Sunday, October 1, 2017

An ecofrugal homemade cocoa mix

Since I work from home, it's easy for me to fix myself an afternoon snack every day (usually a bowl of popcorn). For Brian, however, noshing on the job poses more of a problem. Most days he's fine between lunch and dinner, but occasionally his blood sugar takes a dive and he needs a little something to get him through the afternoon. Unfortunately, he's found that he can't keep candy or any other kind of goodies in his desk drawer, because he can't resist munching on them, and then they're not there when he really needs them. So for a while, he had to rely on vending-machine snacks at around 60 cents a pop.

But a couple of years ago, we hit on a solution. I'd been given a gift of some fancy hot chocolate mix for Christmas, and while I liked it, I found I wasn't going through it very fast. It wasn't that much better than my regular homemade cocoa, and it wasn't any easier to make, so I kept saving it for a special occasion that never came. So I offered the mix to Brian to take to work as an emergency blood-sugar booster. This turned out to be just the ticket: it was easy enough to brew up a cup if he needed one, but that extra bit of work was enough to keep him from dipping into it at other times.

So, for the past couple of years, whenever he ran out his supply of cocoa mix, I'd pick up another container for him. We tried the chocolate-mint hot cocoa from Trader Joe's (okay, but not his favorite) and, more recently, the organic hot cocoa mix from Equal Exchange, which was sold at our local Ten Thousand Villages store. It was a bit pricey, but since he didn't go through it very fast, it seemed like a reasonable splurge.

Recently, however, our Ten Thousand Villages store closed down (waaah), leaving us looking around for a new brand to try. Unfortunately, the offerings at the local supermarket were pretty limited. Basically, we could choose either a fancy hot chocolate mix that came only in individual packets, which we deemed both too pricey and too wasteful, or Swiss Miss in a canister, which would probably serve the purpose, but didn't seem like much of a treat.

At this point, Brian decided to take matters into his own hands and try mixing up a hot cocoa mix from scratch. He checked out a variety of cocoa mix recipes on the Web, and they all seemed to have the same basic ingredients—dry milk, sugar, cocoa powder, and sometimes corn starch as a stabilizer. But most of them were missing one key ingredient: vanilla. The only ones he could find that included it called for "vanilla powder," which is an ingredient we've never seen in stores and weren't about to send away for just for this purpose.

Fortunately, my husband is a trained chemist. He was able to come up with a protocol (that's what scientists call a recipe, apparently) for turning our homemade vanilla extract into a form that could be used in a dry mix. He's still tinkering with the proportions, but here's his current protocol:
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c powdered milk
3/8 c cocoa powder
1 Tbsp corn starch
Put the sugar in a bowl and sprinkle the vanilla onto it. Allow to dry for about 2 hours, then stir it with a fork. Place the vanilla sugar and the rest of the ingredients in a food processor (NOTE: Brian used our Freecycled Magic Bullet) and grind to a fine powder.
You can then store this and use it just like a commercial hot cocoa mix, tweaking the proportions to suit your taste. Brian prefers to make it into what he calls "the cocoa equivalent of espresso," adding two heaping teaspoons to around half a mugful of hot water, but the same amount for a full mug would probably give you a standard-strength mixture.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that the ingredients for a batch of this come to about $2.25, using organic cocoa (purchased in bulk from Dean's Beans), organic sugar (from Costco), and our homemade vanilla extract. That works out to about 10 cents per serving. By contrast, the Starbucks hot cocoa mix from Costco would cost around 32 cents per serving, and the snacks from the office vending machine around 60 cents. Combine this bargain price with the organic ingredients and the reusable packaging, and you've got an ecofrugal afternoon snack that any cubicle dweller—well, at least one who isn't a vegan or lactose-intolerant—can love.

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