We Americans generally think of hot chocolate as a drink made from a commercial cocoa mix and boiling water for children after they've been out in the cold too long -- if we think of it at all. Such should not be the case.

In France, milk and cream are used for making hot chocolate. In Vienna, whipped cream is a mandatory garnish. In Russia and Brazil, coffee is added to the milk. And in Mexico, where the drink originated, cinnamon and orange zest are used to flavor hot chocolate.

America's unique contribution to the world of hot chocolate is the use of marshmallows as the garnish.

At its best, hot cocoa or hot chocolate is a soothing, full-flavored drink, rich with milk or cream and distinctive in its chocolate flavor. The best hot cocoa is made from homemade Hot Cocoa Mix (recipe follows) and boiling milk or half-and-half.

But why would you want to make your own hot-cocoa mix? The simple answer is so that you can adjust the flavor balance to your own liking. When you make your own mix, you can use a fine-quality dutch-process cocoa and sweeten your supply as desired -- for every cup.

In the Hot Cocoa Mix recipe, the proportions of cocoa to sugar to milk powder produce a drink with a rich-but-not-overwhelming chocolate flavor that is lightly sweetened. The powdered milk gently enriches the flavor and allows the use of boiling water when there isn't any milk or cream left in the refrigerator. For a light chocolate flavor, use only two cups of cocoa. For a sweeter drink, add another cup of confectioners' sugar.

After preparing a full recipe of Hot Cocoa Mix, make one serving and taste it. You can add more cocoa orsugar to the mix at that point to give it the flavor balance and sweetness preferred. If you always plan to make hot cocoa with boiling water, add an extra 1 to 2 cups of powdered milk to the mix.

Hot cocoa is best when garnished, either with whipped cream or with marshmallows.

If whipped cream is used, it should be sweetened (one cup of heavy cream whipped until stiff with one tablespoon of sugar), dolloped atop the cocoa and dusted with cinnamon or grated chocolate at the moment of serving.

If marshmallows are your choice, why not make them yourself? It can be done (the recipe follows).

Hot cocoa, even at its best, is never spectacularly rich when made with powdered cocoa. The Richest Hot Chocolate Drink (recipe follows) is made from sweet chocolate and half-and-half or light cream. Serve it very hot and sip it very slowly.

Most of us have been trained to dissolve cocoa in a small amount of water before adding the hot milk. This is no longer necessary as the cocoa dissolves almost instantly, and the Hot Cocoa Mix dissolves completely with only a stir or two.

Two pieces of special equipment for preparing and serving hot chocolate are sometimes available, although both are hard to find and not really necessary.

The first is a wooden stirrer (called a molinillo) from Mexico that inhibits the formation of a skin on the drink when used to whip hot chocolate made with cream. If you are making more than one serving at a time, a good beating with a wire wisk is as good if not better than a beating with a molinillo.

The second are deep, narrow cups that are wider at the top than the bottom, and saucers with grooves that allow the saucer to be used as a cover for the cup. The hot cocoa is served with the saucer on top (to keep the drink hot) and the bottom of the cup is placed directly on the table. When the hot chocolate is uncovered, the cover is placed on the table as a saucer.

Actually, any thick, large mug (heated with hot tap water, then emptied and dried just before serving) is as good as the special hot-cocoa cups -- and, in fact, better for children. The special cups, which can be found occasionally in antique shops, balance precariously until the saucer is slipped under them, and even then they are less stable than an ordinary mug. HOT COCOA MIX (32 servings) 3 cups (about 12 ounces) fine quality cocoa 3 cups (about 12 ounces) confectioners' sugar 2 cups (about 6 ounces) instant dry-milk powder

Combine all three ingredients and mix well. Store in an airtight container until needed. MARSHMALLOWS (Makes about 3/4 pound) 1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin 3 tablespoons cold water 2/3 cup sugar 1/4 cup light corn syrup 2 tablespoons water 2 teaspoons vanilla Cornstarch for dusting, about 2/3 cup

Combine the gelatin and cold water in the bowl of an electric mixer and set in place on the mixer. Allow the gelatin to soften undisturbed for 1 hour.

About half an hour after combining the gelatin and water, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water in a saucepan. Stir once or twice, then bring to a boil. Cover and boil slowly for 3 minutes to allow any sugar crystals that have adhered to the side of the saucepan to dissolve.

Uncover and cook without stirring until the syrup reaches 240 degrees on a candy thermometer. Immediately remove from the heat.

Beat the gelatin on medium high speed for 10 seconds, then begin to pour the hot syrup into the gelatin, beating the whole time. Pour the syrup in a very thin stream, beating constantly. After all the syrup has been added, beat until very thick and only slightly warm to the touch, about 15 minutes. Beat in the vanilla.

Dust a very clean and dry 8-by-12-inch pan with some of the cornstarch and pour the marshmallow mixture into it. Set the pan in a cool dry place for about 12 hours to dry the marshmallows, then turn out onto a cutting surface which has been dusted with some cornstarch.

Cut the marshmallows into small pieces, either with a very sharp knife that has been dusted with cornstarch or with scissors that have been dipped in cornstarch.

Toss the marshmallows so that they are lightly coated on all sides with cornstarch and transfer to an airtight container. Adapted from "The Joy of Cooking," by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker HOT COCOA (1 serving) 1/4 cup hot cocoa mix 3/4-1 cup (6 to 8 ounces) boiling milk or half-and-half FOR THE GARNISH: Whipped cream, or Marshmallows

Place the hot-cocoa mix in a large mug and add the boiling milk or half-and-half. Stir once or twice until dissolved. Top with whipped cream or marshmallows, if desired.

Serve immediately. THE RICHEST HOT CHOCOLATE (1 serving) 1 ounce sweet chocolate 3/4 cup (6 ounces) half-and-half 1 or 2 tiny homemade marshallows, optional

Melt the chocolate in a heavy-bottomed saucepan set over very low heat, stirring with a rubber spatula the whole time to insure that the chocolate does not burn, or melt in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water.

Add the half-and-half and beat well with a wire wisk until thoroughly combined and the drink is very hot.

Pour into a warm mug and serve at once. This drink is so rich that no garnish is needed, though if there are some homemade marshmallows on hand you might want to add one or two very small ones.