When the weather turns cold, few things are as comforting as a mug of hot cocoa. The powdered instant variety takes only seconds to make -- a real convenience when you stumble in from the frigid outdoors. The bad news is that it's loaded with sugars and preservatives, and many brands are only vaguely chocolate-y. Making your own hot cocoa from cocoa powder is a healthier option, and it takes very little time.
A Quick Cup of Comfort
The fastest way to whip up a cup of hot cocoa is in your microwave.
Choose a sturdy mug and scoop in 1 tablespoon of cocoa, or up to 2 if you're a serious chocolate lover.
Add a tablespoon or less of sugar, depending how sweet you like your cocoa, keeping in mind that you can always add more when it's done.
Stir in a tablespoon or two of milk, and mix it with the cocoa to form a thick paste. Pour in the rest of your milk, stirring to disperse the cocoa mixture evenly.
Microwave on high for 2 to 2 1/2 minutes, until the cocoa is hot but not boiling. Give it a final stir, or froth it with a small whisk, and enjoy your treat.
For larger quantities, multiply the ingredients by the number of portions. Heat the milk on your stovetop in a saucepan, and stir in the cocoa paste once it's hot.
At first blush, the calories and sugar content in this homemade cocoa seem pretty similar to those in instant cocoa powder, even if you make it with low-fat milk. However, there are some notable differences. Many of the calories in the homemade version come from milk, which is also loaded with protein, vitamins and minerals. And the cocoa powder itself is rich in antioxidants. Calories in the instant mix, on the other hand, are largely barren of nutrients. Commercial mixes also tend to include hydrogenated oils to mimic milk's richness, and a range of preservatives and thickening agents. Even more importantly, when you make your own, you're free to tweak the ingredients to suit your own needs and preferences.
Not So Sweet
If you consciously limit your consumption of refined sugars, making your own cocoa puts you entirely in control. Using Sucanat, palm sugar or other less-refined sugars in place of granulated white sugar is a simple substitution. If you favor stevia-, sucralose- or aspartame-based sweeteners, add those to the cocoa just as you would with sugar. Agave nectar and other liquid sweeteners are better stirred into the hot milk, or into the cocoa paste in your mug after you've added those first tablespoons of hot milk.
Granulated sugar helps the cocoa physically mix into the milk without forming lumps. If you use liquid or artificial sweeteners, you'll need to whisk the cocoa more thoroughly. For the smoothest result -- and a pleasantly frothy one as well -- use a "stick" or immersion blender.
Milk It for All It's Worth
Your choice of milk also plays a large role in the relative healthfulness of your cup of cocoa. Using nonfat or low-fat milk lowers the calories and fat content, a significant consideration for many health-conscious chocolate lovers. On the other hand, a number of large, recent studies have shown -- counter-intuitively -- that consuming full-fat dairy products actually results in lower obesity rates and better cardiovascular health. Full-fat milk certainly makes a cup of cocoa richer and more indulgent.
If you're lactose-intolerant or vegan, feel free to substitute nut milks, soymilk or other non-dairy milks. Each brings a slightly different flavor and mouth feel to the cocoa, so try a few and see which one you like best.