Push the (hot chocolate) envelope this year with these delicious customizations

Making specially flavored hot chocolates at home, like our maple pumpkin spice variety, is a real treat

By Michael La Corte

Columnist

Published November 27, 2022 4:30PM (EST)

Pumpkin spice latte or cappucino and cookies (Getty Images/Arx0nt)
Pumpkin spice latte or cappucino and cookies (Getty Images/Arx0nt)

As the trees go from multi-colored to barren and the chill in the air turns to from crisp to downright frigid, there is perhaps nothing more deeply comforting and nostalgic than an enormous mug of hot chocolate. When it comes going beyond the tiny envelopes of powdered mix, though, that warm homeyness can sometimes dissipate when you get into the nitty-gritty of exactly how to put homemade hot chocolate together. Essentially, the process itself is relatively simple: in a small pot or saucepan over low heat, whisk your dairy together, bring to a simmer, add chocolate, cook through, then add additional components (sometimes off-heat). This can get tricky, though. 

Frankly, there's a customization inherent in homemade hot chocolate that can be both liberating and also inundating: What kind of dairy? What kind of chocolate? What kind of syrups, spices, extracts, or flavorings? Whipped cream, marshmallows, or no garnish? Should there be actual pumpkin, just pumpkin spice, or just plain ol' cinnamon? 

Don't fret; all of these questions will be answered in due time. You'll be curled up with a gigantic mug of homemade hot chocolate before you know it.

Wait, is there actually a difference between hot chocolate and hot cocoa? 

Technically, hot chocolate involves melted chocolate (chips, baking squares, chopped bars), while hot cocoa's chocolate base is quite literally simply cocoa powder. As Masterclass notes, there is a slew of styles, based on culture and country of origin: Italian hot chocolate (called cioccolata calda) involves cornstarch for thickening, while Colombian hot chocolate involves honey, cloves and cheese cubes (!). Clearly, the breadth of styles is incredibly rich and diverse.

History

As noted by The Spruce Eats, hot chocolate is said to have originated in Mexico in about 500 BC, when the Mayans would make beverages made from "ground-up cocoa seeds mixed with water, cornmeal, and chili peppers." The drink would, interestingly enough, be consumed cold. By the 1500s, cocoa migrated to Europe via colonists, where it was sweetened and served hot. In the 1700s, milk was added, which both enriched and further stabilized the drink. For a bit, it because regarded as a health drink and a salve for various ailments, until it was packaged and sold in dried form. 


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What's Cooking America, however, notes that "archeologists tell us that the Olmecs, the oldest civilization of the Americas (1500-400 BC), were probably the first users of cacao, followed by the Maya, who consumed cacao-based drinks made with beans from their plantations in the Chontalpa region of what is now eastern Tabasco." The outlet continues, mentioning a quote from American historian William Hickling, who noted that Montezuma "took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold." Clearly, the now cherished "comfort drink" hails from something that was once very different entirely.

Breaking down each component:

Dairy: Actually, regular, whole milk probably works best here. A combination with cream or half-and-half is also good, but don't opt for all cream; the overall consistency and mouthfeel can become unpleasantly thick. Conversely, of course, non-dairy alternatives can work as well, but just keep in mind that certain non-dairy "milks" do not taste especially stellar once heated.

Chocolate: I think that certain chocolates (if they're not perfectly 100% cocoa) can be a bit off-putting when melted in hot chocolates. I tend to go for just high-quality cocoa powder, but I might toss in some errant chocolate chips if I have them laying around. Generally, I'd go for a semisweet chocolate here, but something like a white chocolate could also be interesting. Customize for whatever best suits your tastes, as always. 

Seasonings: This recipe calls for cinnamon and pumpkin spice, but add a touch of chili or cayenne to go towards more of a Mexican hot chocolate type realm — use bittersweet or super-dark chocolate, if that's to your liking. I also maintain that a health pinch of flaky sea salt or even plain kosher salt is essential for bringing out some of the more latent flavors in the mix. I'm also fond of extracts (clearly), which can add robust flavor without changing the texture of the drink. 

Sweetener: I go with brown sugar here, but feel free to instead swap entirely for maple syrup, which would then make the addition of maple extract obsolete. Conversely, use agave or even honey. 

Toppings/garnishes: I think drinking a whipped cream-topped beverage out of a mug is middling at best and frustrating at worst, so I omitted. If you're a whipped cream person (or a marshmallow person), go ahead and add 'em. If you are going the whipped cream route, I love an infused or flavored whip; a maple one would be especially terrific here. 

Maple Pumpkin Spice Hot Chocolate
Yields
2 servings
Prep Time
 5minutes
Cook Time
10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons high-quality, unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons light brown sugar (or granulated, if you prefer)
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin purée, optional
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons maple extract
  • Ground cinnamon, for garnish
  • 1 cinnamon stick, for stirring and garnish

 

Directions

  1. In a pot over low heat, warm the milk and half-and-half. Once heated, add cocoa powder and sugar and if using, pumpkin puree. Whisk until homogenous and warmed through

  2. Add pumpkin pie spice and whisk well. Heat until fragrant and the mixture comes to a simmer.

  3. Remove from heat, add extracts and stir well.

  4. Let cool slightly. Pour into mugs, and finish with a dash of cinnamon and a cinnamon stick.

  5. Feel free to get super cozy and drink in front of a fireplace (or a YouTube video that streams a fireplace) or an especially large candle. Happy sipping!


Cook's Notes

Gluten free, vegetarian, nut-free

-I find that the pumpkin puree can sometimes add an unappealing texture and almost a "tackiness" on the tongue, turning this smooth, rich beverage into something bordering on ... soup in a mug? So I have moved to remove it, but I've included the measurement here just in case you want to really up the ante of your autumnal hot chocolate. 

-I wanted the main flavor notes here to be the maple and the pie spice and I wanted to avoid a saccharine beverage, but if this amount of sugar isn't enough for you, throw in another tablespoon or two. 

-I found that garnishing with pumpkin pie spice was slightly overpowering, so opt for ground cinnamon unless you're a real PPS head and insist on that as a garnish

-This reheats very well the next day. I'd warm it up over a low flame on the stove versus putting it into the microwave where you may inadvertently wind up cleaning up a five-alarm chocolate explosion.

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By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. He loves hard cheeses, extra-crispy chicken cutlets, chocolate-coated candied orange peels, any and all pasta dishes, croissants, peach juice, coffee and admittedly stans Mountain Dew — as damning as that may be. He is a burgeoning movie buff and has an irrational distaste for potato bread. He is especially passionate about music, social justice advocacy, his loved ones and his dog, Winston.

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