A long time ago, what we know as hot cocoa was a cold mixture of ground cocoa beans, chili peppers, and water flavored with spices, wine, or ground almonds. The key ingredient was the cocoa bean, which was thought to confer stamina and power. Spanish explorers in the 14th and 15th century introduced the pungent mixture to the continent of Europe. Being of more delicate sensibilities, the Europeans heated it and added sugar to soften the chocolate intensity-and hot chocolate as we know it (more or less) was born.
Over the years, hot chocolate was further refined: the chilies, almonds, and wine were eliminated; milk was added; and the sugar content raised. As hot chocolate increased in popularity, instant versions were introduced-thin, watery imitations of the real thing. Most pair cheap chocolate with artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils, and other dubious ingredients. That's no way to treat an ancient beverage revered by the Aztecs.
Happily, you can still find organic, additive-free blends that brew up as creamy and rich as a melted chocolate truffle. Some of our favorites:
DagobaOrganic Chai Drinking Chocolate combines dark cacao powder with cane sugar, ground ginger, and other chai-tea spices-plus tiny bits of unsweetened dark chocolate for a more authentic taste. Also available in unsweetened, pure dark chocolate, for purists.
What we love: The warming spices and bits of unsweetened dark chocolate.
Serving suggestion: Whisk bits of minced, crystallized ginger into whipped cream, and drop a dollop on top.
Equal Exchange Organic Spicy Hot Cocoa. This delicious blend of cocoa powder, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper provides a modern take on the Aztec classic. For milder tastes, there's an equally delicious regular cocoa.
What we love: The all-organic ingredients that come from small-scale farmers in the Dominican Republic and Paraguay.
Serving suggestion: Add a cinnamon stick for stirring and garnish with ground almonds, Aztec-style.
Navitas NaturalsOrganic Raw Cacao Powder. Made from raw beans dried at low temperatures and then ground, this powder is sugar-free, so you can add the healthy sweetener of your choice.
What we love: It's raw and organic, and has a complex, fruity flavor that tastes just like the bean.
Serving suggestion: Brew it with coconut or almond milk, and sweeten with raw organic honey. Add spices to approximate the original version.
Ah!LaskaOrganic Cocoa Non-Dairy Chocolate Mix. It's ready-to-go and dairy-free. Just add hot almond milk, rice milk, or other liquid of your choice for an easy, kid-friendly alternative to conventional instant cocoa mixes.
What we love: It's organic, quick-dissolving, and dairy-free.
Serving suggestion: Add raspberry syrup, and float mini-marshmallows on top.
RapunzelOrganic Cocoa Powder is made with cocoa beans from farmers' cooperatives in the Dominican Republic and Bolivia. It's straight-up chocolate, so you can add the sweetener of your choice.
What we love: It's 100 percent organic, and the cocoa beans are grown and purchased through the Hand in Hand fair trade program.
Serving suggestion: Brew it with whole milk and turbinado sugar, add a few drops of peppermint oil, top with a dollop of whipped cream, and sprinkle with crushed peppermint candies.
Green & Black'sOrganic Hot Chocolate Mix. It's made with a blend of dark chocolate, raw cane sugar, and cocoa powder pressed from the same beans as the chocolate.
What we love: It has the same "wow" flavor intensity as dark chocolate-plus, it's organic.
Serving suggestion: Brew with your choice of milk, sweeten with honey, and add 1/2 teaspoon orange zest.
Cocoa is available in supplement form (try ReserveAge Organics CocoaWell), as well as powders. Medicinal plant expert Chris Kilham, author of several books on natural health including Medicine Hunting in Paradise, advises choosing cocoa that is not dutched (alkalized), as this greatly reduces its phenolic compounds and antioxidant value. "Look for a pure product that's certified organic," says Kilham. Cocoa is safe in large amounts. However, Kilham recommends dosages of at least 2 capsules, a heaping tablespoon of powder added to a blender drink, or half a dark-chocolate bar (with at least 70 percent cocoa content).
8 great ways to use cocoa powder
High-quality cocoa powder makes more than just a delicious beverage. Some other ways to use it:
1 | Blend frozen cherries, cocoa powder, and the milk and sweetener of your choice in a food processor for a chocolate-cherry smoothie.
2 | Combine cocoa powder, dates, and macadamia nuts in a small food processor, and process until the mixture forms a ball. Shape into bars for a DIY raw energy treat.
3 | Add cinnamon, ground ginger, and a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder to hot oatmeal for a spiced chocolate breakfast treat.
4 | Purée with coconut milk, raw cacao nibs, and a sweetener of your choice, and freeze in an ice cream maker for dairy-free ice cream.
5 | Mix with organic sugar and cinnamon, pour into a shaker, and sprinkle on buttered toast for a chocolate twist on cinnamon toast.
6 | Combine in a blender with avocado and raw honey, and process until thick and creamy for a raw chocolate pudding.
7 | Add cocoa powder and chopped chipotles to bean chili for a deep, spicy flavor.
8 | Mix cocoa powder with brown sugar, salt, pepper, chipotle powder, cumin, and brown sugar, and use as a rub for meats before grilling.