A popular convenience product, hot cocoa consists of a muddy brown powder that magically transforms into a sweet and somewhat chocolate-y beverage in your mug when you add water. The real thing is rather different. It's made from scratch with plain cocoa powder, and when well prepared it's a velvety treat with an intense chocolate flavor. Making your own is uncomplicated, and every chocolate lover should know how.
A Single Mug
When all you want is a treat for one, you can make a single cup of cocoa right in the mug. You'll need 1 tablespoon of cocoa -- 2, if you like your cocoa really intense -- for every 6 to 8 ounces of milk. One tablespoon of sugar is about right for sweetening, but you can use more or less until you find the quantity that suits your taste.
Stir the cocoa and sugar together in your mug.
Add 2 tablespoons of the milk, and stir it together to make a paste.
Gradually stir in the remaining milk, whisking until any visible lumps have disappeared.
Microwave the mixture on High for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, until the milk is quite warm. At this stage the hot cocoa will still look a bit grainy and uneven. Whisk it again, until its appearance smooths out and it looks the way hot cocoa should.
Return it to the microwave for another 30 seconds, or until it's as hot as you like.
Alternatively, you could heat the milk separately in a saucepan. Whisk the hot milk into the dry cocoa and sugar to make a paste, then stir the paste back into your saucepan and whisk until it's thoroughly incorporated.
Cocoa for Company
The microwave method is fast and simple when you want a single cup of cocoa, but the saucepan technique is more practical when you're making cocoa for several people. Use the same ratio of ingredients and the same technique, first making a paste with some of the hot milk and then stirring the paste into the remainder of the hot milk. The cocoa is ready to serve once it's mixed and looks smooth, but it will improve greatly if you leave it on the heat for at least another 20 minutes. The granules of cocoa powder absorb more liquid as they continue to cook, thickening the drink as they soften and gain a silkier texture.
Hot cocoa is maddeningly prone to sticking and scorching when you simmer it on the stovetop. The best way to serve long-simmered cocoa is from a pre-warmed slow cooker, where it can stay hot for extended periods without scorching.
If you browse the Internet for recipes, you'll see that some call for natural cocoa while others call for alkalized or "Dutch-process" cocoa powder. Both make very good hot cocoa, but they're different. Natural cocoa has a more intense flavor, but it's sharper and slightly astringent. Dutch-process cocoa gives a smoother, more comforting end result. In either case, don't call it "hot chocolate." That's a rather different beverage, made with -- what else? -- chocolate.
You can up the intensity of your cocoa by replacing some of the milk with water, which cuts its richness slightly and brings the chocolate flavor into sharper focus. If you wish, you can also enhance its flavor with vanilla, cinnamon, a favorite liqueur or even a pinch of cayenne.