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Sweeten the pot: Homemade marshmallows and hot chocolate from Aux Delices, with locations in Greenwich, Darien and Westport.—Aux Delices photo

There’s nothing as comforting as a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s night. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to cocoa—milk chocolate with marshmallows—but I’ve become enlightened to other ways to experience the festive drink this holiday season.

“Creative cooks are always looking for new ways to spice up old favorites at home. Our customers want the best hot chocolate mix as a start and then suggestions on how to make it their own,” observes Elizabeth Eckardt, owner of Elizabella’s Bake Shop in Ridgefield, noting that chocolate, spices and toppings make a difference. “Our customers add a few drops of peppermint, cinnamon or orange oil or an extract such as almond, brandy, bourbon, hazelnut, maple, vanilla, or coconut to create a new hot chocolate sensation. These same oils and flavorings can also be used to flavor chocolate or plain whipped cream for an added treat.”

Elizabella’s sells King Arthur Hot Chocolate Mix, a rich blend of ground Guittard chocolate, extra-fine sugar, cocoa powder, nonfat dry milk, and a dash of salt that has a creamy, delicious flavor and intense chocolate notes; and award-winning Frans Dark Hot Chocolate Mix, a decadent 65% Venezuelan dark hot chocolate. She also sells several varieties of cocoa from King Arthur to make your own.

“Hot chocolate can be made from any kind of chocolate. Some powders mixed with water or milk can give you a less rich hot chocolate,” Elizabeth explains. For added indulgence, Elizabeth suggests topping whipped cream with Guittard chocolate sprinkles, chocolate, caramel or butterscotch sauce, peppermint crunch, or nuts. “Served warm with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles or sauce, it’s great for kids. Served hot with flavorings like creamy hazelnut, mint or a favorite liquor, it’s a treat for adults,” she says. “It can also be mixed with a shot of espresso for a great dessert or to start the day. … The possibilities are endless.”

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King Arthur Flour Hot Chocolate Mix, available through Elizabella’s Bake Shop in Ridgefield, would make for a festive holiday gift, particularly when paired with a red mug and “candy cane” spoon. — Elizabella’s photo

Rich and simple is how Fritz Knipschildt, founder/owner of House of Knipschildt and Chocopologie in South Norwalk, prefers his cocoa. “Hot chocolate is a classic old-world drink requiring excellent chocolate,” contends Fritz. “Use high-quality dark chocolate. It’s so important to use good ingredients. Talking as a chocolatier, I want something that tastes of chocolate. To me, it’s like having a glass of red wine. Chocolate has undertones of flavor, so why spoil a quality chocolate and add a lot of stuff? Keep everything simple.” Fritz drinks a cup of hot chocolate every day. “I love it. It’s magical.” At Chocopologie, for customers seeking some spice, he adds cinnamon, nutmeg or chipotle pepper.

Debra Ponzek, owner of Aux Delices with locations in Greenwich, Darien and Westport, serves specialty hot chocolate variations, including Mexican hot chocolate made with ground cocoa nibs, cinnamon, sugar, and chilis, and occasionally white hot chocolate. “When the snow starts falling, hot chocolate warms you up and chocolate marries well with many flavors. You can add peppermint, caramel sauce, raspberry syrup. … There are great ways to go crazy with it,” notes Debra, whose pièce de résistance is homemade, chunky-sized, flavored marshmallows with flavors including pumpkin, vanilla bean and cinnamon. “They’re delicious added to hot chocolate! They melt a little slower and add a little bit of sweetness, making the hot chocolate a bit more decadent,” she explains. “We’ll add cinnamon-flavored marshmallows on top of a cinnamon-scented cup of hot chocolate.” Debra also adds lightly sweetened whipped cream.  

Christina Carpanzano, general manager of NEAT Coffee in Darien, believes homemade is the way to go. “A warm mug of homemade hot cocoa is so comforting. To know you’ve put your love in it to make it the way you and your family like it makes it special,” Christina says.

NEAT Coffee mixes up its own special chocolate syrup made from dark Askinosie cocoa powder consisting of 72% dark cocoa powder from Davao, Phillipines, but home cooks can make their own version. “It’s fairly simple to make,” says Christina. “Just combine the best quality ingredients you can find to achieve the perfect sweet chocolaty taste; combine that with hot milk and a dollop of your favorite whipped cream and you have pure happiness in a cup!”

