Chocolate soothes, celebrates and comforts us. Whenever I was upset or due for a congratulatory indulgence, my mother made hot cocoa. She reserved it as a special pleasure and remedy. Right now some of us are happy, some distraught and others are undecided. One thing we can agree on — chocolate is always the answer.

Theobroma cacao, cacao or cocoa tree, is a small evergreen tree native to the deep tropical regions of Mesoamerica. Its cocoa beans (seeds) produce chocolate liquor, cocoa solids, cocoa butter and chocolate.

Around 500 BC, Mayans in Mexico first drank chocolate made from ground cacao seeds, water, cornmeal and chili. It was bitter and served unheated. In the early 1500s, Spanish explorer Cortez exported cacao beans from Mexico to Europe. The Spanish upper class adopted and changed the Mayan chocolate drink to hot and sweetened. Early in the 17th century hot chocolate arrived in France, where the French refined the chocolate and hot chocolate became ever more popular. Thus hot chocolate immigrated into Europe and beyond.

Winter and holidays call for hot chocolate. If packets of hot cocoa powder mix spring to mind, dump that thought. Cultures around the world have some decidedly luscious takes on hot chocolate, and most use high quality chocolate as opposed to powdered cocoa. Hot cocoa is a mix of powdered cocoa, dried milk, sugar and flavorings; it has been robbed of the luscious feel and flavor of cocoa butter. Hot chocolate, rich with cocoa butter is, instead, similar to imbibing a creamy-smooth melted chocolate.

Whether you create remedial or celebratory hot chocolate, start with high-quality bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate like Scharffen Berger, Guittard or Valrhona. Bittersweet contains less sugar so it yields pure chocolate flavor; semisweet has more sugar. Higher cacao percentages mean more chocolate solids and a higher intensity of chocolate flavor. Semisweet is usually 35 to 40 percent cacao, bittersweet can go 75 percent or more. Milk chocolate has milk solids added and around 20 percent cacao content.

Whole milk lends a creamy touch to hot chocolate, but some use low-fat or nonfat milk. Non-dairy drinkers find that almond or a high-quality coconut milk are good alternatives. Mexicans first used water for hot chocolate, and many still do. They know that it enables chocolate to reveal its deepest flavor nature. (It’s splendid for black coffee drinkers.) Water-based hot chocolate has a less creamy feel than milk-based hot chocolate; you may remedy this with a swirl of whipped cream, butter, ghee, peanut butter or cheese in your cup.

To personalize your hot chocolate, play with spices and herbs to create new flavor combinations. Ancient Aztecs made hot chocolate with indigenous vanilla and chilies. Mexicans pair hot chocolate with cinnamon. Mint, espresso, caramel, pear, salt and orange have become classic chocolate compatriots. Some chocoholics like to infuse their drink with lavender, bay leaf, basil, cardamom or star anise. Simmer spices or herbs into milk or water, strain them and return the hot, flavored liquid back to the pan. Whisk in chopped chocolate for a drink that is guaranteed to heal and cheer you — even if only temporarily.

The southern Mexican Olmecs believed “xocolātl" gave them miraculous powers and big vitality. If you need an extra boost to get through your days … or you want to party all night, hot chocolate could be a tasteful part of your answer.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

In Mexico many women in traditional villages laboriously grind cacao beans and sugar into their own blocks of delicious chocolate; they use water for hot chocolate, not milk. They whisk it to a froth with a molinillo, a wooden frother. After the chocolate is melted, place the round business end of the wooden molinillo in the bottom of the pitcher and roll the handle quickly between your hands. Pour immediately into cups and serve with bread and cheese.

