December 12 is National Cocoa Day

(CNN) -- Cuckoo for cocoa? December 12 is National Cocoa Day!

The weather outside may be frightful, but cozying up with a mug of hot cocoa can make the day more delightful.

The Mayans are first credited with cultivating the cacao bean to brew xocoatl, an unsweetened version of modern-day hot chocolate. Much later in the 17th century, Spanish doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma published the first recipe as an elixir, adding different spices to treat a number of ailments. Even President George Washington washed down his breakfast of cornmeal hoe cakes with a cup of hot chocolate.

Even though "hot chocolate" and "hot cocoa" are often used interchangeably, purists stress that there is a difference. Hot chocolate is made from mixing heated water or milk with melted chocolate pieces, while hot cocoa is made from cocoa powder and warmed water or milk.

In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten patented his process of extracting some of the cocoa butter from the beans, leaving behind a cocoa powder with a reduced fat content. He added alkaline salts to the cocoa powder so that it would dissolve more easily with liquid. The final product is "Dutch-process" or "Dutched" cocoa power. An added advantage to having a naturally lower fat cocoa powder is that you can pile on the marshmallows and whipped cream!

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