The human race has had a long love affair with sipping warm chocolate. You might be thinking sometime around Charles Dickens’s heyday as an educated guess, but you’d be sorely mistaken. Try the Aztecs, circa 14th century. They slurped what they called cacahuatl, a beverage made from smashing roasted cacao seeds to a pulp and combining it with flavoring spices such as vanilla and chilies. Aromatics and spices were used to soothe cacao’s innate bitterness.
Then go back even further. Thousands of years further.
The Olmecs, a prehistoric tribe who lived off the coast of Veracruz and western Tabasco on the Gulf of Mexico from 1400 to 1200 B.C., had a rough recipe for a primitive drinking cacao, which no doubt inspired the Mayans and Aztecs on up to Swiss Miss herself. Thus, your cup of caloric indulgence this winter deserves a bit of respect, a nod to a history that predates Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha.
Turns out, we’re still messing around with recipes, though. You can get it in tea, smoothie, and cold-brew form, but when winter weather hits we want it hot and sweet and maybe a tad bit boozy. This year, things are as weird and wonderful as ever in terms of what’s in your cup of chocolate-based cheer.
Ginger Spice Hot Cocoa at RedFarm, New York City
Synonymous with expensive-but-worth-it dumplings, Manhattan’s high-end house of Asian cuisine is killing it at cocoa, too, by stirring in freshly grated Asian ginger, ginseng extract and honey blossom, a dash of vanilla, and a sprinkle of sea salt to create what’s basically a slightly spicy, creamy, chocolate chip cookie in a cup. Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur is added for the adult option. A note to the thirsty: The Ginger Spice Hot Cocoa is available only at RedFarm’s Upper West Side location. redfarmnyc.com
Chica’s Cocoa at Angeline, New Orleans
Pisco is probably no one’s first thought of what to use when spiking a hot cocoa, but Angeline’s bartenders like to push the envelope. (And given the history of hot chocolate, the spirit’s South American origins are apropos.) They use Macchu pisco, infused with toasted pecans. Del Maguey crema de mezcal, Combier kümmel liqueur, and cinnamon syrup round it out before things take a really weird, yet successful, turn. Then they work in some Bols Yoghurt—an “unmistakably yogurt-like” liqueur. “While pisco isn’t all that common in a hot drink, it is a brandy,” explains general manager Jeff Grdinich. “The crema mezcal adds a bit of smoke and richness, and the caraway in the kümmel gives a little holiday spice. The yogurt adds richness without sweetness.” angelinenola.com
The Vegan “Nuts for Hot Cocoa” at By Chloe, NYC
Sometimes creating a new twist on an old dish is hard enough. Try making a favorite holiday indulgence vegan, and you might get some pushback. Chef Chloe Coscarelli isn’t afraid. Her’s subs almond butter in place of cream and includes dairy-free, semisweet chocolate chips and rice milk. You won’t even have to sacrifice the whipped cream—she beats coconut into a frothy garnish. Being vegan always equals being good for you. Right? bychefchloe.com
Garam Masala Hot Chocolate at Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Nashville
“Hot chocolate is found in India, but it’s not a traditional Indian drink,” offers executive chef and co-owner Maneet Chauhan. She blends in her own North Indian garam masala, which traditionally contains cinnamon, cloves, cumin, white peppercorns, and bay leaf, among other spices. “It is always a challenge marrying spices in an already perfect dish,” Chauhan continues, “and the challenge here is not to overpower the lusciousness of the chocolate.” She went full-throttle flavor with the garnish, however. A few perfectly plump marshmallows float on top, infused with saffron and cardamom. chauhannashville.com
Porky’s En Fuego at BLT Steak, Washington, D.C.
