Press Cafe staff making hot chocolate

Is there a difference between “hot chocolate” and “hot cocoa”? Definitely. Making hot chocolate involves shaving bittersweet chocolate into milk, cream and sugar and then heating it up to melt it. Hot cocoa is made with water, sugar, and powdered cocoa with just a few tablespoons of milk or cream. You mix the cocoa and the sugar into a paste and then add the hot water.

Because it uses less milk, hot cocoa doesn’t have the luxurious mouth-feel of hot chocolate, but it can be more potently chocolatey. The higher fat content of chocolate versus cocoa give the former its richness, but also partly masks the flavor. Hot chocolate is generally less sweet than hot cocoa as well.

Cocoa beans are dried and fermented, then roasted and ground to make a thick paste called “chocolate liquor.” By adding sugar and cocoa butter to this, you make chocolate. But by expelling most of the cocoa butter in chocolate liquor under high pressure, you produce cocoa powder.

Given this information, you should be able to sort the chocolate from the cocoa drinks in the following short survey of local sources of cocoa bean-based drinks.

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Ithaca is coffee. But, not for everybody, and not all the time. If you need to relax rather than speed up, hot chocolate, or hot cocoa, contains flavonoids that improve blood flow and lower your blood pressure. A Cornell University study by Chang Yong Lee found that the antioxidant levels in a cup of hot cocoa were twice as high as those found in a glass of Merlot, and higher than black or green tea. Further, Lee noted that heat enhances the release of antioxidants. Wrapping your hands around a warm mug of cocoa isn’t just soothing, it’s good for you.

At Maté Factor, a spacious yet cozy haunt on the Commons, they serve their hot chocolate with a healthy, kid-friendly twist. Actually, their hot chocolate contains no chocolate at all. In place of the cocoa, the café substitutes carob, a plant in the pea family that has naturally sweet pods that can be easily ground and made into a powder. The Maté Factor combines the powder with evaporated cane sugar juice and water to form a house-made chocolatey syrup.

“It’s nice for children because of the lack of caffeine,” said Maté Factor manager Jason Laberge. “We have nothing against sugar, but cocoa is naturally bitter, so they have to process it to make it sweet.” Step up to Maté’s glossy wooden counter, take your pick of cow, soy or almond milk, and Laberge will steam it to a smooth consistency, add syrup to bottom of the cup, pour the milk over, and stir for an even texture. He tops it off with a hefty mound of Wegman’s whipped cream, a drizzle of sauce and a sprinkle of carob powder. Of course, if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant you can easily choose non-dairy milk and 86 the whipped cream and you’re good to go.

Maté Factor, 143 E State Street, Ithaca. Open Sunday noon to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed Saturday.

–Jaime Cone

In the quiet corner respite that is Press Café, staff members strive for the gold standard every time they craft a hot chocolate. There are no gimmicks, no extras, not even a dollop of whip cream or a mini marshmallow to be seen, but the simplicity of the drink lets the quality of the ingredients shine through, said barista Alexas Esposito. “We make our own choice syrup with organic cocoa powder and organic sugar, with twice as much cocoa powder as sugar,” she said. “It’s super basic. It’s nice that we have our own chocolate syrup because a lot of them have high fructose corn syrup in it, and so much other junk.” She said the high ratio of cocoa to sugar ensures that the drink’s not sickeningly sweet.

The formula may be basic, but getting that signature white leaf on surface takes some practice; the milk can’t be too foamy or too thick, she explained. “You want the milk to touch the bottom of the cup and then go back up so it appears.” And because they use pure organic cocoa powder that doesn’t contain milk and offer your standard soy and almond dairy alternatives, Press Cafe will happily accommodate your request for a vegan, lactose-free treat.

Press Cafe, 118 W Green St, Ithaca. Open Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

–Jaime Cone

At The Shop on East Seneca Street, they make hot cocoa with an organic cocoa powder from Regional Access and milk from Byrne Dairy. The whipped cream option uses Byrne Dairy cream and The Shop’s own gas canister; to go vegan, ask for soy milk instead of dairy.

If you’re a dark chocolate lover and you want to taste chocolate instead of sugar, The Shop’s formulation gets four stars: it’s got the bitter edge of a grown-up drink with the comfort-food element of real whipped cream. Even though it’s right downtown, the Shop has a tucked-away feel to it that encourages a long visit. People working on their laptops with The Shop’s WiFi always seem to look as if they’ve been there for hours and aren’t planning on leaving any time soon, and if you get stuck waiting in line—nearly always—that just means it’s time to slow down, and check out the art on the walls.

The Shop, 312 E Seneca St., Ithaca. Open Monday to Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

–Glynis Hart

Ithaca Coffee Company’s hot cocoa was, frankly, disappointing. You can get a good craft brew in the back of the store on East State Street at the foot of the Gateway Commons building, but the hot cocoa was cloyingly sweet. The sugar in it overwhelmed the chocolate flavor, and worse, the brew came out only lukewarm. Staff on hand did a nice job with the whipped cream (from a can), so it all looked pretty, but this is clearly not what the store is into. With several custom coffee blends and seasonal variations, Ithaca Coffee Company focuses on wholesale coffee marketing and seems to offer hot cocoa in its retail outlet only because it’s the done thing. Staff couldn’t tell us much about the product except that they use cocoa powder, sugar and steamed Byrne Dairy milk.

Ithaca Coffee Company. Tavern at Triphammer, 2255 N. Triphammer Rd. Tavern at Gateway, 311 E. Green St.

–Glynis Hart

Waffle Frolic’s hot cocoa is a winner as soon as it hits your lips. From the frothy presentation and texture to the rich chocolate taste, it is a genuine cup of hot chocolate. Manage Megan Silverstein explained the amount of care that goes into the final product.

“We make our drink chocolate here in-house from scratch,” she said. “We steam our milk with our steam wand. We pour the steamed milk over the chocolate while whisking it to insure a [balanced fusion] and we add a shot of vanilla to add sweetness to it. We use organic cocoa powder to make the chocolate, and we make simple syrup. We stiff the cocoa powder out by hand and then the salt and vanilla go into it, and then you whisk in the simple syrup. That makes the chocolate syrup that we use.”

Waffle Frolic also offers an alt-Ithaca-friendly rendition of the drink.

“It’s also all vegan,” Silverstein said, “so we can make soy hot chocolates. All of our drink options come with a vegan option. The drink chocolate has no cream or butter in it, so if we use soy or almond milk with it, it becomes a vegan hot chocolate.”

Waffle Frolic. 146 E State St (in the Commons) Open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

–Michael Nocella

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