It is December already. Can you believe that!? This year has been super weird and I hope the next will not be more of the same. Be that as it may, THIS December is not as in the years before. Yes, Christmas is approaching quickly, we did already rummage through our attic to get the decorations and the tree sits on the deck. But this is it pretty much as „normal“ goes. No Christmas markets this year. Meep.
In northern Germany sunset is around four in the afternoon. If we are lucky we have a sunny day, but on those average days, the sky is an ongoing display of grey. Darker in the morning and afternoon, a little bit brighter at noon. Those grey winters are the reason we painted our walls a nice blush, so that the house doesn‘t feel all grey and gloomy in the winter. But apart from the interior lighting challenges of this season, the early falling darkness provides a wonderful backdrop for all the sparkly fairy lights with which town centers and shopping streets are adorned. In most town centers usually is a little Christmas market with an oldfashioned merry-go-round, a crêpes vendor, a booth for potato pancakes, Bratwurst, and candied nuts. Then there is one stall selling a kind of small, pillow-shaped donuts, called Schmalzkuchen, and the mulled wine booth, which is always crowded. This is where you stand in the cold air, sipping on your hot mug full of mulled wine, Christmas music washing over you and chatting with your friends.
But this year we have to keep social distance and there will be no Christmas markets. In Hamburg the traveling vendors with their booths have been dispersed all over the city several months ago. On the main shopping streets there are two, three, maybe four booths with candy, Schmalzkuchen, Bratwurst and potato pancakes. They are spread out wide and far so they don‘t obstruct pedestrian traffic and cause knots of people. This was set up as a way to enable the vendors to make their living, as they couldn‘t travel from fair to fair anymore. But there will be no more than these few stalls. The streets are decorated with lights, but everybody is restricted to stay home as much as possible. This year we will not spontaneously decide to walk to the Christmas market and enjoy a mug of warm mulled wine while the kids roam all over the place and stuff themselves with a wild selection of potato pancakes, crepes, roasted chestnuts and chocolate covered fruit. We won‘t hear their whining, that they feel sick on the walk home, either.
The temperatures have dropped now around 0°C. Perfect weather for standing outside and sipping on a mug of mulled wine. First we were sad, that we couldn’t go this year, but then our neighbour had the splendid idea: Why not decorate the garden with fairy lights, make a fire in the fireplace, set up a speaker on the deck with Christmas Crooners on and make our own mulled wine? This way we will have our very own, very personal, pandemic correct and socially distanced Christmas market experience right on our deck. Just hubs and I.
In Germany mulled wine in general is made from red wine. But more and more often you can find mulled wine made from white wine as well. Usually it is not as full bodied as the red variety, but very delicious, too. And as hubs and I stem from wine regions it is actually only a small step to go for white wine, as the majority of german wines are whites. But no matter if you prefer red or white wine, in the end mulled wine is easy to make at home. There are only a few things to keep in mind and you have a wonderful treat for a cold evening:
- Don‘t boil the wine! The alcohol starts to evaporate at temperatures slightly under 80°C, and the aroma of the spices looses their subtleness. Best to put on a lid and gently heat until it starts to simmer lightly. Then reduce the heat to low for the next 15 min. so that it can steep in peace.
- Use a decent wine. I am not talking of pouring a 10€ bottle into your pot (though you could do that, if it is no problem for your wallet). But I am warning you away from those darn awful tetrapak wines you get for 1,50€! As with all mediocre ingredients, you will add much more spices and sugar than necessary, just to make it taste ok. Those inferior wines combined with to much sugar can cause you a bad headache the next day. So why should you do that to yourself? Just get yourself a good wine already. I will not tell you if you should use a smooth or a dry wine, this is your preference and not a question of right or wrong. I prefer dry wines, but I also prefer spanish and portuguese wines, or the white wines from southern germany. Those are either the wines I grew up with or forged a connection later on. As with all food there is not only the objective quality, but what you are used to and which memories you have, factors in as well. But I digress.
Alright, good wine. Check.
Not boiling the wine. Check.
- Now we go on to the spices. There are many recipes out there, but most have cinnamon and cloves in common. I like to add star anise, vanilla and ginger. You could use allspice instead of the cloves. You don‘t need big amounts, as they are steeping and releasing their aroma for at least 15-30 minutes. I recommend using the spices whole. Using ground spices makes no big difference tastewise, but it is not pleasant on your tongue and doesn’t look pretty either. Oh, and use spices that are of good quality and not too old. I say that, because spices like cloves, cinnamon sticks, and star anise tend not to find very much use in our cooking during the year. So chances are, they sit and sit and sit until they are 3, 4, 5 or more years old without us even noticing. We just don‘t want to toss them, because they don‘t look bad. But we don‘t realise that they loose a lot of their flavor with all the sitting on our shelves. Use them to make Christmas decorations and entertain your kids. But for cooking you should use fresh spices. Then a little goes a long way.
- In good mulled wine is usually some kind of citrus zest. Either lemon or orange, or even both. But whatever kind you use, make sure you use organic lemons and oranges. Conventionally grown citrus fruit are usually heavily sprayed with pesticides and treated with chemicals after harvesting to prevent them from spoiling to quickly. This might not be a problem when you peel them, but if you use the peel for flavoring, you add all those chemicals to your wine as well. The heat and alcohol make it even worse as they help those chemicals to leach out. So be kind to your liver and use organic lemons and oranges. The part of the peel is the thin, colored outer skin. There are the aromatic oils hidden you want to flavor your wine. The white part underneath that just adds bitterness you don’t want. So best to grab a veggie peeler and slice off the thin skin you are after. And one more word to the citrus peel: Don’t leave them in your mulled wine for to long. 15 min. are enough, after that they can become overpowering. So best to fish them out after a while. If you use oranges you can slice up the peeled oranges and drop them in your mugs as decoration. Or you can press them and add their juice to your wine. This adds a refreshing fruityness to your mulled wine and helps to tone it down a bit, if you don’t like it too strong.
- Sweeten your mulled wine. If you buy ready made mulled wine, there is usually a lot of sugar mixed into it. By making your own mulled wine you can reduce the amount of sugar, and you can experiment with other sugars or sweeteners. You could use brown sugars, maple syrup, honey, to mention just a few. They add an earthy or nutty flavor that adds more depth to the taste of your wine.
„And how, do I make my mulled wine now?“, you may ask. Well, for 2-3 mugs of mulled wine, pour 1 bottle (0,7l) in a pot. Add 1-2 sticks cinnamon, 4-5 cloves (or allspice berries) and two strips of lemon or orange peel. This is the basic version, you can add 2-3 pods of star anise, a few thin slices of ginger, or even a bit vanilla, if you like.
Put a lid on your pot and heat the wine until it is barely simmering. Reduce the heat to low and let the wine steep for 15-30 min.
Add (brown) sugar, honey or maple syrup to taste and fill into the mugs. Serve and enjoy.
This is it. Not very complicated, right? And sooo yummy.