The Aztecs first dreamed up the idea of drinking chocolate. But their cup of cocoa came with a hard kick — a splash of wine and chili peppers.

Europeans have Spanish conqueror Cortez to thank for bringing back the gift of chocolate to the Old World where, over time, it was reinvented into the sweet comfort beverage we have come to crave whenever the mercury dips below 50.

The virtue of a cup of hot chocolate is that it warms us inside going down, while the mug itself toasts our frozen fingers. And after the indulgence, we're safe to drive as long as we don't fall asleep.

To enhance the experience of this cold weather treat, you'll need a fire to cozy up to.

Our favorite fire and chocolate spot is The Warm Puppy Cafe at the Snoopy Ice Arena in Santa Rosa. The alpine architecture will get you in the winter mood and you don't have to lace up skates to grab a table by the fire. Try the "Peppermint Patty," hot chocolate with a shot of peppermint syrup and a dusting of peppermint sprinkles on whipped cream. (1667 West Steele Lane, Santa Rosa, 546-7147 ext. 2030.)

Sophisticated drinkers like the corner fireplace in the bar at Stark's Steakhouse, where you can go for a regular hot chocolate or loosen up with a Keoke Coffee: brandy, creme de cacao, coffee and Irish cream. Then cool down after dinner with their frozen hot chocolate topped with malted-milk whipped cream. (521 Adams St., Santa Rosa, 546-5100.)

Other storied fireplaces where you can order a smooth chocolate or something hot and spiked include the chic Hotel Healdsburg with ample fireside seating (125 Matheson St. Healdsburg, 431-2800) and John Ash & Company's Front Room Bar and Lounge, where you can wrap your hands around a warm cup near a stone fireplace (4350 Barnes Road, Santa Rosa, 575-7350). On a misty west county day, sink into a couch by the stone fireplace at The French Garden Restaurant (8050 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. 824-2030).