It’s snowing tonight in Pennsylvania. I’ve been expecting this for days, sniffing the cold morning air like a woodland creature and glancing expectantly at steely gray skies. It’s finally here, as beautiful as always. Hushed and gentle and pure. Creation is transfigured. The deep dark night glows from the bottom up. Nature’s luminosity is turned on its head. It almost makes one reconsider where our light comes from after all. Distant sun, moon, and stars? Or somewhere here below, like a manger in some lowly cave, all warm and earthy and redolent of livestock?
Yet all the rituals, songs, films, spectacles and public festivities pertaining to winter have already been hastily packed away into the attic of the public imagination. When the great commercialized holiday has passed and the new year shows up, looking uncannily like the old year, winter has just awoken like some long-dormant beast, stretched long wiry limbs, and and licked her icy chops.
The poor timing of our annual love affair with winter is a clumsy fiasco. At least in the United States, we stop celebrating all the best of winter just when the season is starting! It’s absurd. Obviously religious holidays must be feted in their proper time, as is right and just. But first of all, Christmas, like Hanukkah or Ramadan, is a season, not a mere day. Christmas only begins on December 25 and includes several distinct feasts. Christmas lasts at least until the feast of the Epiphany. Personally I would like to draw it out as far as February.
Furthermore, there is little religious specificity about all the saccharine, made-for-TV movies in which so many indulge all throughout December. Same goes for merry tunes such as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland.” Far from deriding them, I want to know: Why must we retire these ditties in January? They just get prematurely exhausted as our whole society (post-christian, but with an identity crisis) does its utmost to disown our vast, rich, centuries-old inheritance of actual holiday music.
Collectively, we have a 6-week-long musical, glittering, nostalgic, gastronomic, pyrotechnic, no-holds-barred winter theme party in late autumn. Then, for practically all of winter, we’re left with little merriment to break the persistent gloom, unless you count…uh…Valentines Day? Ew. Gross.
To save time and get off the soapbox, I’ll just blame this sad state of affairs on Hallmark, big box stores, Amazon, communists, possibly the ACLU, and the president for good measure. Isn’t that what all the cool kids do nowadays?
Anyway, I have not promised you such banal indignation, but rather some helpful tips for good cheer and hygge to sustain you through this harsh, magical season. To be honest, I’ve been feeling a tad deflated lately, and the snow has come just in time. Call it a clean slate, a blank page, a new year’s absolution. Call it whatever you like. The white stuff never fails to inspire me. So at long last, on to the first of my many cherished hibernal practices: *Drumroll please*
Chiara’s Hot Cider: A simple, sloppy and fool-proof recipe to warm your belly and spirits
Ingredients (per single serving)
- 1+1/2 cup of apple cider
- 1/2 tsp. (approx) of orange zest OR 1 tbs. of orange juice.
- 1 wedge of apple and/or slice of orange (or more to be pretty)
- Ground cinnamon
- Ground nutmeg
- Ground allspice
- 3 whole cloves
- 1 whole star anise (Try to choose one with at least 4 pods that have split to show the seed inside.)
- 1 generous glug of brandy (optional)
First, pour the cider into a small saucepan over medium-low heat.
My cider was forgotten in the back of my fridge since mid-Advent. Like all the best people, it got a bit jazzy with age. #winning
Second, add the zest or OJ, the fruit and whole spices. Use the apple wedge or orange slice to anchor the whole cloves and the star anise. Just sink the clove points and one of the more closed anise star points firmly into the fruit, ideally the peel, before you plonk that piece o’ potpourri into the cider. This will prevent all those hard prickly bits from drifting around and getting stuck in your pearly whites (or throat!) If you find this floating fruity pincushion gets in your way while drinking, you can take it out before serving.
Zest is far superior to juice in terms of flavor-to-fluid ratio, so use it if you possibly can. To zest any citrus fruit, use a hand-held microplane rasp grater or the finest setting of a box grater. Rinse the fruit with warm water and grate the skin, but stop at the soft white pith. You only want to grate the colorful outer part of the skin.
In another turn of frugality or forgetfulness, I had a previously zested orange parching in my fruit basket from when I made a cranberry curd tart for Christmas. I just used whatever juice it had and cut off one end to hold the whole spices. The juice was not nearly as good as orange zest, but it will do just this once.
Thirdly, sprinkle the ground spices into the middle of the cider and for heaven’s sake, don’t ask me how much of each to use! As usual, I was immoderate and unmeasured with my favorite ingredients. Just season to taste. Or to smell. Or to feel. Or invoke the spirits of your most culinarily-adept ancestors and ask them to whisper “when” from the far side of the veil. Asking myself “What would Grandma do?” usually helps me out of any dilemma.
Basically a copious dusting of cinnamon, a lighter dusting of nutmeg and a dash or two of allspice sounds about right.
IMPORTANT: Pause here to appreciate the sight of these exotic, precious powders dissipating serenely outwards across the amber depths towards the gleaming sides of the saucepan. Do you believe in magic yet? No? Then pay closer attention to important little things like floating spices and also snowfall and life in general.
Fourth, stir the cider once or twice. Then let it heat until steaming and just beginning to simmer. It should be getting fragrant.
Fifth, when your kitchen starts to smell festive, add the glug of brandy.
Measure into a shot glass first if you’re concerned about accidental excess. But remember that it’s snowing and you shouldn’t be driving anywhere anyway. I won’t tell if you add a little extra. Stir, then heat for another minute or two.
Finally, stir it once more and immediately pour it all into your favorite oversized mug. Curl up in a comfy chair with a view of the falling snow, and enjoy! (Cuddly canine or cat companion optional. )