I've said this for a long time: there is a LOT of bad hot chocolate out there, folks.
It ranges from the Swiss Miss packets of dirt that have been sitting there for god-knows-how-long, to the chemical-laden plastic tubs of Nesquik made from anything but actual chocolate, to the tubes of 12-ingredient Hershey syrup (first one being HFCS, last being artificial flavoring) to that stuff that came out of a machine at the local diner when we were kids (which seemed like magic, but most of us just wanted the artificial whipped cream sprayed on top), to the garbage preservative-laden 'chocolate' syrups used by nearly every barista in America thanks to the disrespect for high quality, authentic ingredients in most cafes (disagree? well how many of you make sure your coffee is coming from organic beans? oh, you're just grabbing whatever they give you whether or not the beans were soaked in pesticides? well, there ya go.).
When I was a kid in the early 80s, I grew up in a household where, every Sunday, my mom would get out the china and make 'fancy breakfast'. Basic breakfast items, but on nice dishes and with nice hot beverages. My stepfather would pull out the screamingly loud espresso machine (so loud he wore his huge earmuffs used for hunting when preparing the coffee...and we all stayed out of the kitchen), and my mom would make homemade hot cocoa with heavy cream on the stovetop, with that perfect amount of skin forming on top at the very end. It was the best.
I always tried to recreate it over the years, even when I was dairy-free with cashew or almond or soy milk, and while it's all been tasty, I've developed a recipe that has become ICONIC in our household...and is way easier on the tummy than using whole cow's milk, heavy cream, etc. It has four non-negotiable ingredients:
Goat Milk Goat milk can now be found at a majority of grocery stores, not just specialty or green grocers, and while it's at a more premium price? You drink less of it. It's also not a 'drinking milk'. (Honestly, cow's milk was never meant for drinking as it was marketed 100 years ago by the cattle industry, and over 65% of the American population has some form of lactose intolerance because, well, we're not baby cows.) Goat milk is a perfect alterative, avoids factory farm cruelty (Meyenberg's, the most commonly available brand at stores, is a co-op of 25 farmers raising grazing goats), and if you support a local farmer in buying raw goat's milk, even better (this is actually how we first started out with our neighbor selling us several gallons when I wanted to try my hand at cheesemaking and needed unpasteurized goat's milk to do it)! It's also higher in calcium, vitamin A & C, potassium, magnesium and is EASY on the tummy compared to cow's milk. But for hot cocoa? It's gorgeously rich in flavor, and completely changes the game for this drink...even their lower-fat version. NOTE: if you are vegan, you can use an organic hazelnut milk (cashews & almonds are wildly overfarmed) which allows the chocolate to shine through, unlike soy - but it won't taste even close to rich.
Organic Vanilla While you can buy good quality organic vanilla at the store, I always recommend grabbing a bottle of cheap organic vodka and ordering some organic vanilla beans online and making it in bulk at home. Plus, you can use the spent vanilla pods to make vanilla sugar, which is priceless. A half teaspoon per mug should do it.
Organic, Fair Trade Cocoa Again, non-negotiable. It seems obvious, but a lot of folks - like baristas - will go cheap on the main flavor of the hot cocoa (or cafe mocha, for that matter) and use some slimy chocolate syrup with multiple ingredients. Nope. All you literally need is good, organic cocoa. Equal Exchange is nice, and Valrhona has an organic now available which is a lovely splurge. And these makers? They don't support child labor, they don't cheat farmers, and they create products that taste like chocolate is supposed to. I recommend one table-spoon (i.e., soup spoon dollop rather than measuring spoon) per mug of cocoa. NOTE: avoid cocoa that is enriched with other ingredients, even organic, as the taste is not the same.
Local Honey Sugar is a big no-no when making this, and is far over-recommended for cocoa. Honey all the way. And nothing that comes in a plastic bear-shaped container. Get honey made locally in your area, whether at your grocer or at a local farmer's market or if you are fortunate, from yours or your neighbor's hive, which ensures its purity AND supports our local pollinators (and their environmentss). Again, one table-spoon per mug of cocoa.
Whisk on low to medium heat til fully combined, then let sit on low for 4-5 minutes. It will often develop that lovely skin, but either way, that low 'n' slow method will let the flavors integrate super gorgeously.
If you want to go gangbusters you can sprinkle it with a tiny pinch of cinnamon, cardamom, clove, etc., or go the 'drinking chocolate' route with a bit of arrowroot as thickener, or even melt in half a bar of chopped, organic dark chocolate as well...stuff we call 'special occasion cocoa' in our house.