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What warms a body during the winter season better than hot chocolate?

If you're holding a holiday gathering this season for family or friends, a hot chocolate bar can set the mood for a festive party. There's really no right or wrong way to put together a hot chocolate bar—it's all about offering a variety of flavors to satisfy all tastes.

The Hot Chocolate

When prepping a hot chocolate bar, the first step is to choose what type of hot chocolate you will serve, whether it's homemade, a pre-made mix, packets, or single-serving cups.

When making your own homemade hot chocolate, consider other options besides milk chocolate, such as dark chocolate, white chocolate or even decadent flavors like milk chocolate peanut butter or gingerbread.

To keep it warm throughout the party, a Thermos will hold the heat in the hot chocolate, as will a slow cooker set on low heat.

Want to have more time to prep the rest of the hot chocolate bar? Local coffee shops like Coffee Cabin in Schererville will provide hot chocolate for your gathering so you can focus on the creative portion of the hot chocolate bar. The Coffee Cabin offers a rich hot chocolate in either dark or white, says Janey Graham, a barista at the shop. Marshmallow syrup is also available to add a campfire feel to the hot drink.

At South Bend Chocolate Company in Valparaiso and Michigan City, district manager Kristina Tressler says the store's Holiday Moly hot chocolate even comes with a holiday cookie.

The Toppings

It’s all the extra add-ins you offer your guests that will make your hot chocolate bar a hit.

For those who like a cool, crisp taste to their hot chocolate, try adding mint, Tressler says. "We use a pure mint oil and stir it in our hot chocolate," she says.

Adding cherry juice from a jar is a great addition to make a cherry jubilee, Tressler adds.

Other topping options:

• Marshmallows (all flavors)

• Chocolate chips (white, butterscotch or peanut butter as well)

• Candy canes (whole for stirring or crushed for a topping)

• Caramel

• Toffee bits

• Crushed cookies

• Cinnamon or cinnamon sticks

• Nutmeg

• Flavored syrups

• Bailey's Irish Cream or other favorite spirits

• Sprinkles

• Crushed candies such as peppermints or cinnamon disks

• Whipped cream

• Nuts

Don't forget to accessorize, too, with fun, colorful straws or even festive mugs with the rims coated in crushed cereal such as Golden Grahams or Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Plastic spoons dipped in any type of chocolate or other sauce also make a great addition to a hot chocolate bar.

The Benefits

Who knew? Hot cocoa can actually be good for you. The key is to remove the artificial ingredients often found in commercial instant hot cocoa mixes, and instead, make your own healthy version.

In fact, according to a Cornell University study, the antioxidant concentration in hot cocoa is almost twice as strong as red wine, two to three times stronger than green tea, and four to five times stronger than black tea.

The leader of the Cornell study also pointed out that more antioxidants are released when chocolate is heated. Flavonoids in the chocolate help a body process nitric oxide, which then improves blood flow, helps lower blood pressure and improves heart health.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, drinking hot chocolate can help a person think better as well, because flavonoids increase the blood flow and oxygen to the brain.

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