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Death by hot cocoa

Rick Ryckeley's picture

That’s exactly what happened. In the middle of the living room, I thought I was dying.

There was no help from my brothers or sister as I coughed, gasped for breath, and ran around the room. There was only laughter; lots and lots of laughter.

At 8 years old, it surely was nice to know I could depend on them when my life was quickly fading away.

Dad really didn’t try to poison me. At least that’s what he said for years after the event. To him it was one harmless little sip of his special hot cocoa a few weeks before Christmas.

To me it was much more; it was a near death experience I’ll never forget — one of many during the seven years my three brothers, sister and me spent growing up at 110 Flamingo Street.

To be fair, it was Grandma Watson’s special recipe, “Guaranteed to warm one’s soul,” as she used to say. Don’t really know about warming the soul, but the sip I took burned all the way down to my toes. Without a doubt, I was gonna die.

Immediately I knew what had gone wrong. Dad’s special hot cocoa had no marshmallow buffers.

Using the correct marshmallow for a buffer is important, but so are the choices of cocoa and, of course the type of milk. It’s truly a labyrinth for the novice hot cocoa maker.

Have no fear, Dear Reader, I’m here to guide you through the complexity of safely making the perfect cup of chocolaty warmth for your loved ones this holiday season. Just follow these three simple steps, and any near death experience should be avoided.

First, heat the milk slowly in a pot, but not just any kind of milk. Whole milk must be used. Yes, for all you dieters out there, whole milk — not skim, not 2 percent, and certainly not nonfat.

It’s the holiday season, and it’s hot cocoa. Cocoa is loaded with calories. Trust me, each and every calorie tastes delicious. So put down that cracker. Forget your waistline for a moment and simply enjoy. After all, it’s not a diet drink.

Second, the choice of cocoa is also critical. Cocoa must be in powder form; no other form will do. After the milk heats, slowly stir in the cocoa.

Caution: pouring powder too quickly will cause huge clumps hidden throughout. This is an extremely dangerous situation for any unsuspecting child. Ever swallowed a dry clump of cocoa? Didn’t think so — not many who have have survived to tell about it.

Third, and most important is the choice of marshmallows. Jumbo ones are used for roasting around campfires, throwing at your brothers, and creating flaming torches at night. They’re too big for the cup. No more than one can fit where you can still safely drink the cocoa.

Unless, of course, you use the new jumbo coffee cup The Wife got at the original Starbucks in Seattle last week. Yep, when she walked in on me and my cocoa in her special cup, it was another near death experience. The way she looked at me, I’m lucky to still be alive.

Small multicolored marshmallows also never should be used. What they’re used for I really don’t know. Just don’t use them in cocoa.

That brings us to miniature white puffed marshmallows. These are the perfect fit to top off any hot cup of cocoa.
Be warned: the order of these three ingredients is important. Adding marshmallows, then pouring hot cocoa on top will cause the marshmallows to melt, thus rendering the all important buffer useless.

So it has been in our family for 50-plus years — the perfect cup of hot cocoa recipe — until last weekend when The Wife offered to make her family’s recipe.

It was the same as the above with an important addition. She put a handful of marshmallows in the bottom of the cup, filled it with hot milk, cocoa, and stirred. Then she added a flotilla of miniature puffed marshmallows on top for a buffer.

Dad’s coming up for Christmas in a couple of weeks and staying with The Wife and me. After dinner he usually has a special glass of eggnog with a little something extra in it, “Guaranteed to warm one’s soul.”

This year we’re having The Wife’s hot cocoa instead. Big kids, as well as small, can enjoy it — with the safety of marshmallow buffers.

[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, is in his third decade as a firefighter and has been a weekly columnist since 2001. His email is His books are available at]

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