By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Crafting a cup of cocoa

Winter is the perfect time for enjoying mugs of hot chocolate, which has become one of my favorite indulgences. I’ve been having quite a nice time this year coming up with variations; peppermint, raspberry, spice, almond, filbert … .

It took awhile to settle on a favorite brand of cocoa. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been on a quest to drastically cut sugar from my diet. An added complication was that, in addition to sugar, most hot chocolate mixes include powdered milk, a problem for the lactose intolerant. Another is that chocolate is tropically grown, and child slave labor is a huge problem in the industry; it’s one of the products for which I seek fair trade certification.

Luckily, fair trade options are available. After having a lot of fun trying some, I settled on a simple solution: baking cocoa — specifically, Equal Exchange baking cocoa. Equal Exchange is a fair trade organization that makes a lot of good chocolate products, including baking cocoa, hot chocolate mix and various chocolate candies.

A spoonful of the unsweetened cocoa powder in a mug with a dash of Stevia, boiling water and almond or filbert milk to taste makes a fast, delicious, sugar- and dairy-free hot drink.

The variations are equally easy: a few drops of peppermint, almond or vanilla extract (or almond and vanilla together) makes for some wonderful options. Some days, I add a sprinkle of cinnamon, ginger or cardamom instead.

Homemade nut milks, fast and easy to make in the blender — combine 1 cup soaked nuts with 3 cups water, blend thoroughly and strain well — taste of the essence of whatever nut they’re made from, and subtly add that flavor to the chocolate. When freshly made, they are delightfully frothy. They tend to separate in the refrigerator, but can be shaken vigorously to recombine.

For raspberry, I pour the hot water over a tablespoon or two of dried raspberries and let it steep, then reheat and strain, to make the chocolate. Mash the berries while straining to extract every bit of flavor.

You could actually do the same for mint, if you have dried mint instead of extract. For that matter, if you have other dried herbs you think might go well in chocolate, you could try the same technique with them. Although I can’t think of any offhand.

If you are not avoiding sugar; here’s another idea: Bury a vanilla bean in a cup or two of sugar. The sugar will gradually absorb the fragrance and flavor, and you’ll have fancy vanilla sugar to stir into your drinks or sprinkle over desserts.

Vanilla beans are expensive as the dickens, especially bought individually; it’s cheaper to buy them in bulk online. But they can be re-used quite a bit. If, for example, you’ve been moved to use a whole one to flavor a custard for some special occasion, rinse off the milk or cream, pat the bean dry, and then use it to make your sugar. If you forget it on the countertop and it dries out, grind it in a little coffee or spice grinder to make vanilla powder, and pretend that was your plan all along.

With the extra beans from that bulk order, you could make homemade vanilla extract. Slit four or five beans to let the seeds escape into the extract. Put the beans into a half-pint jar and cover with vodka, brandy or rum. Cap tightly, label and leave to sit for six months to a year — until the fragrance is perfect. Shake once in a while. The higher the ratio of beans to alcohol, the faster it will be done.

If you do this once or twice a year, you’ll have an ongoing supply of truly wonderful homemade extract. To store vanilla beans, wrap them in waxed paper in a jar or tin in the cupboard. Don’t refrigerate; apparently, they keep better at room temperature.

A splash of dark rum is good in hot chocolate too, for an evening indulgence. Here’s to delicious things to drink.

Nicole Montesano can be reached at

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