The Ultimate Hot Cocoa Bar Guide – Zenwise The Ultimate Hot Cocoa Bar Guide – Zenwise
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The Ultimate Hot Cocoa Bar Guide

Hot Chocolate is the ultimate wintery treat. And what better way to serve it than with a Do-it-Yourself Hot Cocoa Bar?

Simply put, hot chocolate is a no brainer when it comes to the winter holidays. And a self-serve hot cocoa bar is a fun and festive way to add a little something special to any occasion, like a movie night or Super Bowl party. And if you’re on the fence about adding this to your next get together, another reason we love a Hot Cocoa Bar is that you can use so many things you already have or can easily find at your grocery store.

Making A Show Stopping Hot Cocoa

Before you can even start thinking about toppings and mix-ins, you’ll want to perfect your home-made hot cocoa, and the powdered stuff just won’t cut it.

What milk you choose as the base of your hot cocoa will likely depend on a few different factors, any dietary restrictions you or your guests may have, and what milk you prefer. If you are going the dairy route, don’t make your hot chocolate with anything less than 2% milk or else you won’t get the right flavor or consistency. [TIP: Love dairy but it doesn’t love you? A capsule of digestive enzymes before indulging will help you enjoy decadent hot chocolate without the discomfort later.]

Next to milk, the other ingredient that can make or break your hot cocoa is the chocolate you choose to use. While it really is all about what flavors you prefer, for that classic cocoa taste, we recommend chopped semi-sweet chocolate rather than dark chocolate chips for easier melting and just the right amount of bitterness to stand up to any mixins. 

For hot cocoa that makes your guests say, ‘There’s something about this cocoa that I love but can’t put my finger on…’ there are a couple of ingredients you will not want to skip, a high-quality vanilla extract (or paste/beans) and a nice sea salt. Those two ingredients will work together to elevate the richness of your chocolate and provide some extra oomph. 

If you’re looking for some more tips for customizing your hot cocoa base, here are some ideas:

  • Vegan: Oat milk and/or cashew milk provide the texture and richness that a good hot cocoa needs. For additional richness, try adding some coconut cream into the mix.
  • Peppermint: Add a teaspoon or two of peppermint extract (it’s really to your taste) to your hot cocoa.
  • Mocha: Add a shot of espresso for every 2 cups of hot cocoa.
  • Chocolate Orange: Stir the zest of one orange into your hot cocoa and let it mingle before serving.
  • Mexican Hot Cocoa: Add about a teaspoon of cinnamon and ¼ teaspoon of chili powder for every 4 cups of milk.
  • Christmas Cookie Hot Cocoa: Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla, 1 teaspoon of almond, and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon for every 4 cups of milk.


Let’s Talk Toppings

A hot cocoa bar is only as impressive as the toppings your guests have to choose from. However, have no fear, a little goes a long way and you don’t need to raid your local candy store for a hot cocoa experience that’s worthy of ‘The Gram.’ Below are some of our favorite hot cocoa toppings:

  • Marshmallows
  • Fresh Whipped Cream
  • Candy Canes and/or Crushed Peppermint Candies
  • Chocolate Chips or Chocolate Shavings
  • Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Cardamon, Chili Powder
  • Sprinkles
  • Sea Salt
  • Pretzels
  • Biscotti
  • Cinnamon Sticks


On Spiking Your Hot Cocoa

Party guests aged 21 and over may appreciate the opportunity to add some liquid cheer their cup of cocoa. Coffee or hazelnut liqueurs, Irish cream, crème de menthe, crème de cacao, spiced or vanilla rum, vodka and bourbon are all excellent complements. But, you will want to avoid raspberry or orange liqueurs if you are using a dairy milk as your base because their acids will curdle the milk.


Setting The Stage

Now that you have perfected your hot cocoa base and gathered all your toppings, it’s time to put together your self-serve hot cocoa bar. 

  1. Use a large cheese board, cutting board, bar cart or even a table for the location of your Hot Cocoa Bar. 
  2. Center a cutting board or large platter in the center of your space to provide a ‘work area’ for your guests.
  3. We like to use a slow cooker to keep our cocoa at the perfect temperature. Or you can set your hot cocoa bar up by your stove if you are making your hot cocoa on the stove. 
  4. Since most guests are right handed, we like to place our slow cooker/pot of cocoa and mugs on the left side of the work area (if possible) to prevent guests from having to continually reach once they have a mug of hot liquid in front of them.
  5. Provide your guests with a ladle to fill their cup and make sure to include a small plate or spoon rest to keep your area tidy in between each use. 
  6. Arrange your toppings in small bowls and cups across the top and right side of your work area. Be sure to provide utensils for serving the toppings. And, if you are providing whipped cream, we recommend placing the bowl of whipped cream on top of a slightly larger bowl filled with ice to keep your cream fresh and stable for your entire party.
  7. If you are providing some stronger (alcoholic) mixins, we like to place those across the top of the work area. Just be sure that there is some space between the slow cooker and the bottles.
  8. Finally, don’t forget to provide napkins for your guests. It’s easy to get a little too excited when you’re making your dream cup of hot cocoa.


Decadent Hot Cocoa


  • 8 cups of milk
  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 (12 oz) can evaporated milk*
  • ½ cup hot water
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa
  • ½ cup granulated sugar*
  • 2 cup semisweet chocolate
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt


  • marshmallows, toffee bits, coarse sea salt, mini chocolate chips, crushed peppermints, candy canes, soft peppermint sticks, whoppers, Lindt truffles, pirouette cookies, whipped cream, dark chocolate syrup, caramel sauce + whatever else you fancy

Slow Cooker Directions

  1. Add cocoa powder to a bowl, pour in warm water, and whisk until blended.
  2. Add the cocoa mixture along with the chopped chocolate, milk, heavy cream, evaporated milk, and salt to a 6-quart slow cooker or larger. If you're serving the hot chocolate solo, add in the sugar.
  3. Cook the hot chocolate on the high setting for 3-4 hours or on low for 6 hours. Low for 6 hours is what I prefer. Make sure to stir the hot chocolate every half hour to keep the chocolate from settling to the bottom.
  4. Keep on the warm setting if you're serving it hot chocolate bar style with toppings on the side. Leftover hot chocolate can be refrigerated for up to one week and warmed in the microwave before serving.

Stovetop Directions

  1. Whisk the water and cocoa powder together over medium heat until it begins to simmer. 
  2. Add in remaining ingredients and whisk until the chocolate melts.
  3. You want the chocolate to barely reach the simmer point—do not boil.  
  4. Pour the chocolate into an insulated carafe or allow guests to serve themselves from the stove.


  • Do not use fat-free evaporated milk… trust us.
  • If you are making a dairy free hot cocoa, you can sub coconut cream for the heavy cream and evaporated milk.
  • If you're serving this hot cocoa with toppings, you may want to consider cutting down on the sugar to avoid the hot chocolate being too sweet.

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