You can customize this decadent hot cocoa recipe any number of ways — with or without spirits.
Making your own hot cocoa at home opens up the possibility for a number of customizations and flavor profiles. Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Oliver

It doesn’t have to be well below zero with the wind howling for a mug of hot chocolate to warm your hands and heart, whether you start from scratch with cocoa and milk or use a hot chocolate mix. Here is a from-scratch recipe for hot cocoa, along with ideas for how to customize it (or a hot cocoa mix you buy) by flavoring your mug-full — with or without spirits.

There are several ways to make your own hot cocoa mix, and lots of milk options, too. If you are new to the process, experiment a little and know that you can stock your pantry with ingredients to grab whenever the urge hits for chocolate comfort.

Chocolate: You can use unsweetened powdered chocolate, dark or not, or chocolate bars or chips, from milk to semi-sweet and unsweetened. If you use powder, you’ll have to mix it with a little water, milk, or coffee to make a paste, which you can thin with milk. If you use chips or chocolate bars, figure on melting it in the hot milk, stirring with a whisk. The great thing about using chips or chunks is that you can add more chocolate at the last minute by merely melting it in. Sample your hot cocoa and if you want more chocolate punch, add the chips and stir.

Sugar: Plain old granulated sugar is fine. Light brown or turbinado sugar has a richer flavor. Sweetening also can come from the melted chocolate or from sweetened condensed milk, if you use that.

Milk: Use whatever milk you like, whole, 2 percent, or even evaporated with water added. Condensed milk is good if you don’t have enough regular milk but don’t add sugar until you have tasted the hot cocoa. Plant-based milk works. If you want richer cocoa, use half and half, cream, or add some of either to milk.

Flavorings: Coffee, peppermint or rum are just three of lots of opportunities to season up your cocoa. If coffee, espresso powder or espresso-chocolate chips melted with the milk work — or, of course, a shot of coffee brandy is dandy. Crushed candy canes or hard peppermint candies smashed and dissolved in the hot milk while you reheat the cocoa might please the younger ones in your set, and grown-ups might like a shot of creme de menthe. Rum, spiced or not, will warm the cockles; if you don’t want booze, track down rum-flavored extract. I added some Irish cream liqueur to my mug. Delicious.

Add any of these flavorings to cocoa made from pre-mixed cocoa powder and milk.

Enhancements: Whipped cream or marshmallows floating on top of hot chocolate makes a simple mug-full pretty special. For fun, I toasted mini-marshmallows on a pan under the broiler, but it was a little tricky not to scorch my knuckles. If I had large marshmallows, I might be inclined to toast one in the wood stove before floating it on the cocoa.

Have a sit, wrap your fingers around the mug and sip. On Valentine’s Day, make a date to have hot chocolate with someone you really care about.

Homemade Cocoa Mix

3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Transfer mix to an airtight container.

Put two or more spoonfuls in a mug and add enough hot milk to moisten it, stir, then top with more hot milk.

Sample and add more of whatever is needed. Add flavoring if you use it.

Single Mug of Hot Cocoa

2-3 spoonsful of powdered unsweetened cocoa
2 spoonsful white or light brown sugar
2 tablespoons of hot water, coffee, or hot milk
6 to 8 ounces of milk, half and half, or a mix of the two

Put the cocoa and sugar in a small pan or into a mug.

Add the hot water, coffee or milk and stir until the dry ingredients are in a paste.

Add the milk and heat gently over a low heat until it is steaming or put the mug in the microwave to heat the milk. Stir.

Sample and add more sugar if desired.

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Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...