By: Alissa Berman, Account Specialist.

When the temperature drops, most of us crave a hot drink. As a child, the best part of coming inside from playing in the winter snow was enjoying a warm cup of hot cocoa. Adults might increase coffee intake when the cold sets in. An extended coffee break with friends is such an accepted cultural experience that the Swedes have a name for it: fika. Hot drinks. Snacks. Conversation. This is a concept we can get behind!

Check out this brief history of two holiday staples: hot cocoa and fruitcake. One is famously beloved and one is infamously bewildering. The most surprising thing to note are the nuances of this tasty treat. Read on to discover if you’ve been drinking hot chocolate or hot cocoa.

Hot cocoa: a history

According to historians, this was created by the Mayans over 2,000 years ago. Chocolate is made from cocoa, the fermented seeds from the cacao tree, native to Central and South American. The Mayans ground the cocoa seeds into a paste and mixed it with water, cornmeal and chile peppers along with other spices to create an abundance of flavors. They would pour it back and forth into cups creating a foamy top but the drink was served cold (not exactly a concept we can get behind).

Another cocoa beverage was made in 1400 A.D. by the Aztecs. Aztec hot chocolate is similar to Mayan but adds vanilla to the chile pepper and achiote. What later became Mexican hot chocolate is semi-sweet chocolate, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla and usually served with churro pastries. Europeans made this drink popular after they brought it back from Mexico. Here in the United States, we drink a thinner hot cocoa, minus the spices.

Hot chocolate and hot cocoa are terms used reciprocally, but they are actually two separate types of drinks. Hot cocoa is made from cocoa powder, whereas hot chocolate is made from melted bars of chocolate containing cocoa, sugar and cocoa butter then mixed with milk, water, or cream. Hot cocoa lacks the creaminess and texture of hot chocolate, but it is more concentrated and has a deeper chocolate taste. Check out these excellent recipes for both and some books inspired by this favorite drink.

Hot Cocoa Hearts: The more time Em spends with Alex, the more she realizes that she may not be the Grinch she always thought she was.
Hot Chocolate: “A cup of hot chocolate is twice as rich in antioxidants as a glass of red wine. And, some would say, is just as intoxicating.”
Hot Chocolate: 50 Heavenly Cups of Comfort: a fascinating history of hot chocolate and lots of useful tips on how to make fabulous hot chocolate, which kinds of chocolate to use, and how to garnish the drinks, plus bonus recipes for homemade marshmallows and perfect whipped cream.
Slushy the Snowman & the Hot Chocolate Incident: Surely snowmen can’t eat Christmas cookies, or drink hot chocolate with marshmallows in, can they?
The Sweet Story of Hot Chocolate: Part of the History of Fun Stuff series. The Sweet Story of Hot Chocolate was named a 2015 NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

Fruitcake: around since the Middle Ages (literally?)

While hot cocoa or hot chocolate may be wildly accepted as a holiday dessert staple, fruitcake doesn’t have the same warm and tingly connotations. This dessert, if I dare call it that, has become the bane of many a holiday tradition. But, love it or hate, this cake (Bread? Pastry? Monstrosity?) has staying power—it dates back all the way to the Middle Ages.

Fruitcake, in its current form, is a cake featuring nuts, dried or candied fruit, spices and sometimes, it is soaked in Rum or Brandy. There is no alcohol content in this cake, though, as it fully burns off during the baking process. The standard ingredients may include plums, pineapples, dates, raisins, cherries, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds. The list is seemingly endless, and while the individual parts sound tasty enough, this is one case where the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

In the United States, people enjoy fruitcake plain, avoiding toppings such as butter/margarine or jelly. Other countries sometimes eat it with icing and decorations. In England, they tend to use this same kind of cake for weddings or anniversary celebrations. An interesting choice.

Fruitcakes are the recurring joke of the Christmas season. Nobody actually wants one, but never say so directly. After all, polite and gracious acceptance of gifts is part of the holiday season. There are endless and well-known fruitcake jokes, most notably: ‘The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.’ It’s hard to believe that in the early 20th century, companies mass produced mail-order fruitcakes and they’ve been in the business for decades. Clearly, they found something and ran with it. Causing the rest of us to run every time we spy a fruitcake.

Whether you enjoy fruitcake or regift it immediately, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. If one makes its way onto your holiday table, receive it graciously. In the spirit of holiday generosity, maybe bring your fruitcake to work…and invite colleagues to a holiday fika. Yeah. That might work.