As a child, you probably didn't know--or care--about the difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate. You were too busy plopping marshmallows on top of the steaming mug and waiting impatiently for them to form a monstrous blob before taking a gulp.

Perhaps you still are oblivious to the difference. If so, rest assured that the distinction is simple. Hot cocoa calls for cocoa powder, sugar and milk; hot chocolate requires melted chocolate and milk. What you really need to learn beyond this is which one you think tastes better underneath that layer of marshmallowy goo.

Both chocolate and cocoa powder are derived from the cocoa bean. To make a long story short: After the beans are roasted, the shells are removed and discarded and the remaining cocoa nibs are subjected to extremely high temperature and pressure to form a paste called cocoa liquor.

If the cocoa liquor is destined to become chocolate, it is blended with sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla or milk solids, depending on the type of chocolate desired.

If the end product is to be cocoa powder, the cocoa liquor is pressed to extract the cocoa butter, which is the source of most of the fat. The resulting cocoa cake is ground and sifted into a fine powder.

Since chocolate contains a much higher amount of cocoa butter than cocoa powder does, the hot chocolate has a very smooth, creamy texture. By contrast, a hot brew concocted with cocoa powder has a faintly powdery texture and a pronounced bittersweet flavor. Connoisseurs of either beverage can detect these subtle differences upon the first sip. They know instantly if they have ordered one thing but have been served another. And though coffee bars and restaurants are enjoying a resurgence of interest in hot and chocolaty beverages, many of these establishments are unaware of the distinction or, worse, are propagating confusion.

At Starbucks, "hot chocolate" is listed on the beverage board, yet inches away on the same board the drink is defined as "the finest cocoa blended with hot milk."

So what is it? Starbucks serves hot cocoa.

Surely such a time-honored beverage deserves an accurate name and description.

Our individual preference for hot chocolate or hot cocoa likely stems from what we mixed with our hot milk as children: If you like hot chocolate, you were probably raised on Hershey's Syrup; if you like hot cocoa, chances are you had Ovaltine or Nestle Quik (now NesQuik).

These products were succeeded by a wide range of instant hot chocolates and cocoas--envelopes containing powder to mix with hot water. While some of these are appealing to a certain segment (see Foraging, page F7), Hershey Foods found that many people were intent on mixing the envelope's contents into milk, even though the products were designed to be blended with water.

"A lot of people grew up with Mommy making cocoa on the stove using milk and cocoa powder and vanilla extract," explains Hershey spokesman Mike Kinney. "With the introduction of mixes, they continued this habit. Whether this is attributable to the fact that people are creatures of habit or were simply hoping to acquire a fuller, richer cocoa as the result of using dairy" is anyone's guess, says Kinney.

So Hershey and others came up with instant products for those who wanted to add milk, not water, and recapture the taste of days gone by. Hershey's Classic Hot Cocoa and Ghirardelli's Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa are mixed with milk.

Still, none of these instant products replicates the hot chocolate or hot cocoa of our childhood.

And while many hot chocolates or hot cocoas in coffee bars and restaurants are the real thing rather than packaged products, it is almost impossible to find correctly labeled drinks, even when paying up to $2.75 a cup. However, a properly prepared and labeled hot cocoa is blissfully found at Senses in Georgetown. True hot chocolate from scratch, not from a dispenser, is much more elusive.

Elsewhere, these beverages are often misrepresented. Perhaps that's because they aren't a focal point. That beverage board at Starbucks dismisses its "hot chocolate" as a "coffee alternative."

"It offers something for someone who is not a coffee drinker, or who may not feel like coffee that day, or the children," says Starbucks spokesman Chris Gimbl.

Sometimes the drinks are just a canvas for a bartender's whimsy, with gussied-up versions including everything from spices to spikes, in low-fat to high-octane versions containing cognac, Grand Marnier or Bailey's.

So try making hot cocoa or hot chocolate from scratch. Why? Because it's cold outside. Because it's been a long day. And, because if it's the real thing, it just tastes better--either way.