A steaming mug of sweet, creamy, chocolatey deliciousness. What could possibly be better in the dead of winter? Come in from the cold, put on some warm socks and curl up in front of the fire with the mug warming your hands. Hot chocolate oozes coziness and tradition, starting in childhood sometime after the second or third snowball fight. But was it hot chocolate or hot cocoa that you sipped? Do you remember? Does it matter? You might be surprised to learn that there is much debate on this exact subject.
Even though “hot chocolate” and “hot cocoa” are often used interchangeably, there is a big difference between the two. Hot chocolate or "drinking chocolate," is made from ground chocolate (which contains cocoa butter) mixed with hot milk. It is made by taking solid chocolate and chopping it finely or grinding it into a powder, then melting it into hot milk which adds to its creaminess. It is smooth, supple and satisfying. Drinking chocolate is commonly enjoyed throughout the world, but particularly in Europe where, for example, the very thick cioccolata densa is a staple of northern Italy.
Hot cocoa, however, is made with cocoa powder only, along with nonfat dried milk, sugar and flavorings. It is usually made from a powdered mix and is sweeter than hot chocolate. Even when making hot cocoa from scratch, adding cocoa powder and sugar to hot milk, it ultimately lacks the rich smooth texture of hot chocolate due to the absence of cocoa butter. Is it obvious which I prefer?
The Aztecs are first credited with cultivating the cacao bean to brew “cacahuati” or “xocolatl” (literally “bitter water”), an unsweetened version of modern-day hot chocolate. In the 17th century, Spanish doctor Antionio Colmenero de Ledesma published the first recipe for hot chocolate as an elixir, adding different spices to treat a number of ailments. Even President George Washington was known to wash down his breakfast of cornmeal cakes with a cup of hot chocolate to sustain his health.
Today, hot chocolate is usually consumed for pleasure rather than medicinally, but new research continually suggests that there are many health benefits attributed to the drink. The most significant heart-healthy components of chocolate, the basis of the drink, is a group of compounds called flavonoids which are known to have multiple beneficial health effects. Dark chocolate is much richer in flavonoids than other types of chocolate, and its consumption has been linked to improved arterial flow, lowered blood pressure, reduction of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes, and even cancer prevention. Other studies have shown that hot chocolate contains more antioxidants than wine and tea, and that a larger amount of antioxidants are released when the beverage is heated, thus making hot chocolate even better for you.
So hot chocolate is good for our health, not just for our soul. Here’s one of my favorite ways to enjoy it: I add complexity by infusing with whole spices and citrus to create delicious undertones of flavor, as well as a grown-up twist by adding coffee (which also cuts the sweetness of the chocolate) to really treat my whole self. A perfect, rich, delicious way to keep warm this winter – when you want to indulge a little.