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Warm up your winter with a mug of chocolate
Or spice up your cup with some chili pepper
Hot cocoa comes in many forms, from blends that bring a spicy pepper bite to those made with dark or white chocolate. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Chili peppers in hot cocoa?

It might sound odd now, but when hot cocoa was first enjoyed by the Mayans, chili peppers were a common ingredient.

Jeff Hurst, a principal scientist with the Analytical Research and Services Group at The Hershey Co. in Hershey, Pa., said Aztec or Mayan warriors drank hot cocoa to prepare for battle.

"They would have ground cocoa seeds into a paste, probably, mix it with water, maybe some chili peppers, maybe some vanilla," Hurst said. "They poured it back and forth; they'd make a foam and they'd drink the foam. It was sort of bitter, frothy and spicy."

Hurst said the Mayans created hot cocoa about 4,000 years ago, and milk was added in the 1600s.

It was not until the 1800s, Hurst said, when chocolate was first shipped to Europe, that cane sugar was added to sweeten the drink.

Hurst said the chili peppers, an unpopular ingredient in Europe, were also taken out of European versions of the recipe.

Hurst said the invention of a cocoa powder processing machine in the Netherlands in 1830 also played a part in the evolution of the "classic" version of hot cocoa most Americans are used to, made with cocoa powder and mixed with sugar and milk.

Now hot cocoa comes in many forms, from blends that bring back that spicy pepper bite, are mixed with dark chocolate, or blended to make creamy white chocolate versions. There's even the simple, classic recipe found on the side of the Hershey cocoa can.

Hurst said the recipes still vary by region.

"In the U.S., we sort of have our own version of it. We tend to like it, at least I like it, with marshmallows, a little whipped cream," he said. "It's good after I've been out chopping wood."

Hurst said people living in South America "would like their hot cocoa or hot chocolate to have a bit of a bite," and still include spices. European versions tend to be hot chocolate, made from grated chocolate, rather than hot cocoa.

If you want to make hot chocolate to suit a special holiday, author Jill O'Connor said white hot chocolate, with a little peppermint extract, is the way to go.

O'Connor included a recipe for "Pepperminty White Hot Chocolate" in her most recent book, "Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey Treats for Kids."

"What I thought was that there were so many hot chocolates out there with dark chocolate, why not a white chocolate one? White hot chocolate has a mild, sweet flavor," she said.

White chocolate is perfect for tinting with food coloring, which can dress up the hot chocolate for special occasions, too.

"The fun thing about that one is you can color it different colors for different seasons," O'Connor said. "So for winter I left it white, but if you wanted to serve it on Valentine's Day you could add a little pink food coloring and serve it with whipped cream."

O'Connor said "Pepperminty Wintery White Hot Chocolate" is an easy recipe.

"You just heat the milk and add the chopped chocolate and the extract to it," she said. "And I add a tiny pinch of salt, which just kind of intensifies the flavors."

Hurst said there are health advantages to the version of hot cocoa made with cocoa powder, including a high level of antioxidants.

And, he added, cocoa has another benefit, especially on a cold day.

"I think it warms you from, sort of, the inside out," he said.