Panera's newest offering is a Signature Hot Chocolate ($2.99), made with bittersweet chocolate-flavored syrup mixed with frothy steamed milk, topped with whipped cream, salted caramel syrup, and three chocolate chip marshmallows. Oh yeah, you read that right. The promo shot got me so psyched for this new beverage that I beelined it over to the nearest location immediately.
Unfortunately, the real-life drink wasn't nearly as meticulously crafted as the publicity shot. The whipped cream didn't reach the edges of the mug and was sinking into the hot chocolate below, the caramel was concentrated in one area, and the marshmallows were more "chocolate" than "chocolate chip". Unlike the beauty shot, which shows three milk chocolate-toned mallows studded with chocolate chips, the ones in my cup looked more like Turbinado sugar cubes. To be fair, when I plucked one out of the mug and bit down on it, I felt the telltale crunch of chocolate chips embedded inside, but because they didn't have any noticeable chocolate flavor, they were really no more exciting than a standard marshmallow.
The drink had a rich and frothy texture, but it didn't exactly scream "hot chocolate". The most striking element of the beverage was actually the caramel. It was buttery and sweet, without any of the promised saltiness, so instead of providing relief from the sugary elements, it dominated the mug, overshadowing the supposedly bittersweet chocolate and crushing any chance the marshmallows had to stand out.
The end result is a quadruple sweet drink that's fine if you're prepared to take the hit in terms of calories (500) and sugar (69 grams, more than twice the amount of a Snickers bar), but if your motivation is to find something new, exotic, and chocolatey, I'd skip it.
I didn't even bother with the third marshmallow.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her San Diego food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax