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These Hot Chocolate Hacks Will Make You Love Winter

When the weather is frightful, hot cocoa is delightful. And these upgrades will take it to a whole other level. (Spoiler alert: There's wine involved!)


Go homemade

Sure, those packets of cocoa seem easy and accessible, but resist the call of the chemicals, as real cocoa delivers not only superior taste but amazing health benefits as well, since it’s rich in antioxidant flavanols, which improve circulation, boosting cardiovascular health and cognitive function. You could go with Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa powder, but consider gourmet cocoa with a higher percentage of healthy dark chocolate. “I would start out by ditching the mix and making your own—equal parts high fat cocoa powder and granulated white sugar,” says Claire Smyth, lead pastry chef of The Kitchen Bistro in Chicago.


Add chai spice

There are so many directions in which to take the classic cocoa flavors. For an exotic Indian flavor profile, try creating your own chai spice mix: Add a dash of cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom (you might need to fine-tune the ratios to taste). “Chai spice creates a very romantic type hot cocoa and is extremely winter-warming,” says Liana Werner-Gray, the natural foods chef and best-selling author of The Earth Diet and 10-Minute Recipes: Fast Food, Clean Ingredients, Natural Health.


Heat things up

Traditional Mexican Aztec hot chocolate is typically spicy. “Add a dash of cayenne pepper for a spicy hot cocoa. It’s good for your metabolism and adds a spring in your step,” says Werner-Gray. Did you know that cayenne pepper can also help relieve arthritis?


Use real cream

Water is fine if you’re counting calories (low-fat milk is actually much better and only 83 calories per cup), but for truly delicious hot cocoa, always use cream or half and half. “Depending on how rich you like your hot chocolate, use cream, milk, or a combination of the two, just not water,” says Ed Porter, director of Food & Beverage at SPiN Chicago. Worried about the health effects of heavy cream? These myths and facts about dairy could change your mind.

froth milkiStock/john-shepherd

Froth your milk

One secret for dreamy hot cocoa is to use a small milk frother whipping tool to quickly mix the hot cocoa. “It creates a perfectly creamy mixture with a foam on top that feels decadent, as if you’re drinking a fancy coffee house latte,” says Allison Burdick, founder of Zippy Home Life.


Add seasonal flavors

In the fall, catch pumpkin fever and add half-teaspoons of vanilla extract and pumpkin spice. Over the winter holidays, Smyth would enhance her hot cocoa with cinnamon, vanilla, or peppermint extract—and splurge on chocolate marshmallows. Toast the marshmallows for even more depth! For a soul-soothing combo in dreary January and February, Porter suggests infusing the cream with vanilla bean, a cinnamon stick, and cardamom.


Spike it (for adults only, natch)

Add wine, rum, and even bourbon to your hot chocolate! Sommelier Jon Cross from Hinoki & the Bird in Los Angeles says wine is the best hot chocolate mix-in of all. “The answer to making hot cocoa better is red wine. A dry, firmer, more structured wine, like a Crozes-Hermitage Northern Rhône Syrah, is readily available and accessible in price,” he says. “It also tends to have smoky chocolate notes that would translate well to a hot chocolate made with a not-too-bitter dark chocolate and Baileys Irish Cream, or something similar, for sweetness.” Salivating already? Try this delicious red wine hot chocolate recipe from blogger ImmaEatThat. It’s pretty much heaven in a cup.


Switch up the whipped cream

“At Blue Plate Catering, we freeze an alcoholic whipped cream on a lollipop stick and top it with garnishes like ‘Bailey’s Chocolate Cream Topped with Graham Crumbs and Mini Marshmallows’ for a take on s’mores or a Manhattan with ‘Bourbon Vanilla Cream and Bourbon Soaked Cherries,'” says pastry chef Ashley Harriger of Chicago catering company, Blue Plate Catering. “You can do these without the freezing part too by garnishing the hot chocolate with the whipped cream itself and topping it with the flavorings.”

table sugariStock/natashaphoto

Go beyond table sugar

If you like your cocoa extra sweet, add raw sugar for great flavor and taste. “Also, you could sprinkle some sugar on top and brulée it,” says Shaun Gillespie, the beverage manager at the Candy Apple Café & Cocktails in Jacksonville, Florida, who specializes in creating craft candy cocktails made with sugary sweets from Sweet Pete’s Candy, the restaurant’s neighbor in the building.


Add syrups

Consider using different syrups to add flavor, instead of cocoa powder. For example, Shaun uses Sweet Pete’s chocolate syrup instead of plain chocolate powder when he’s making cocoa with steamed milk.


Mix up your milk

“Using almond milk versus regular milk gives it a brighter taste and lets the chocolate take center stage,” says Jon Ruiz of AMK Chicago. “It also lets those who are dairy-free enjoy this seasonal treat.” Adding ancho powder is a great way to cut the sweetness and give it a little kick, he adds. Almond milk has its own impressive health benefits.


Go gourmet

Go high-end by using an infused spirit as a base for your hot cocoa. “I use Peanut Butter-infused Koval Bourbon, which is a peanut butter-fat washed Baptiste single barrel,” explains Michael Fawthrop of Baptiste & Bottle, Chicago. “Our Single Barrel has oats in the mash build, which impart a slightly creamy flavor to the whiskey, kind of like what milk does when you make traditional hot chocolate. Next we add some Graham Cracker syrup to make sure it tastes like a s’more, and bring in some sweetness to the 73 percent chocolate.” Since the bourbon can only be as good as the chocolate in this drink, Fawthrop uses Valhrona chocolate, one of the world leaders in high-quality chocolate. To play off the creamy notes in the bourbon, Fawthrop’s bar staff throws some Gifford Banana into the heavy whipping cream. “Behind the bar we whip the cream with a shaker, to stiffen the cream so if floats on top of the chocolate, providing a hot and cold texture with each sip.”

Aly Walansky
Aly Walansky is a lifestyles writer with over a decade of experience covering beauty, health, and travel for various esteemed publications. Her blog, A Little Alytude ( was launched in 2006 and continues to be a strong voice in the lifestyles arena. Based in the ever-trendy Park Slope area of Brooklyn, she divides her time between her shih tsu Lily, her soap opera addiction, and scouting out fun new martini bars.

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