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Holiday Hot Mocha: Heat, sip and be merry

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Some of the best times during the holiday season come when friends gather together to share food, play games, sing carols, nibble sweet Christmas treats and sip on special beverages concocted especially for the occasion.

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My mom was known for the hot buttered rums she served to holiday guests. Well before friends were due, she blended together a thick, rich mixture of butter, vanilla ice cream and lots of sugar, all seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon. She stored the batter in the freezer. At serving time, the sweet goop went into mugs with hot water and rum. The big plastic pail of hot buttered rum batter would last through the holiday season.

My dad always made his pre-holiday trip to the liquor store to buy his favorite brandy along with kahlua and crème de cocoa. He would make everyone happy with his blend of three alcohols and hot coffee topped generously with whipped cream.

My father-in-law relished the smile and the frothy mustache his Tom & Jerry drinks put on the faces of his friends and family as they imbibed on the foamy alcoholic beverage he made himself.

I liked to stock my freezer with lime sherbet, my pantry with cans of pineapple juice and the extra refrigerator with several big bottles of carbonated lemon-lime drink. That's all I needed to create a cold, refreshing punch to serve at caroling parties.

Yes, food gets a lot of special attention during the holiday season. But it's nice to have a special beverage to serve along with the eats.

If hot cocoa is your favorite winter warm-up, you can jazz it up during the holidays by turning it into mocha.

Holiday Hot Mocha is a not-too-sweet beverage to sip, whether at the beginning or the end of a holiday celebration. Unsweetened cocoa powder and instant coffee granules bring depth of flavor to hot milk. Evaporated milk makes the drink velvety and smooth. Sugar -- not too much -- brings perfect balance to chocolate and coffee.

Even those who are not coffee drinkers will enjoy this hot beverage. The coffee doesn't jump out at you. It lingers in the background, bringing complexity to a simple drink.

Because Holiday Hot Mocha is not sweet, it is the perfect choice to serve with a tray of Christmas cookies.

The Hot Mocha mixture can be heated, brought to room temperature and stored in a bottle in the refrigerator. Individual servings can be heated in mugs in the microwave. If you are serving several at a time, heat all of the coffee-spiked hot cocoa in a saucepan on the stove. And never, never, never think about saving calories by leaving off the dollop of whipped cream. Real whipped cream is a must for this drink.

A bottle or jar of Holiday Hot Mocha makes an appreciated hostess gift when packaged with some cinnamon sticks and maybe even a couple of holiday mugs. Add directions for serving and be sure to let the hostess know the liquid needs to be refrigerated.

When you're ready, just heat, sip and be merry.

Holiday Hot Mocha

6 tablespoons cocoa

2 tablespoons instant coffee granules or espresso powder

1/2 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk

3 cups milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup whipping cream

Cinnamon sticks

In a heavy 2-quart saucepan, combine cocoa powder, instant coffee granules, sugar and salt. Gradually whisk in the evaporated milk. Place saucepan over medium heat on stove. Continue to whisk until the cocoa powder is dissolved. Add milk and vanilla and continue to whisk over the heat until mixture is steaming. Do not boil.

In a 1-quart bowl, beat whipping cream until soft peaks form.

To serve, pour hot mocha into individual mugs. Add a cinnamon stick. Top each serving with a dollop of whipped cream. Makes about 5 cups.

Tips from the cook

--If a more potent cup is your pleasure, just add a generous splash of coffee-flavored liqueur.

--A mixture of equal parts powdered sugar and cocoa powder adds a nice touch when sprinkled over each mug of Hot Mocha at serving time.

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