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Food Fight: Battle Hot Chocolate

Lately, our food fights have been both adventurous and, well, about food. It's been a while since we focused on comfort food and even longer since we focused on drinks. And with the horribly drizzly and cold weather this past week, Eating Our Words has wanted nothing more than a cup of hot chocolate and to stay inside.

For our money, the best hot chocolate is made at home. Our favorite recipe is from total food geek crush Alton Brown, both because it's easy and because you can keep some on hand for whenever your cravings take over. It also makes an excellent and thoughtful Christmas gift when packaged in a cute tin and paired with a festive mug.

Alton Brown's Hot Cocoa

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup cocoa (Dutch-process preferred)
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper, or more to taste
  • Hot water

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and incorporate evenly. In a small pot, heat 4 to 6 cups of water.

Fill your mug half full with the mixture and pour in hot water. Stir to combine. Seal the rest in an airtight container, keeps indefinitely in the pantry. This also works great with warm milk.

Alton's recipe uses some unusual ingredients -- cayenne pepper? cornstarch? -- but the end result is a thick, creamy, multi-layered hot chocolate that's just sweet enough with a hint of an edge. But since we don't all have Alton puttering around our kitchen, nor the wherewithal to always make our own when a craving strikes, we sought out the best hot cocoa in town from two popular coffee shops.

Coffee Groundz, 2503 Bagby

Coffee Groundz and its opponent this week both suffer from some of the same barriers: a location/appearance that belies the clientele and atmosphere inside, a parking lot that fills up far too quickly, and tables inside that are usually taken by people who feel as if free wi-fi and shelter means that they've found their new home/office-away-from-home/office. Despite this, Coffee Groundz is warm, convivial and has managed to create an almost familial community in a bland strip mall in Midtown, with nary a douchebag in sight.

The coffee shop offers two kinds of hot chocolate: regular and Mexican. We prefer the Mexican for its cinnamon and chipotle twist, but went with regular for the battle. A large hot chocolate will run you $3.20 here, but you may want to go with a small. The cocoa is definitely on the sugary side and can be difficult to finish if you don't have a serious sweet tooth. The finish is also strikingly sweet. On the other hand, it's not as thick as some cocoas and therefore doesn't coat the mouth or tongue with its sweetness and manages to not become cloying.

Inversion Coffee House, 1953 Montrose

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Inversion looks painfully pretentious from the street. It's the former site of the Houston Art League's "Inversion House," which the coffee shop pays homage to with a mural of sorts on the exterior of the corrugated metal building. But inside, the coffee shop is cozy despite its high ceilings, friendly despite the striking artwork and studious-looking med students and grad students crowding the tables.

A hot chocolate at Inversion costs a bit less -- $2.70 for a large -- and the difference between it and the Coffee Groundz cocoa is instantly noticeable. The chocolate flavor is much more muted, yet at the same time it's sharper and richer. It's like the difference between eating a milk chocolate bar and a dark chocolate bar. The Inversion cocoa is far less sweet, but it's also much thicker and has a tendency to stick around on your palate a little longer than you'd like it to.

Winner

This really comes down to personal preference: Are you more of a milk chocolate fan? Then you'd probably prefer Coffee Groundz's cocoa. More of a dark chocolate connoisseur? Inversion is the cocoa for you. Eating Our Words happens to be a dark chocolate fan (and a fan of paying less), so we slightly prefer the Inversion cocoa over Coffee Groundz, although we wish it didn't linger so long in the mouth when you're done drinking.

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