Chocolate fountains are officially passe.
For your next gathering, switch things up with a make-your-own hot cocoa bar. Start with enough mugs and cocoa for each guest, and from there offer as many toppings, add-ins and stir-ins as you can think up.
The cocoa bar can be tailored to children's parties - think marshmallows and candies - or for adult affairs, by going with schnapps and other liqueurs.
Sure, you could pick up a jumbo pack of instant hot cocoa and stir up a dozen mugs' worth, but it'd be more fun to splurge on homemade cocoa. We've included a rich cocoa recipe, made with semisweet chocolate and milk. Plan on making enough for each guest to enjoy at least two mugs.
The fun part is trolling the pantry and grocery store for a full bar of treats to complement the cocoa. Each guest can create their own perfect concoction.
And be sure to think about presentation. Pick up inexpensive plastic squirt bottles to fill with chocolate and caramel sauces, so guests can swirl the sauces and syrups onto their creations, suggested Amy Thompson, owner of Beaner's Gourmet Coffee in Buford.
For add-in ideas, try to think of flavors that often go with chocolate. In her cookbook "Chocolate Holidays," author Alice Medrich pairs chocolate with everything from peanut butter and caramel to cinnamon and coffee.
She also frequently incorporates fruits - apples, cranberries, apricots, blackberries - into her chocolate desserts, and those flavors work just as well with hot chocolate drinks.
•Candy coated: Peanut butter chips, caramel sauce
You don't need to look further than best-selling candy bars to figure out these no-brainer combinations. Customers adore the Cocoa Carmella drink at Beaner's, Thompson said. She makes the drink by mixing hot cocoa with the shop's brewed coffee and a caramel syrup, then piling on whipped cream and chocolate and caramel sauces.
"It's very, very popular," Thompson said.
•Perk it up: Instant coffee granules, brewed espresso
Coffee is a natural pairing with hot chocolate - just think of those ubiquitous cafe mocha drinks. Offer your guests a jolt by brewing up a few shots of espresso to stir into their mugs.
Or, even easier, pick up a jar of instant coffee or espresso granules, which will mix in easily.
•Boozy blends: Kahlua, butterscotch schnapps, Irish cream
Adult guests will appreciate a selection of sweet-flavored liqueurs to stir into their hot drinks.
Coffee liqueurs, such as Kahlua, pair wonderfully with hot chocolate. Irish cream, such as Baileys, and cocoa is another popular combination. Almost any flavor of schnapps, from peppermint to raspberry to butterscotch, would also be appropriate.
•Fancy fruits: Raspberries, orange zest
Raspberries and oranges are traditionally paired with chocolate. Whole raspberries look pretty floating in mugs of cocoa, and finely grated orange zest imparts a subtle citrus flavor after steeping in the hot chocolate.
•Fluffy fun: Marshmallows, whipped cream
Children and kids at heart love to float marshmallows in their hot chocolate. Choose a variety of sizes, from mini to jumbo, for the cocoa bar. Whipped cream is a slightly more chic topping. You can whip up your own, or purchase a spray can of whipped cream topping.
•Spice it up: Cinnamon sticks, ground ginger
Cinnamon sticks are perfect, because guests can use them to stir their own concoctions. But other spices also pair well with hot cocoa. Just pull some ginger, nutmeg or allspice out of the pantry and pour the ground spices into pretty glass dishes.
•Minty mixtures: Peppermint sticks, Altoid
Candy canes are everywhere this time of year, so pick up a package and use them as inexpensive drink stirrers. The canes will dissolve into really hot drinks. For an even stronger addition, let guests dissolve Altoids peppermint candies into their beverages.
Very Rich Hot Chocolate
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
11⁄2 cups boiling water
11⁄2 cups milk
Whipped cream, for serving
Place the chocolate in a small saucepan. Pour a little of the boiling water over the chocolate and stir until the chocolate is melted. Add the rest of the boiling water and the milk. Heat the mixture, whisking constantly, until it is hot but not boiling. For the best flavor and texture, avoid exceeding 180 F. Serve immediately or set aside and reheat gently before serving.
Makes 12 servings.
Source: "Chocolate Holidays: Unforgettable Desserts for Every Season," by Alice Medrich (Artisan, $15.95).