Image: hot chocolate
Courtesy The Little Nell
At The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., one of the country's premiere ski destinations, the signature hot chocolate — made with Cacao Barry chocolate ganache and whole milk — is the perfect way to come in out of the cold.
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updated 12/23/2010 5:28:32 PM ET 2010-12-23T22:28:32

We’ve all had powdery hot cocoa — watery, only vaguely chocolaty, and occasionally crunchy with undissolved marshmallow clumps. Still, cocoa was — and is — the best thing to stir into a mug on a winter afternoon.

Today’s hot chocolate has come a long way from little packages with gritty marshmallows. From sipping chocolate flavored with secret Caribbean spices to house-roasted cocoa beans and celebrity truffle shops, America’s best hot chocolate has gone gourmet.

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Slideshow: America's Best Hot Chocolate

We’re hardly the first to revere this winter beverage. Hot cocoa was the sacred drink of choice for the 15th-century Aztec Empire: a bitter, peppery beverage that lacked selling power. But once it was transported back to Europe, milk, cinnamon, and vanilla quickly remedied the situation. Chocolate fever has gripped the Western world ever since.

Today this gourmet drink falls into two camps: hot cocoa, made from ground cocoa beans pressed to remove their butter; and hot chocolate, melted chocolate mixed with milk or cream.

Chicago’s best hot chocolate is actually hot cocoa. Chef Rick Bayless’s XOCO derives its name from the Aztec word “little sister,” and the restaurant’s bean-to-cup cocoa program sticks close to the drink’s original incarnation. Bayless was inspired by his time at the Mayordomo Chocolate Factory in Oaxaca, Mexico, where visitors design their own cocoa recipe and then watch it being milled. At XOCO, cocoa beans are roasted and refined for less than three hours, a process that brings a bright, acidic property to the cocoa. When it’s mixed with ancho chiles and served alongside a fried-dough churro, it’s as authentic a cup of Mexican chocolate as you’ll find north of the border.

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But America’s best hot chocolate isn’t limited to big cities. And many small cafés, which don’t have ready access to their own cocoa mill, prefer the European hot chocolate approach — melted chocolate bars blended with milk — inspired by time-honored recipes from across the pond. At The Little Nell in Aspen, Executive Chef Ryan Hardy created his rich, Valrhona chocolate ganache recipe after visiting the Demel café in Vienna. When dotted with house-made peppermint marshmallows, it’s the perfect après-ski quencher.

Fortunately, you can find gourmet cocoa shops all over the country. Here’s where to go for America’s best hot chocolate.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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