An entire ounce of bacon-infused WhistlePig rye whiskey is married with 5 ounces of mole-spiced hot chocolate. It’s then heated to a lava-like state, poured into a mug, topped with house-made whipped cream, and sprinkled with French Espelette ground pepper. The drink costs $18, and you should not think twice about ordering one. Actually, order two. e2hospitality.com
The City Bakery’s Hot Chocolate Festival, NYC
You’ll have to wait a bit, but for the entire month of February, City Bakery founder Maury Rubin rolls out a daily twist on his original and rightly famous hot chocolate—which you can order today to tide yourself over. He’s super secretive about the ingredients (no wonder, since the man sells 1,000 cups a day on average). The 2015 lineup included favorites like the Banana Peel (say what?) and French Follies, with lemon, pomegranate, and espresso. Fun fact: Before he was a baker, Rubin won two Emmys as a producer for ABC Sports under Howard Cosell. thecitybakery.com
The Caramel Corn at Murdock’s Café, Park City, Utah
This place features seven twisted takes on hot chocolate. The Caramel Corn wins out. The recipe starts with freshly popped popcorn that’s steeped into cream and sugar, then thrown in a blender, strained, chilled, and whipped into the cream topping. The actual hot chocolate has sea salt and ribbons of caramel inside, and the whole shebang is topped with popped caramel corn. visitparkcity.com
The Naughty & Nice Hot Chocolate Cocktail at the Lambs Club at the Chatwal, NYC
There’s seasonal, hoppy Pumking beer in this one, alongside nearly 2 ounces of Sailor Jerry spiced rum. As if that weren’t enough to flush your face, there’s a half-ounce of spiced simple syrup, pumpkin liqueur, and 2 bar spoons of melted caramel. Finally, it’s combined with the raw chocolate ganache, shaken hard, and then steamed. You know that whole “sugar and spice and everything nice” saying? Yeah … well … this is that, but on steroids. thechatwalny.com
Caribbean Crème de Hot Chocolate at DW Bistro, Las Vegas
Manager Rudy Aguas describes this one as Marilyn Monroe meets Bob Marley. “It’s hot, sweet, and a whole lot of tropical sunshine,” he clarifies. While we were momentarily stymied by the mental image of Monroe with dreadlocks, the actual recipe is pretty awesome: Shellback spiced rum, Bittermens coffee liqueur, Bittermens Tiki bitters, chocolate syrup, dark chocolate, crème de menthe, and frothed milk. dwbistro.com
The Spicy Hot Chocolate at Ellie’s, Providence
It seems “hot” is trending in hot chocolate this year. The base of this recipe is an organic cacao, Taza dark Mexican chocolate with guajillo chilies. The house-made, 2-inch marshmallows at Ellie’s are made with whipped egg whites and sugar, flavored with Madagascar vanilla bean, cinnamon, and peppermint, and layered with dark chocolate chunks. As each giant marshmallow melts into the spicy chocolate below, it morphs the flavor of every sip. elliesbakery.com
Spiked Hot Chocolate at the Restaurant at Mr. C, Los Angeles
For the kids who love black licorice on Halloween (weirdos) comes a Christmastime concoction with a mule-size kick, thanks to a decent pour of 110-proof Green Chartreuse. This liqueur is famous for its secret recipe of herbs, aromatics, and medicinal-tasting botanicals, and when combined with warm whole milk, cocoa, and sugar, it’s a good way to get those “visions of sugar plums” on the move in your head. The bartenders finish it with a festive foam made from fresh orange juice and bitters. mrchotels.com
The Hot Chocolate at Café Adelaide, New Orleans
Lead bartender Benton Bourgeois makes his with Rougaroux Full Moon dark rum, Hoodoo chicory liqueur, dark chocolate, brown sugar, cayenne, and whole milk. “It was inspired by New Orleans’s tradition of blending chicory into our coffee,” he says, “a practice that was developed out of necessity to stretch limited supplies of coffee in the city.” Chicory is a member of the endive family, marked by the robust bitterness it brings to Big Easy coffee. “Applying that same logic to chocolate achieves a rich, full flavor, complemented by local rum made from Louisiana sugar cane and balanced by a pinch of cayenne pepper,” Bourgeois says. cafeadelaide.com
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