Photos: (From top left, clockwise) Franck Fife/AFP, Gina Ferrazi/Los Angeles Times, Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/MCT, Julia Ewan/The Washington Post, Franck Fife/AFP, Cristina Fletes-Boutte/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT via Getty Images

In How Do You Take Yours?, The Takeout solicits staff and outside expertise for secret tips on improving one dish.

As we live in Chicago and winters here are a stupid kind of cold, we’d rather not venture outside and instead, stay in and make frothy mugs of hot chocolate. We weren’t satisfied with the Swiss Miss instant stuff, so we asked some of our favorite chefs for advice, as well as our internal staff, several of whom are unabashed hot-chocolate enthusiasts. Leave your tips in the comments section below.

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Dana Cree, The Publican pastry chef, Chicago

If you’re going to use a cocoa-based hot chocolate, you’ll need to whisk the cocoa powder with the sugar to create a paste first. Cocoa powder is high in fat, so you have to melt it first or else you end up with those little clumps in your drink. To do that, warm up some milk, and add a little at a time to cocoa powder and sugar, whisking it together until it turns into a paste. Only then should you add the rest of the warm milk, and you’ll want to whisk that together as well.

Kristia Paz, One Eared Stag pastry chef, Atlanta

When making hot chocolate, I usually make a big batch of dry mix to always have around. I mix cocoa powder, sugar, and malted milk powder (for extra flavor) together, and when I’m ready to make hot chocolate, I add it to milk and heat it up. If I want a richer indulgence and have extra ganache around, I add a spoon of that as well. I usually like to buzz hot chocolate with an immersion blender really quick to break up any clumps, plus it forms a nice froth at the top.

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Mark Welker, Eleven Madison Park/The NoMad executive pastry chef, New York

Simplicity is key! Four ingredients. Any more = blasphemy. First you take milk and water and bring it to a simmer on medium heat in a small sauce pan. Then you add whole chocolate pieces and salt to the pan, then blend to frothy with a hand blender. Strain, finish with marshmallows. Then down it!

Photo: Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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Edward Kim, Ruxbin/Mott Street executive chef, Chicago

Stick with good-quality chocolate and whole milk, and forget the cocoa powder. I also like to add a cinnamon stick, which gives greater depth of flavor and has a warming sensation that’s especially pleasant on a brisk night. First you’re going to need a couple of high-quality dark chocolate bars (around 3-6 ounces.). I like somewhere between 65-75 percent cocoa. The ratio I like to use is 3 ounces of chocolate for every 8 ounces of milk. Heat up a pint of milk in a pot to the point where it starts to steam, but not boil, add a whole cinnamon stick, and let it steep in the warm milk. Break up the chocolate bar into little squares, and add it to the milk and whisk it in until it’s homogenous and frothy. At the end, add a pinch of salt and maybe a tablespoon or less of raw sugar, depending on how big of a sweet tooth you have.

Maggie Scales, Link Restaurant Group executive pastry chef, New Orleans

We make a rich chocolate sauce with Valrhona chocolate and cocoa powder, as well as heavy cream, whole milk, and sea salt (to bring out the flavor of the chocolate). We use that as a base for the hot chocolate. We steam whole milk to order and add that to the chocolate sauce to make an airy and rich hot chocolate. Topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream. Add a little cayenne and ground cinnamon to make a Mexican hot chocolate. Add a teaspoon of ground peppermint candies to make a peppermint hot chocolate.

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Jennifer Paul, Canoe pastry chef, Atlanta

I like my hot chocolate with a little twist. I first heat 2 cups of whole milk just to a simmer on the sides of the pot. Then in two mugs I put 2 teaspoons cocoa powder, 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract, and 2 tablespoons white chocolate. Once the milk is warm, I add just about 2 tablespoons into each mug and stir until the cocoa powder and white chocolate are dissolved. Then I add the rest of the milk to each mug and stir once more. The white chocolate sweetens the hot chocolate without adding sugar and adds a nice richness.

Kevin Pang, The Takeout editor-in-chief

Your choice in milk, it goes without saying, is important in constructing a hot chocolate. Whole milk by itself is fine, but I love adding both evaporated and condensed milk to achieve that rich, sweet cream flavor. Condensed milk is naturally sweet, so I add a tablespoon in a 16-ounce hot chocolate and leave out the sugar. I’m a bit more liberal in adding evaporated milk, which not only accentuates the dairyness of the hot chocolate, but makes it silkier on the intake.

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Gwen Ihnat, The A.V. Club assistant editor

Photo: Hersheys.com

I am a purist: I often swipe recipes from the backs of boxes and cans because I figure Campbell’s and Pillsbury’s test kitchens know best about what their own products can accomplish. So my perfect hot-chocolate recipe comes right from the back of the Hershey’s classic cocoa tin: 4 cups milk, 1/2 cup cocoa, 1/4 cup sugar. Dash salt. Then I doctor it up with the fancy vanilla and cinnamon I got from my spice connection, Caitlin PenzeyMoog. If I want to slosh a bit of cream in there to cool it off, hey, it’s (still) a free country. Best part is, this recipe also works magic just by adding a bit of cornstarch, transforming the best hot chocolate into the best chocolate pudding ever with the turn of a whisk. Since Chicago this year has already brought us February weather in early December, unapologetic gallons of hot chocolate is one of the few upsides.

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Caity PenzeyMoog, The A.V. Club assistant editor

Photo: Getty Images

Resist the temptation to slosh vanilla into your hot chocolate. Vanilla is roughly one-third alcohol, and you’re not cooking your hot chocolate enough for that alcohol to burn away (indeed, you shouldn’t even let your cocoa reach boiling temperature). Instead, use an inch of vanilla bean, cut open. This allows the tiny vanilla specks to enter the hot chocolate, imparting their flavorful goodness, without any alcohol. My family’s method is using a razor blade to slice open a vanilla bean length-wise. Remove the bean before serving. If you don’t have any vanilla beans, use a very small amount of vanilla extract. Same goes for cinnamon: One small pinch is enough for a whole batch. (I prefer to use a cinnamon stick, which also doubles as a stirring device for when the chocolate settles halfway through your cup.) Others have already mentioned salt. I’m a fan of using a high-fat milk for more delicious creaminess, and a glass of whole-milk hot chocolate with a little vanilla bean, a small pinch of salt, and a cinnamon stick is my go-to cup. If you’re going nuts for a holiday party and want to impress, build on this core recipe. Schnapps, Grand Marnier, mini marshmallows, an orange twist, peppermint stick, or dollop of whipped cream will all add some wow factor.

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