— Adapted from “Bon Appetit” magazine

Yields 4 servings

3 C. whole milk

3 T. crushed cinnamon sticks (preferably Ceylon)

6 oz. semisweet chocolate (preferably Scharffen Berger), finely chopped

3 T. granulated sugar

¾ t. vanilla extract or almond extract

Pinch of kosher salt

¼ t. ground chili de árbol or cayenne pepper, plus more for serving

Garnish: whipped cream and cocoa powder or chocolate shavings

Bring milk and cinnamon to a simmer in a medium saucepan over low heat. Stir occasionally so milk doesn’t boil. Simmer until cinnamon is fragrant, about 10 minutes. Whisk in chocolate, sugar, vanilla, salt and ground chili. Simmer, whisking frequently and well, until mixture is frothy, smooth, creamy and chocolate is melted, 3 to 5 minutes. Divide hot chocolate among mugs. Top with whipped cream and dust with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings.

Puerto Rican Hot Chocolate with Cheese

Puerto Ricans have enjoyed this classic combo of chocolate and cheese for decades. When the cheese begins to show after drinking the hot chocolate, scoop cheese with a spoon and eat.

Yields about 2 servings

2 oz. Edam cheese, finely cubed

2 C. hot or room-temperature whole or alternative milk

2 oz. semi-sweet or sweet chocolate

Divide cheese between 2 to 3 serving mugs. Pour 3 tablespoons water into a small saucepan and heat over low until water simmers. Whisk chocolate into saucepan until fully melted. Pour in hot milk. Whisk until milk and chocolate are well blended. Raise heat and briefly bring hot chocolate to a boil. Remove from heat immediately and pour into cups over cheese. Serve hot.

Tsokolate (Filipino Hot Chocolate)

Tablea de cacao are cacao chocolate tablets made from 100 percent pure cacao beans that are fermented, roasted, ground and molded into tablets or round disks. This chocolate is not ground (conched) as smoothly as regular chocolate so it’s grainy; it does contain cocoa butter. You may prepare this beverage with hot brewed coffee or increase the amount of chocolate. Tsokolate is a traditional breakfast beverage that is often paired with buttered, toasted bread.

Yields 2 servings

2 C. milk or water

2 to 3 oz. Filipino-style pure tablea de cacao or Taza Chocolate disks

1 T. smooth 100 percent peanut butter

In a saucepan over medium, heat milk or water until bubbles form around the edge and steam rises from liquid. (Stir milk to prevent a skin from forming.) Add tablets and wait 10 seconds for them to melt. Crush and blend tablea or disk with fork or whisk. Remove from heat.

Whisk in peanut butter until dissolved. Remove from heat and twirl a whisk or batidor (molinillo) in chocolate mixture until frothy, 1 to 2 minutes. If using an immersion blender instead, insert it into the serving pot, turn it on and move slightly up and down until frothy, 30 to 40 seconds. Pour into individual mugs and serve immediately.

Parisian Hot Chocolate

Use the best chocolate you can find for this succulent hot chocolate.

— Adapted from David Leibovitz

Yields 4 servings

2 C. whole milk

5 oz. high quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

Optional: 2 T. light brown sugar

Heat milk in a medium-sized saucepan. When milk is warm, remove pan from heat. Whisk in chocolate until fully melted. For a thick hot chocolate, return to heat, whisk constantly and simmer on very low heat 2 to 3 minutes. Pay attention. The hot chocolate should not boil over. Taste, and add brown sugar as desired. Serve warm in small coffee or tea cups. Hot chocolate improves if made ahead and allowed to sit for a few hours. Rewarm before serving. A few flecks of fleur de sel on top (sea salt from Brittany) will intensify the experience.

Thick Italian Hot Chocolate

Yields 2 servings

1 C. plus 1 T. milk, divided

1 t. cornstarch

2-1/2 T. unsweetened high quality cocoa

2 T. sugar

3-1/2 oz. high quality dark chocolate, finely chopped

In a small bowl whisk 1/4 cup cold milk and cornstarch until smooth; set aside. Sift cocoa into a medium mixing bowl and whisk in sugar; set aside.

In a small saucepan heat remaining 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon milk just until it boils. Reduce heat to low. Whisk in milk/cornstarch mixture until smooth. Whisk in cocoa mixture slowly and continually until smooth. Whisk in chopped chocolate until melted and smooth, about 3 minutes. Serve immediately in two mugs.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

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