Strephon sat bereft. His dairy maid, his sweet Swiss miss had failed him. Nestled in his hands like a faded carnation long deserted by sweet scent, yet treasured still for its memory lay his grail. A perfect, white, porcelain vessel, translucent and fragile seeming. Yet, it was empty and thus robbed of true perfection. Vacant of that fragrant elixir of which only his Celia had known the brewing. She, who had promised to teach their maid, Alba, the magic of the long handled copper pot and had forgot. She, beautiful and faithless, who had run off with the brush salesman from Hershey....
Strephon was not familiar with commercial hot cocoa mixes. Not that they would necessarily have assuaged his grief at the loss of Celia's cocoa brewing prowess. These powders are comprised of sugars, cocoa, and often flavorings as well as dry milk solids so they can be stirred into either hot water or milk, and may contain as well extraneous other things such as lecithin. The better powders, such as Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate and cocoa, are very chocolatey and are made to be stirred to taste into hot milk. Like the best homemade cocoa, they result in a rich, smooth, robustly chocolate experience without being thick (the primary difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate is the intensity one can get without increasing viscosity).
These finer mixes often come in any number of specialty flavors as well. The lesser powders are quite shockingly bad in comparison to well made hot cocoa or its near cousin, hot chocolate. The resulting liquid from a pouch of the add to water and stir briskly variety is usually thin and overly sweet, with an exceedingly understated chocolate flavor balanced by an overprocessed taste which tends to cling greasily to the mouth.
Despite its mediocrity, the appeal of instant-add-to-water hot cocoa mix is, of course, its relatively inexpensive convenience. The good stuff intended to be mixed into milk tends to be at least four times the cost, and making it from scratch comes up against a seemingly insurmountable problem. Cocoa powder is extremely fine and resists mixing into liquid. If you've ever made hot cocoa from scratch at home, you'll recall the process: mix the cocoa with the sugar, add a few drops of milk, stir until it forms a paste, add hot milk and stir until the paste mixes with the milk. Not difficult, but certainly not convenient for, say, a dim office canteen stocked with a microwave and a water cooler.
But wait. A microwave....
If the only things keeping you in a torrid affair with Swiss Miss are the dehydrated marshmallows and the convenience, I have a much tastier solution for you. You see, there's a trick for getting cocoa to dissolve readily into hot liquids.
yclept's eventually instant hot cocoa mix
Note: this is messy at first and requires patience, but not much effort. You can use the resultant mix right away, but it will not readily mix into hot milk (and thus be instant) until at least 2-3 weeks have passed. Until then, you'll just have to do it the old fashioned way.
You will need a high quality cocoa powder you like, whether dutched or natural or a blend. I usually use Ghirardelli's unsweetened. You will also need dark brown sugar. It must be dark brown sugar, not light brown. Make sure you have a clean glass jar or other air tight container with a close fitting lid large enough for your cocoa mix.
Now, measure out quantities of the cocoa and brown sugar by volume, remembering to pack the brown sugar firmly when measuring. I use 50/50 cocoa to brown sugar as I like my hot cocoa to be strongly chocolatey. If you like your hot cocoa lighter but sweet, reduce the percentage of cocoa. If you like your hot cocoa light but not too sweet, use 50/50 and just add less to your milk.
Next, mix the cocoa and sugar together in a bowl. Then, and this is very important, sift together the cocoa sugar mixture into another bowl or onto a piece of waxed paper. I use a wire strainer as I haven't a sifter, and it's a bit time consuming but easy enough. This is to remove any lumps of sugar or cocoa and evenly distribute both.
Then, pack your jar or container as full as possible with the mixture. Tap the jar repeatedly against the table to make the contents settle, and fill some more. Do this until the jar is well and thoroughly full. Cap tightly and store away for several weeks. At the end of three or so weeks, the cocoa will have absorbed just enough moisture from the molasses in the brown sugar and will dissolve readily into hot liquids.
To add flavors to the mix, such as vanilla or mint, flavor the sugar prior to adding the cocoa. Either use products such as vanilla powder or sugar, or add a few scant drops of extract to the sugar and mix to blend it evenly. The brown sugar already adds treacly overtones to the beverage, so I generally leave it plain. If I add things, I add them after I make a cup.
Use the mixture to taste, ideally with fresh milk, although I find the caramelly cooked flavor of boxed UHT-milk by such companies as Parmalat to be appealing in this context as well. While it runs expensive, such milk serves when one hasn't a refrigerator on hand. Of course, a thermos works just as well. I use about two heaping tablespoons for an average mug of milk. A bit of cream or half-and-half makes for a decadent cup, as does a wee dram of something stronger. Just make sure to serve your cocoa piping hot. Tepid cocoa is just not as good.
I've also used a teaspoon in strong mint tea. It can be very satisfying when one isn't in the mood for something too sweet or rich. The only caveat is, cocoa falls out of suspension in water very quickly, so the dregs of the cup will be sludgy.
Oh, still wondering about the marshmallows? Buy a bag of fresh ones; it's not like they'll spoil quickly or need refrigeration. I've made marshmallows in the past and I can tell you that the magic of fresh marshmallows beats stale marshmallows any day, even dehydrated ones. Get the milk hot, mix in the hot cocoa mix, top with a bunch of marshmallows and then microwave for about 10-15 more seconds. The marshmallows, if fresh, will melt into sweet foam.