Thank the Mayans. It’s Hot Chocolate Day.

Illustration: by Gerasimov Sergey

By Linda Morel

Because I love chocolate, I was thrilled to learn that Jan. 31 is National Hot Chocolate Day.

Hot chocolate, also known as cocoa or drinking chocolate, is a heated beverage consisting of melted chocolate, shaved chocolate or cocoa powder, stirred into heated milk or water. Often topped with whipped cream or marshmallows, this drink is sweetened by sugar.

Believe it or not, hot chocolate is actually good for you — if you skip the sugar. Unsweetened cocoa powder is loaded with antioxidants and flavanols, which are healthy nutrients.

Bringing back the best childhood memories, cocoa conjures up winter and the four S’: sledding, skiing, snowball fights and sitting by a fireplace.

The first hot chocolate was enjoyed by the Mayans about 2,000 years ago. It was prepared as a savory drink with chili peppers. Today in Mexico, sweetened cocoa is spiced with cayenne pepper and chili powder.

The French dress up hot chocolate with cinnamon sticks and vanilla. At breakfast, they often dip brioche into this silky rich elixir. While Italian hot chocolate is so thick, it’s as filling as a meal, the American version is a lighter cocoa kissed drink, topped by slowly melting marshmallows.

Because Jan. 31 falls on a Sunday, it’s the perfect time to celebrate National Hot Chocolate Day. But following COVID-19 guidelines, limit gatherings to immediate family and people in your pod or host a party outdoors. Serve cocoa in fine china, rustic mugs or quirky cups.

Whatever the style of your celebration, sipping this decadent drink is the ultimate indulgence.

Cocoa Americano | Dairy

Serves 4

4 tablespoons plus 4 cups whole milk
4 heaping tablespoons fine-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
8 heaping tablespoons sugar
⅛ teaspoon of salt
8 standard size marshmallows (JET-PUFFED brand is kosher)

In a medium-large sized pot, briefly heat 4 tablespoons of milk to warm. Sprinkle in cocoa. Remove the pot from the flame. Stir until the mixture forms a chocolate paste.
Add 4 cups of milk, sugar and salt. Return the pot to a medium flame. Whisk vigorously until the chocolate paste dissolves and the ingredients are well combined. Bring the cocoa to a fast simmer for 2 minutes. Pour into 4 cups or mugs. Top with 2 marshmallows apiece and serve immediately.

French Hot Chocolate | Dairy

Serves 4

4 tablespoons, plus 4 cups whole milk
8 teaspoons fine quality unsweetened cocoa
4 drops vanilla
2 cinnamon sticks
⅛ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar
8 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate
Optional accompaniment: brioche or challah slices

In a medium-large sized pot, briefly heat 4 tablespoons of milk over a medium flame until warm. Sprinkle in the cocoa. Remove from the flame. Stir well until the mixture forms a chocolate paste. Add 4 cups milk, vanilla, cinnamon sticks, salt and sugar. Return to a medium flame and stir to combine. Briefly bring it to a boil. Reduce the flame to low.
Add the chocolate. Stir until it melts. Simmer for 5 minutes. Discard the cinnamon sticks. Pour it into four cups and serve immediately. Dip brioche or challah slices into the hot chocolate, if desired.

Spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate

Serves 4

4 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 (12-ounce) bags of semisweet chocolate chips
Pinch of cayenne pepper, or more if you like it hot
½ teaspoon chili powder
Optional topping: fine-quality unsweetened cocoa for dusting

Place the milk, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, sugar and salt in a medium-large sized pot. Heat over a medium flame, whisking until the sugar dissolves. Add the chocolate chips, cayenne pepper and chili powder. Stir until the chocolate dissolves. Cover the pot and simmer on low for 5 minutes until the hot chocolate thickens. Pour it into four cups and serve immediately with a dusting of cocoa, if desired.

Hot Chocolate Italian Style | Dairy

Serves 6

Whipped Cream Topping
½ pint (8 ounces) heavy cream
⅛ teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon sugar

In a large mixing bowl, combine the heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar. With an electric mixer, beat until soft peaks form. Stop beating often to make sure cream is not over beaten as it will turn into butter. Cover the whipped cream with plastic wrap and reserve it in the refrigerator.

Italian Hot Chocolate

12 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate
4 teaspoons fine-quality unsweetened cocoa
¼ cup whole milk, plus 1¾ cups
2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup sugar

Place the semisweet chocolate in a food processor and pulse on and off until it’s broken into small pieces. Reserve.

In a medium-sized pot, briefly heat ¼ cup milk over a medium flame until warm. Sprinkle in the cocoa and remove it from the flame. Stir well until the cocoa dissolves. (A few dots of cocoa may not dissolve.) Add the remaining 1¾ cups milk, heavy cream and sugar. Return the pot to a medium flame and whisk until the mixture simmers. Reduce the flame to medium-low.

Add the semisweet chocolate pieces and whisk until the chocolate melts and is completely incorporated. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often.

Pour it into 6 cups. Generously dollop whipped cream on top. Serve immediately.

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