Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Warm up with a cup of home-brewed cocoa

For the five months that comprise the Valley’s summer, a container of Valrhona cocoa powder in my pantry goes virtually untouched.

Once the weather reaches some facsimile of winter, though, it’s on my counter almost every day—in service of that best of cold-weather beverages, hot cocoa.

Or hot chocolate. Actually, after years of uncertainty, I’ve decided that there is a difference between them. But more on that later.

Whether cocoa or chocolate, the stuff is indispensable if there are kids in the house, and a fine comfort drink even if there aren’t.

Furthermore, great hot cocoa from scratch is simplicity itself. And naturally it’s worlds better than the packaged stuff—even if, like me, you harbor a nostalgic fondness for freeze-dried marshmallows.

To make basic hot cocoa, all you need is cocoa powder, sugar and milk.

You can use whatever cocoa powder suits your fancy. I like cocoa from the same folks who make my favorite baking chocolates: Valrhona, a French chocolate maker, and Scharffen Berger, in San Francisco. But Hershey’s and Nestle cocoas will also turn out a decent cup.

Does it matter whether you use natural or Dutch-processed cocoa? Not really.

“Dutched” cocoa, which has been treated with an alkalizing agent, is less acidic than natural cocoa, and some people prefer it. Yet while your choice of cocoa can have critical results when baking, where the beverage is concerned, the only difference you’ll notice is flavor.

Whatever your cocoa of choice, measure out a heaping tablespoon of it into a saucepan. Add two to three teaspoons of sugar (I like the lesser quantity, but you may want more).

Now whisk in two or three tablespoons of milk—just enough to dissolve the cocoa into a paste. (Put in too much milk too soon, and your cocoa will be lumpy.) Add the balance of a cup of milk, whisk to blend, and heat to just under boiling.

This basic recipe is easily multiplied. At your discretion, jazz it up with a few drops of vanilla or almond extract, a dash of cinnamon or a splash of cognac or Irish cream.

So that’s hot cocoa. How about hot chocolate?

This is not an official distinction, but it works for me: I think of hot chocolate as a drink made from chocolate, not cocoa.

Mexican hot chocolate is a prime example. You can find wedges of this distinctive chocolate, usually in yellow boxes, in the Mexican foods section of most grocery stores. The package may instruct you to make your hot chocolate in a blender, a method that works pretty well.

Here’s another approach, inspired by Alice Medrich’s recipe for “Rich Hot Chocolate” in her excellent cookbook Bittersweet.

Chop an ounce of best-quality chocolate and put it in a small saucepan. Now slowly add ½ cup of boiling water or coffee, stirring to dissolve the chocolate completely.

Add ½ cup of milk and heat until just under boiling (or substantially under boiling, as Medrich directs). Flavor as suggested above, or take a note from Medrich, who proposes ancho chile powder, anise, Chinese five-spice powder, and citrus peels as interesting—and tasty!—additions.

Top any cup of cocoa with heaps of freshly whipped cream. And enjoy this treat while you can, because in another five months, it will be too hot to even think about it.