The days are shorter, the air is brisker, our favorite scarves and sweaters are reappearing — hot chocolate season is upon us. A warm cup of cocoa is the most idyllic expression of winter, as integral to the season as candy canes, ice-skating, or snowmen. Even our favorite holiday films celebrate the drink; Tim Allen in The Santa Clause claims hot chocolate is his beverage of choice, and Tom Hanks dedicates an entire song to the drink in his film The Polar Express. But despite its billing as a drink for children, a precursor to the coffee of adulthood, hot chocolate has recently exploded into a winter phenomenon and has quickly become a seasonal staple that has kids and adults of all ages wanting more.
A cup of cocoa is unquestionably addictive, but just what is it that makes it so good? We investigated hot chocolate drinks around the nation and found several characteristics that make the best recipes shine. For the richest cups, we found that using real chunks of chocolate instead of cocoa powder made for a smoother, more decadent drink. Boston favorite Finale uses bars of chocolate in every recipe, making their hazelnut, white, and dark chocolate recipes stand-outs in the field.
However, sometimes the best cup of hot chocolate is the one that is most convenient to make on-the-go, and several shops show that choosing convenience doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing flavor. Gourmet drinking chocolates like those from Cacao in Atlanta were equal parts taste and ease, using chiles and spices to provide texture in their mixes.
Another key is the base liquid; although traditionally the rule of thumb is to choose milk over water, the best hot chocolates go even further (and fattier) with their cream-based beverages. Max Brenner of Boston, Las Vegas, New York, and Philadelphia, isn’t afraid to inject a little — or a lot of — decadence into his hot chocolates; the shop’s cups feature hand-whipped vanilla cream that makes their beverages dangerously addictive.
From New York to New Orleans, Aspen to Atlanta, we’ve found the richest, spiciest, yummiest, and craziest hot chocolate recipes around the country. Ever heard of Azteca Aphrodisiac Sipping Chocolate? Or White Chocolate Lavender Cocoa? Or Chocolate Lush, made with hot chocolate, Baileys, and butterscotch schnapps? Neither had we. Now, we’re making these delicious and easy recipes from top chefs across the nation available for you to try at home. Follow our guidelines or try your own experiments for your best cup of cocoa.
But whatever you do, don’t forget the advice of Tom Hanks in The Polar Express: "Here we’ve only got one rule... Never, ever let it cool!"