Happy November! Happy cool weather, foggy evenings, cozy couch lounging, flannel sheets, soft scarves, cashmere sweaters, one pot meals, soup and stock simmering in the kitchen, and hot cocoa for breakfast.

People often ask me what the difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate is. I like to think the answer is something akin to the difference between Soul Food and Southern Cookery/ Cuisine. Both are from the American South, but Soul Food is a little more specific.

Hot cocoa and hot chocolate are basically the same animal, but hot chocolate is a mink and the former is more like a very soft cat. Hot chocolate is made with bar chocolate and hot cocoa, with, yes obvious – cocoa. Both can be made with milk, cream or a mixture of both.

Depending on your age, and the particular geography you were standing in when you had your first sip of hot cocoa, means the cocoa your body registered as the correct hot cocoa taste will differ from someone else of another age and of another place.

For the sake of this discussion we will say there are two kinds of cocoa. Natural and European or Dutch Process. Natural cocoa is light in color and DP is dark. For baking, knowing the difference is of utmost importance. But in the case of a drinkable, it more has to do with your taste memory and preference. If you were me, or from New York City, you might have had your hot cocoa epiphany at the now, sadly, closed Rumplemeyer’s. Hot cocoa at this venerable restaurant was served in silver teapots. It was rich and aromatic and very hot. You sat in plush pink banquets surrounded by other reverent small people and their adult companions. It was benchmark hot cocoa. I have a feeling it was made with natural cocoa because when I make hot cocoa now it is the cocoa I have the strongest emotional memory reaction to.

Hot chocolate is a rich enterprise. Although you can use milk, bitter/semi-sweet chocolate begs {heavy} cream, and then what you have on your hand is the opinionated view of your expensive chocolate versus how you’re going to explain to anyone else why it’s ok to drink ganache. We’re talking seriously supple, silky and smooth, but at the cost of your arteries, and for me I would rather slather a wide mug of hot cocoa with whipped cream to amend the whole milk.

The most famous hot chocolate of my generation is created by the slightly wicked, darkly humoured Maury Rubin, pastry chef/ baker/ owner of City Bakery in NYC and Los Angeles. He is smart enough to serve it in a thimble-sized portion for reasonable, informed persons, and has a larger portion for those unawares of what lies within. Not only are there no words to describe what Maury’s hot chocolate is like, even if I had any, they would disappear under the weight of this brutally rich concoction. Yes, I like it, but I have been known to share the shot size with more than one other person. No joke, yo.

I have a few tricks should you like to take hot cocoa on as a end of year meal amending or replacing project. Years of making beverages, ice cream, cakes, frostings, ganache, truffles and more with cocoa and chocolate have given me insight to a number of cocoa and chocolate personality quirks.

Chocolate and cocoa have little to no flavor when they are cold or frozen. Cocoa’s chocolatey-ness can only be achieved if added to warm or hot liquid. If cocoa is added to cold or cool liquid and then heated up, the cocoa will float to the bottom of the pot and burn on the bottom. This scorching will destroy the flavor of the dairy.

Every cocoa is not only different in terms of its manufacturing process, but not one of them is ground to the same particle size. You may think you don’t care about such minute details, but 4 teaspoons of one cocoa is not 4 teaspoons of another. If you are making a large batch of hot cocoa, as I have begun to at work in preparation of all the ice skaters in Justin Herman Plaza, measure cocoa by weight. If you have a scale that can be adjusted to grams, do so. Good quality cocoa is strong and a smidge goes a long way.

If you are making hot chocolate, it is best to chop chocolate fine and place in a large, wide mouthed bowl. Heat cream/milk until just boiling and pour over chocolate. Let sit a few minutes and then whisk in tight concentric circles, from the interior, out. Although you can make hot chocolate with milk, you will find that cream or half & half will emulsify with the solid chocolate better. It’s never a good idea to cook chocolate right in a saucepan because it burns so easily, but if you want to heat up your mixture again or more, place bowl over a pot of boiling water and whisk until desired consistency. Or a microwave can be you fast friend.

I’m one of those odd ducks who likes a big mug of hot cocoa to be unsweetened or barely sweet. But if you like yours a little sweeter try using brown or raw sugar. The caramel-ly flavor of these sugars backs up the chocolate taste nicely. And lastly, a tiny pinch of kosher salt is a nice finesse.

Because hot cocoa and hot chocolate are made up of just two or three ingredients, making sure your dairy is the best quality is a good idea. Ultra-pasteurized milk and cream can sometimes have stabilizers that read on the tongue as bitter and can interfere with your hot cocoa purr.

This is how I make hot cocoa:
I pour about 2 cups of whole milk into a non-reactive saucepan, sprinkle about a teaspoon of sugar in, and then turn flame to low or medium. When milk is hot to the touch I sprinkle in cocoa one teaspoon at a time, whisking constantly, until it tastes right. I continue to whisk for about 5 minutes, but I try not to let it boil.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad it’s cold again. I love summer, but as an East Coaster originally, I like autumn to give way to winter, without a 90-degree October in between. Because without a bunch of cold and dreary months I would have a hard time explaining away my hot cocoa for breakfast, lunch and dinner habit.

Hot Cocoa & Hot Chocolate 1 November,2007Shuna Fish Lydon

  • Jennywenny

    Perfect timing, just when we’re getting a bit chilly here. Sounds lovely.

    I had the pleasure of trying the chocolate at sahagun chocolate which was particularly memorable, thanks for the tip.

    I also remember the shaffenburger factory have some delicious small cups of chocolate.

  • Aaron

    What’s your favorite cocoa of choice right now? Have you jumped on the Scharffen Berger train? (I love that stuff, so no sass, please!) What are you baking with?
    Cocoa is so intriguing to me, and I’d love to hear what you are looking for in a cocoa, especially as I presume you’ve done some recent tasting and research for the new gig.

  • Anonymous

    A quick&easy method for good hot chocolate: Fill a mug 2/3 to 3/4 with milk. Microwave for about 2 minutes. While that’s going, put your chocolate in a blender along with any sugar, cinnamon, salt, cayenne, vanilla (powder works great) or whatever you like. Use the blender to chop your chocolate. Then wait for the milk (check to make sure it doesn’t boil over) and pour it into the blender. Wait a little, then blend.

    You get frothy, foamy hot chocolate with very little work. Just be sure to rinse out the blender jar before it hardens.

  • bandit

    you didn’t mention the cookies that are the BEST with the hot chocolate, I guess I will have to go to Sens and remind you 🙂

  • Brett

    This may ~ or may not ~ surprise you, but the first time I tried the hot chocolate at City Bakery, I liked it so much I ordered a second (full-sized)cup. It was a cold winter day. I finished them both. Easily. I can’t imagine going there and only ordering the demi-tasse. Inconceivable! In fact, just reading this post inspired me to make a cup of rich hot chocolate (Scharffen Berger chocolate, Valrhona cocoa powder, milk, pinch of fleur de sel), which I finished in the time it took to write this comment.

  • JEP

    This was such a delightful post to read! Shows your passion for the best hot cocoa & chocolate!

  • Aaron

    I must ask…what is your favorite cocoa powder of the moment? Have you jumped on the Scharffen Berger bandwagon? And what do you prefer for baking?
    I figure such issues must be on your mind with the recent necessity to stock an entire new kitchen!

  • shuna fish lydon


    I am so so glad you enjoyed Sahagun! That little red shop is one of the calls Portland makes when I stare at the future’s horizon.

    Thank you anonymous.
    But your blender sounds more powerful than my home blender— asking a blender to break up hard, tempered chocolate is no easy feat. I might break up chocolate in a food processor or chop it myself first. (A serrated knife is best for this job.)

    Oh, yes The Cookies! Believe me, I will never forget about the cookies You Made Famous! xo

    I am floored. Literally. You are definitely a stronger man than I. As much as I love chocolate, one tiny sip of Maury’s hot chocolate satiates me. Come into the restaurant and I will have a gallon jug and a 8 ounce marshmallow waiting for you…

    My favorite cocoa for baking is either Valrhona, if one can afford it or Cacao Barry “Extra Brute” which I use at the restaurant.

    For drinking cocoa I prefer the Scharffen Berger because it reminds me of childhood. But the Scharffen Berger cocoa is also quite pricey… so for diners I might make a mixture. Nowadays it seems American need stronger and stronger flavored foods.

  • mo

    This was so interesting! According to it, I’ve made hot chocolate only once in my life, and I’ve been making hot cocoa wrong for quite a few years now. Hmmmm. Must fix that.

    It also seems that in Europe, they always make hot chocolate, and never hot cocoa. I wonder why that is…

  • s.j.simon

    lol. did you know that chocolate was banned in switzerland for many years. read this

  • Try Tuccelli Hot Cocoa Mix. Their Cocoa is of single bean origin and is fairly traded. I ordered a can a few months ago and it was the best cocoa that I’ve ever tasted.


Shuna Fish Lydon

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She’s had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC.

Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna’s resume reads like the who’s who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers’ markets her muse.

Currently “at large,” Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.

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