Carnival time is here again. We've survived another Polar Vortex. Snowflakes dance outside and there are many fun-filled outdoor events.
On a cold winter day, a warm beverage is soothing and comforting. Whether it's cocoa, chai, tea or spiced hot cider, whether you're outdoors watching the parade or home after a busy day of fun in the snow, a steaming cup of liquid warms your hands and heats you up from the inside out.
Is it hot cocoa or hot chocolate? Technically, there is a difference. Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder and sugar dissolved in hot milk. Hot chocolate is made by melting chocolate bars and combining them with hot milk.
A thermos will keep your liquids warm. (Photo — Yvona Fast)
Either way, one cup of this rich flavorful beverage contains double the antioxidants of red wine, and up to five times more antioxidants than tea. Cocoa is good both for your brain and your heart - and heat helps activate these benefits. And the milk you make it adds a boost of bone-strengthening calcium and vitamin D.
Food industry hot chocolate mixes - the kind you get in that box at the store - are full of artificial ingredients and loaded with excess sugar, both of which counteract cocoa's health benefits. And restaurant drinks are bad for both your wallet and your waistline. For example, Starbucks' Grande Cafe Mocha has a whopping 330 calories and costs about $4.
Fortunately, it's ridiculously easy to make your own hot cocoa beverages at home! You can control the ingredients, and you don't have to stop at plain old cocoa - you can make limitless flavor variations. Try a Mexican twist by adding cinnamon and chipotle, make it mocha by combining with your favorite coffee, stir in peanut butter for protein as well as flavor, add a flavored liqueur like Tia Maria or Kahlua, or add a sprig of fresh mint and top with a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Not in the mood for chocolate? Try hot spiced Chai tea. This cafe favorite is easy to make at home. Just bring milk with warm spices like cinnamon, ginger and cloves to a boil, then add teabags and steep for 10 minutes.
How about a hot coffee beverage? Specialty coffee drinks need not be the domain of coffeehouses; many can be made at home without an espresso machine. Many flavored coffee drinks (like cafe Vienna or Black Forest coffee), cafe latte or cafe mocha, can be made with brewed coffee or even instant coffee granules.
Or how about hot lemonade? This popular summer cooling beverage becomes a winter treat when you boil water with honey or sugar, then add fresh squeezed lemon juice to taste and dot with butter for a richer, more indulgent treat.
Other possibilities are mulled wine or hot spiced cider. Mulled wine is popular around the globe, with many ethnic variations depending on the wine and spices used. There was a time when every household had its own recipe for spiced hot-wine punch.
Cider is tangy, fat-free, fragrant and delicious. It can be non-alcoholic for the kids, or spiked with schnapps and applejack for grownups. Cinnamon not only gives this hot drink fragrant flavor, but has health benefits like controlling blood sugar and preventing blood clotting.
Whatever your beverage of choice, a thermos of hot liquid will not only warm you from the inside out, but help you stay hydrated while you're out and about enjoying Carnival activities. And when you come indoors from a fun-filled day in the snow, that steaming beverage will warm you back up.
Hot Spiced Cider
1 quart fresh apple cider
2 sticks cinnamon
3 4 whole cloves
1 Tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Simmer cider on the stove with cinnamon and cloves for 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in maple syrup and lemon juice. Let stand covered 5 or 10 minutes longer. Remove cinnamon and cloves. Serve piping hot in mugs. Serves 4.
Variations: add other spices, like cloves, nutmeg or allspice. Or spike by adding a half cup of brandy or schnapps.
Mother's Hot Cocoa
Compared to the commercial mixes, this version is creamier and not as sweet.
1 heaping teaspoon high-quality cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon very hot water
1 heaping teaspoon sugar (or more, if you like it sweeter)
1 pint milk (we usually use 2 percent)
various flavorings (optional)
In a medium saucepan, combine cocoa powder with hot water and blend to get a muddy paste. Add sugar and milk, and heat, stirring, until hot and steamy.
Experiment with adding various flavorings: orange rind, caramel, vanilla extract, cinnamon, chilies, cloves, ginger, mint or alcohol like Cognac or Grand Marnier.
Makes two 1-cup servings.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.