The cold and rain has me hankering for hot chocolate. I rounded up some candidates and some tasters: my friend Kathy and my kids Olivia and Elijah. Some mixes called for hot milk but others already contained powdered milk and so required only hot water. We started with the latter.
“Oh, Swiss Miss [$3.79 for 7.3 oz. at Vons],” cooed Olivia. “This is what Mom always bought for family camping trips.” “Well, don’t hold it against her,” retorted Kathy. “This is thin, watery, saccharine-sweet, and leaves a lingering, chemical aftertaste.” The rest of the group agreed.
“Not as bad as Swiss Miss,” said Elijah of the Nestle mix ($2.29 for 4.2 oz. at Vons), “but it barely has any actual chocolate flavor. And the finish tastes of the paper envelope it came in.”
“More chemicals on the finish,” moaned Kathy about the Vons store brand, Signature Kitchens ($1.67 for 10 oz.). But at least it fared better when it came to tasting like milk and chocolate.
My spoon clanked around inside two more cups. “Aw, this is bad,” sighed Kathy after sipping the Sprouts Organic Rich Chocolate Flavored Hot Cocoa ($3 for 10 oz.). “You do get chocolate flavor when it first hits the tongue, but it quickly fades, leaving only flatness and cardboard on the finish.”
“Well,” said Olivia, brightening, “I can taste actual cocoa in the Trader Joe’s Organic Hot Cocoa Mix [$3.29 for 10 oz.]. So, hooray!” I concurred, noting the way the chocolate flavor lingered, and also the decent level of creaminess.
Our final pair of water-mix cocoas hailed from Whole Foods. “Strong hints of vanilla on this one,” said Kathy of the 365 Organic Hot Cocoa ($3.99 for 12 oz). “But the chocolate flavor is minuscule.” “It tastes like hot vanilla, not hot chocolate,” agreed Elijah. “That’s not what I’m paying good money for!” “And you wasted your money on this next one, too,” sighed Kathy over the Equal Exchange Organic Hot Cocoa ($7.99 for 12 oz.). “I find it insipid. It looks thick and has rich color, and I can smell the cocoa. But it’s bitter, and so earthy that it tastes like dirt, especially on the muddy aftertaste.”
I consoled the gang by assuring them that the milk-mixed cocoas were up next and would surely mean a step up. “Corporate Starbucks to the rescue!” I declared as I poured out Starbucks Hot Cocoa Double Chocolate ($7.99 for 8 oz. at Vons). And I was right. “Cocoa first, then a creamy milk flavor,” smiled Elijah. “A nice balance of strong chocolate, milk, and sweetness,” agreed Kathy. “And no chemical aftertaste. Imagine that!”
Because I am a big fan of Ghirardelli chocolate in general, I had high hopes for their Premium Hot Cocoa ($6.99 for 10.5 oz. at Vons). They were, of course, dashed. All agreed that it was much too sweet. “The raw sweetness overtakes the cocoa,” explained Kathy. Cloying sweetness also plagued the Dark Chocolate Sauce by Torani ($5.99 for 16.5 oz. at Vons). I added the suggested two tablespoons of syrup to the hot milk and got nothing but grimaces for my trouble. “It makes the milk taste thin,” scowled Olivia. “And the artificial flavor is very aggressive,” added Kathy.
Our palates got a break from the Lake Champlain Cocoa ($11.99 for 16 oz. at Whole Foods). Solid cocoa flavor and balanced sweetness. Presentable, and certainly better than many of the less-expensive powders, but awfully expensive for what you get.
It was the last two candidates that reminded us of the joys of sipping hot chocolate. The Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate ($3.99 for a 9 oz. tin) brought squeals of delight from the gang. “Cocoa to the core!” “Super cocoa!” “Thick and delicious!” “What a great price for this much hot-chocolate pleasure,” concluded Kathy.
Finally, we broke out the spices for the Extraordinary Desserts Valrhona Cocoa Powder ($10.95 for 8 oz.), which they use in their in-house recipe for hot cocoa: 1½ tablespoons of cocoa powder, 1 tablespoon muscovado sugar, pinches of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, and two cups of hot milk. “This is gorgeous,” swooned Kathy. “Such a lovely, rich color, and such a full cocoa aroma. I like the earthy notes this time.” “I get hints of paprika and wood,” I said. “And the finish is long.” “Sophisticated,” opined Olivia.