Quest for Cocoa: The Art and Science of the Perfect Hot Drink

If you’ve read many of our family’s posts you know that hot drinks are an essential part of our lives. Almost every day begins with tea for Michelle and coffee for me. Only Aly seems immune to that essential comfort—she’ll have a cup of tea or cocoa some mornings, but not every day. As the weather turns colder, we find that one hot cup is not enough, leading to secondary and sometimes tertiary hot drinks throughout the day.

I have not as yet touched much on my great love for coffee. I’ve written an article about how I brew coffee here on the homestead. Frankly, it bores even me! Unless I find some way to liven it up a bit (“I realized then that my one slim chance of avoiding a horrible, violent death required me to throw my freshly-brewed cup of coffee into the bear’s face! I hesitated . . . .”) you’ll never have to read it here.

We try to avoid consuming too much caffeine, so we rarely have a second cup of tea or coffee. Sometimes I’ll opt for a little more coffee flavor without as much caffeine, which I’ll touch on below. More often, we move on from the morning jump start to other hot drinks.

These include Russian tea (used sparingly after discovering the One True Way to make it . . .) non-caffeinated teas (Aly grows and harvests chamomile in the garden for this purpose), hot highbush cranberry juice, hot lemonade (with honey, especially for colds and sore throats) broth, and on rarer occasions around Christmas, perhaps some mulled cider or wine. Most of all, we drink cocoa.

We depend so heavily on cocoa that no matter what the season, we go through canisters of it at an alarming rate. Not only do we use it as a drink in and of itself, but I like to add a couple of spoonfuls to my cup of coffee in lieu of sugar and creamer. I should point out that my favorite coffee cup is twice as large as an average mug—when using a standard 6-8 oz. mug it would be one spoonful.

Because our cocoa use is so heavy, we’ve become concerned about the corresponding intake of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Opinions differ: at best, HFCS gives us extra, unneeded calories. At worst, it could be extremely unhealthy. Since HFCS is an all-pervasive additive, if we tried to cut it out all together, we’d probably starve, or at least waste far too much time policing our diet, but if it can be eliminated or reduced easily, we try to do so.

Last winter we got serious about creating an acceptable, homemade substitute for commercial instant cocoa. I grew up on a homemade cocoa mix, but we rejected that. While it was good, I never felt like it was the same as commercial cocoa. Also, the main ingredients were non-dairy coffee creamer and a certain amount of instant cocoa (making it more of an extension than a mix) both of which are loaded with HFCS.

Internet searches pulled up many recipes with these same ingredients, or with so many components that to make it would be more expensive than buying ready made cocoa mix.

After much testing and experimentation, here’s what we ended up with:

1 TBS baking cocoa powder

2 TBS powdered milk

3 TBS brown sugar

1/8 TSP salt

Add water and stir.

This recipe gave us an individual mug of cocoa fairly close to commercial. We tried for a creamier texture by using small amounts of xanthan gum. That seemed to do weird things to our mucous production, so we gave that up. Interestingly, the salt was a very important ingredient, as it somehow brings out the cocoa flavor.

It was never quite there, though, and we never extrapolated it into a canister of mix that could be grabbed off the shelf and used. In the meantime, we discovered that Swiss Miss brand instant cocoa mix, while sweetened with corn syrup, does not contain HFCS in addition to sugar and corn syrup, as so many similar products do. We also have found that this brand mixes more easily with water than others we have used.

Swiss Miss lacks something that others have. When we compared it to the other brand we used, it seemed a bit less “chocolaty.” As with many consumables, though, repeated use has accustomed us to it, and we don’t notice the difference anymore.

Because I love coffee, and because I want to be frugal, I’ve learned a trick for getting good coffee flavor in my cocoa. If I make coffee in a French press, I set it aside without dumping the grounds. If, after I’ve enjoyed my cup of coffee, I want a cup of cocoa, I’ll pour more hot water into the French press. After it has steeped, I use it to make cocoa from mix, pouring the weak coffee into the powder in place of plain hot water. This gets a second use from the grounds, and imparts a nice coffee flavor to the cocoa.

We’d like to share with you the best way we’ve found to make a hot drink from a powdered mix.

My brother taught me this trick, which really works if you like a thoroughly-blended cup of cocoa or other hot drink without cells of dry powder floating around in it.

Start by putting the mix in a dry mug first, then add just a little hot water—just a few drops—less than you think would wet all of the powder. Stir the water into the powder until it becomes a syrup. If you need more water, add it a drop or two at a time. It should look and feel like thick pudding. Once all the dry powder is wet, add the rest of the water. Or, to make absolutely sure it’s mixed properly, add water until the mug is half full, so you have room to really slosh it around well without spilling. When satisfied, top it off, stir gently, and enjoy!

This method works well for any hot drink made from instant powder. If you hate lumps in your drink, give this a try, you won’t be disappointed!

My last point I’ll touch on only briefly. In my opinion, an essential ingredient to The Perfect Hot Drink is the right mug. Whenever possible, choose a mug you like, or even love. Don’t just grab whatever’s handy and clean—choose carefully! This simple step adds much to the enjoyment of a nice, hot drink. I have many mugs, but each gets its use as my mood changes from day to day. I have two Christmas mugs that must be used in season, mugs with sailing ships, mugs with Alaska Native designs. I even have an Alaska Day mug from Sitka. I’m lacking just the right Halloween mug, but I have high hopes of finding it one day. Many of the mugs are gifts from friends and family, or souvenirs from meaningful places. Using these calls the loved one to mind as I sip my drink. This is one of the many small, simple pleasures of which a happy life is made.

As is a good hot cup of cocoa.

This entry was posted in Daily Life, Food & Drink, Homestead Crafts and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *