.
Throughout human history, from the Mesoamerican civilizations who mixed fermented cacao beans with water, cinnamon, red chili, and cinnamon as early as 1500 B.C. to the chocolate houses of 18th-century London, people have adored hot chocolate. (While hot cocoa and hot chocolate are technically different—hot cocoa is made with a cocoa powder, whereas hot chocolate is melted chocolate that’s been thinned with water or milk— we’ll use these terms interchangeably here.) Swiss Miss didn’t even come onto the scene until 1961, conceived by a dairy company as a way to use a surplus of powdered creamer it had produced for soldiers in the Korean War, launching instant cocoa in the United States.
More than just being the ideal vehicle for marshmallows, hot cocoa is, scientifically speaking, one of the best hot beverages you can drink. Burning the calories from milky hot cocoa will help keep your body warm. Meanwhile, highly caffeinated beverages like coffee—a typical cup has 95 milligrams, compared to about 5 milligrams in a cup of hot chocolate—are diuretics, filling up your bladder and making you colder until you urinate. Alcoholic drinks like hot toddies dilate your blood vessels, and while they might temporarily feel warming, they’re actually taking blood away from your extremities and making you colder.
Luckily, making your own decadent hot chocolate is pretty simple. It’s just melting chocolate and mixing it with milk or water and other desired spices. Start with the highest-quality chocolate you can find, as the hot water or milk will actually bring out the chocolate’s flavor. Pastry chef and chocolate guru Jacques Torres believes chocolate with a cocoa content of 60 to 80 percent is ideal. The higher the cocoa content, the richer the hot chocolate. If you’re using a powdered mix instead of solid chocolate, look for mixes that are made from powdered chocolate rather than cocoa powder, which is made from the remnants of the cacao bean once the cocoa butter has been extracted and is less flavorful than real chocolate.
Milk quality is also an important part of the equation. According to Amy Andrews, pastry chef at The Little Nell, a five-star ski-in-ski-out resort in Aspen, “Using a great dairy product, like organic whole milk or half-and-half, can help carry the chocolate.” Though the more cocoa butter (or fat) in your chocolate, the less fat you may want in your milk, depending on how rich you want to make your drink. And if you’re dairy-free, using coconut milk or a nut base like almond milk will still yield a creamy texture. Andrews also recommends adding a pinch of salt and vanilla to deepen the hot chocolate’s flavor. The famous recipe she serves at The Little Nell uses Dutch-process cocoa powder, 80 percent dark chocolate from acclaimed French chocolate company Valrhona, and half-and-half.
If you’ve ever warmed up with hot chocolate and waffles at Jackson Hole’s Corbet’s Cabin, the following recipe from resort pastry chef Rachel LaPresta might taste familiar—waffle accompaniment optional but recommended.
Corbet’s Cabin Cocoa
Yield: 3 quarts
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
- 5 cups whole milk
- 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 cup dark chocolate chips (You can use all semisweet, if preferred.)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch salt
- Combine all ingredients into a slow cooker or stovetop pot.
- Stir occasionally until all the chocolate is melted and you have a homogeneous mixture.
- Garnish with marshmallow and whipped cream and enjoy.