Most people use the terms "hot chocolate" and "hot cocoa" interchangeably. They're both hot and chocolatey, so they're the same, right? Well, not exactly.
We've all tried classic hot cocoa. We can probably all agree that it's quick and easy to make, and that it's warming on cold winter days. We can probably also argue about whether or not it's better with mini-marshmallows, whipped cream or a candy cane.
However, things get stickier than spilled cocoa as soon as we try to hash out what hot cocoa actually is and isn't.
Technically speaking, hot cocoa and hot chocolate are two very different beverages. Hot cocoa comes from a powder, while hot chocolate is (once again, technically speaking) what many call "drinking chocolate" or "sipping chocolate". It's made from chopped bits of chocolate or small chocolate pellets that are melted (slowly and painstakingly) and then blended with milk, cream and/or water. True hot chocolate tends to be much denser and richer than its powdery relative.
Interestingly enough, some Americans are repulsed by this more European beverage because it is so rich. However, I think this has more to do with American ideas of beverage sizes. Europeans tend to drink hot chocolate in small mugs or demitasse cups, while Americans are accustomed to oversized mugs for their hot drinks.
I, too, would be disgusted by the idea of drinking a huge mug of (basically) melted chocolate, but I find that drinking chocolate is a wonderfully satisfying winter drink when served in smaller quantities.
Drinking chocolate is increasingly available in American cities. If you have yet to try it or if you simply want to know how to make it at home, check out my guide to making drinking chocolate.
Just remember when serving: smaller is better.