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Homemade White Hot Chocolate.—Photo courtesy of celebratingsweets.com

To enhance the flavor, she makes a Mexican spice blend by incorporating cinnamon and chipotle pepper. “You can feel the subtle heat and smokiness of the chipotle pepper, but the sweetness of the cinnamon is the real star here.” NEAT pairs hot chocolate with a house-made, lightly sweetened whipped cream. “We use a high-quality bourbon vanilla and a touch of sugar. This whipped cream adds the perfect amount of sweetness while making sure the hot chocolate stays the star,” says Christina. “Hot chocolate is a quintessential part of the holiday season — the perfect pick-me-up on a chilly fall day to sip while taking a break from holiday shopping or while decorating. Drinking hot chocolate always makes me feel like a kid at heart. The warm mug and chocolatey taste is so reminiscent of snow days and baking cookies with my family.”

Isabelle Koenig, owner of Isabelle et Vincent, a French bakery and chocolate shop in Fairfield, makes rich, intense, authentic French hot chocolate. “We use fresh milk and add a special, high-quality chocolate powder,” explains Isabelle. “The hot milk is made with a cappuccino frother to obtain the perfect consistency, then we add either extra chocolate powder, cinnamon, honey, or our own homemade whipped cream.”

After a  long day of work, sitting down by a window and watching the snow fall while enjoying a cup of hot chocolate with a chocolate croissant or a fruit tart is a real pleasure, according to Isabelle, who concludes, “It’s a great moment of relaxation.”

Hot Chocolate, Recipe courtesy of Fritz Knipschildt
(Makes about 2 quarts)

Ingredients:
2 pounds 80% super dark chocolate (pick a brand to suit your personal preference)
½ quart cream
1 ½ quarts whole milk
½ cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 cup dark cocoa powder.

Directions:
Boil cream, milk, sugar, and vanilla bean. Turn off the heat and whisk in chocolate and cocoa powder. Serve!

Elizabella’s Bake Shop shared a favorite recipe from the King Arthur website:

Ingredients for dry hot cocoa mix:
1/2 cup Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk
1/2 cup Bensdorp Dutch-process cocoa or your favorite unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup Baker’s Special Sugar or superfine sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla powder

Directions: Sift together all of the ingredients and stir until well blended.

To make hot cocoa: Stir 4 tablespoons cocoa mix into 1 cup (8 ounces) hot milk.

Homemade White Hot Chocolate, recipe courtesy of celebratingsweets.com
(Serves 2-4)

Ingredients:
4 cups milk (preferably whole milk)
1 cup white chocolate chips or chopped white chocolate
Pinch salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Optional garnishes: white chocolate chips, white chocolate shavings, mini marshmallows, whipped cream, candy canes

Directions:
Place the milk, white chocolate and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisk continuously over medium-low heat, until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth (do not boil). Remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract. Serve immediately.

Homemade Marshmallows (from Debra Ponzek, taken from The Family Kitchen)
(Makes 4 dozen marshmallows)

Ingredients:
2 ½  tablespoons unflavored gelatin (1 package)
1 cup cool water
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, or ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
2 cups granulated sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
Flavorless vegetable oil spray
Confectioner’s sugar

Directions:

In a small bowl, dissolve the gelatin in ½ cup of the cool water. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the egg whites and vanilla. Set aside. In a deep, heavy saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup cool water, the granulated sugar and the corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and cook until the syrup reaches 240 F on a candy thermometer, or the soft ball stage. (To test for the soft ball stage if you don’t have a thermometer, drizzle 1/4 teaspoon of the boiling syrup into a cup of cold water. If a soft ball remains in the bottom of the cup, the syrup is ready.)

Meanwhile, when the syrup reaches about 210 F, begin beating the egg whites and vanilla on medium-high speed with the whisk attachment. Beat until stiff but not dry. Alternatively, put the whites and vanilla in a clean, dry mixing bowl and whisk by hand with a wire whisk until stiff but not dry. The goal is to have the egg whites reach stiff peaks when the syrup is cooked. If the whites reach stiff peaks before the syrup is cooked, turn off the mixer until the syrup is ready.  When the sugar syrup reaches 240 F, immediately add the gelatin and water mixture to the syrup and stir to mix. Take care — it will bubble up high in the pan, so make sure the saucepan is deeper and larger than you might think you need. With the mixer speed on medium low, pour the hot syrup into the whites and beat for 2 to 3 minutes until combined.

Pour into an 8-inch-square pan that has been lightly sprayed with vegetable oil spray and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Spread evenly and dust the top with more confectioner’s sugar. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours until set. When ready to serve, cut into squares with a hot knife.