Mexican Hot Chocolate

I went to Mexico looking for hot chocolate, but all I found was Starbucks. From narrow sidewalks in Puerto Vallarta I saw hundreds of big bowl margaritas in street cafes and styrofoam cups in the hands of crowds in coffee bars, but I didn’t see any Mexican hot chocolate. I remembered the giant pottery tumbler of warm, foamy chocolate I drank years ago at a market stall in Oaxaca—but I couldn’t find it in beachside Mexico.

Bars of Ibarra and Abuelita Mexican chocolate take up shelf space in American supermarkets, but I find this kind of chocolate too sweet and artificially flavored. Mexican hot chocolate is usually laced with canela, Ceylon cinnamon, that enhances chocolate. I prefer just enough dark sugar and a touch of vanilla to round out the drink, which I can easily make myself.

At home I select natural cocoa powder for rich chocolate flavor and less fat. Since it’s vital to include canela rather than the harsher ground cassia or American cinnamon, I need to grind the cinnamon myself. An old coffee grinder works perfectly.

Cooking deepens the flavor of cocoa, so I decide on a pudding-like base that can be prepared ahead of time and scooped into hot milk or water whenever needed. This makes the hot chocolate as simple as tipping in a glug of chocolate syrup or a dose of drinking chocolate powder yet it offers a greater wallop of flavor, less sugar and no chemicals.

Here’s Mexican Hot Chocolate for a cold winter’s nightcap, a chilly morning cup or an afternoon pickup.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

4 tablespoons natural cocoa*

3 packed tablespoons brown sugar, or grated piloncillo**

tiny pinch salt

½ generous teaspoon freshly ground canela***

1 teaspoon cornstarch

½ cup cool water

1 ½ cups hot milk

½ teaspoon vanilla

*Natural cocoa has not been “Dutched” or processed with alkali which makes it milder and darker. Hershey’s Natural Unsweetened and Nestlé Toll House are common brands.

**Piloncillo is unrefined Mexican sugar found in ¾ ounce cones.

***Canela is available in stick form wherever Mexican spices are sold. This thin, coiled cinnamon from Sri Lanka has a delicate, almost citrus-cinnamon aroma. Grind it often and use it freely. You’ll find it much nicer than common cinnamon, but you will need to use more. If you choose the stronger “apple pie” cinnamon, use only 1/8 teaspoon for this recipe.

In a small, heavy saucepan, stir together the cocoa, sugar, salt, cinnamon/canela, and cornstarch. Gradually add the water, bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until pudding-thick, about 1 minute. You should have 6 tablespoons of cocoa base.

Heat 1½ cups of milk (or use water or a mixture of water and milk) and whisk in the prepared chocolate; add vanilla. Heat as desired and create foam by whipping with an immersion blender just before serving. Makes 2 cups.

Note: to make tiny espresso cups of hot chocolate, use 1 tablespoon of the base for each ¼ cup of hot milk or water.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at


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