I'm aware, as I often am, that this entry would have been more timely had it appeared earlier. Hot alcoholic drinks are especially well suited for entertaining at any party meant to celebrate one of the holidays associated with the winter solstice. But a) better late than never, and b) there's still a lot of cold weather to come, though not, perhaps, here, where "unseasonably warm" does not even begin to cover it. Still, it's likely that there will be plenty more cold weather between now and spring.
In general, I prefer to make heated alcoholic drinks on the weaker side than, say, eggnog, which I believe should continue to be made the way it was routinely made in the fifties. That is to say in a period when people routinely smoke and drove under the influence without worrying too much about the consequences. I don't much care for smoking, and I believe in designated drivers and/or waiting a sufficient amount of time after drinking and/or calling a cab and/or passing out sleeping bags, but given what passes for eggnog these days, your goal should probably be for your guests to exclaim "Whoa! That's lethal" right after they've exclaimed, "Gee! That's tasty." (I require all of my guests to use "Gee" as their first interjection when they visit. Penalties for non-compliance have sometimes been very harsh.)
But with heated drinks, I generally start with a good deal less alcohol. Admittedly, this is partly because some of the alcohol cooks out and because when I'm serving, say, the mulled wine, I like to toss a healthy shot of dark rum in the bottom of the mug before ladling on the hot wine to make the drink more, um, volatile. But it's also because if I have leftovers, I can drink a significant quantity without having to worry about inebriation.
This has been a special concern this year because I have often found myself in the situation of needing something both tasty and friendly to the voice. Winter is hard on the throat and lungs, and on Christmas Eve this year, I had to sing in a madrigal choir at the afternoon service and in the regular choir at the evening service. There were also (relatively short) solos for each service, and my vocal mechanism (I have no idea what else to call it) was, not to put too fine a point on it, pissed off.
It is my firm belief that honey, lemon juice, red wine, and heat are all good for the voice. This belief is important to me, so if I'm mistaken, I would very much appreciate not finding out: go mess with somebody else's religion. I will say that the belief comports with my experience, and on this Christmas Eve, I was sitting in the choir with a thermos of my mulled cider and wine, and taking a drink of it when my voice was feeling unhappy made me feel a great deal better. And because the effect was immediate and because it isn't that strong, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the alcohol that helped. There may be a placebo effect going on, but, again, ignorance is bliss, and I intend to follow mine.
Mulled Wine and Cider
A half gallon of apple cider, preferably unfiltered
A three-liter box (or four 750 ml bottles) of red wine
2 cinnamon sticks
2 slices crystallized ginger
2 star anise
5 green cardamom pods
1 t. whole allspice
1 cup honey
Granulated sugar, optional
Remove and reserve the zest from the lemon and orange. Squeeze the citrus and reserve the juice. Break the cinnamon sticks in half, bruise the anise and cardamom pods, and cut the nutmeg in half. In a large pot, combine the wine, the cider, the citrus zests, the citrus juices, and the spices. Over a low flame, bring to near the simmer, then cover and let heat, without boiling for an hour or more.
Stir in the honey. Taste and add granulated sugar or more honey if necessary. Serve hot.
You can, if you like, put all the spices, etc. in cheesecloth, but I don't see the point. It's easy enough to keep them out of the ladle, and if someone gets a cardamom pod in his or her mug of mulled, then where's the harm? You can also, of course, ratchet up the alcohol (dark rum is an especially nice addition), but, again, it's not necessary, and if you leave this the way it is, people can drink quite a lot of it with no fear of impairment. Which is good because the recipe makes quite a lot.
It should go without saying that you can alter the blend of spices to your liking, but if it doesn't, I've said it, so it needn't.
Between our Christmas Eve guests (my Christmas Eve schedule: 9am - noon, go to work; noon - 2:45, drive home, start Christmas Eve dinner; 2:45 - 4:30, drive to church, sing, drive home; 4:30 - 5:45, finish and serve dinner, leave guests at table; 5:45 - 8:30, drive to church, sing, drive home; 8:30 - 12:30, hang out with guests, clean up, drink much wine; 12:30 - 2:30, wrap presents) and the next couple of days, the mulled wine/cider was gone before the girls and I went to Florida to see my parents and my sister and her family. It takes a while to make more, so when my voice or throat or sinuses are feeling unhappy and in need of some TLC, I need a quicker alternative. This one is as restorative as it is easy.
Weak Wine Punch
The juice of half a lemon
4 oz. red wine
2 T. honey
a sprig of fresh rosemary
2 cups boiling water
In a very large (24 ounce) coffee/soup mug, combine the lemon juice, red wine, and honey. Stir well. Add the sprig of rosemary. Fill to near the top with boiling water.
I almost always have the ingredients for this concoction (that's V.'s term for everything I make, pretty much) on hand, though I sometimes have to step outside for the fresh rosemary. If you don't have fresh rosemary, by the way, just leave it out. The drink is perfectly delicious without it. In fact, you don't really taste the rosemary, but when you add the boiling water, the essential oils are released, and a little cloud of rosemary-scented vapor hovers over the top of your mug. Rosemary is invigorating, and there is something extremely healthful and comforting about the way it floats into your sinuses as you sip the punch.
I should note that I really don't measure the ingredients for this. I cut a lemon in half, then I cut one half into two quarters, then I squeeze the quarters into the mug, then I add a healthy squeeze of honey from my big Costco honey container, then I add a good splash of red wine from the box, then I stir, then I toss in the rosemary, then I add the water from the kettle. I did measure the wine one time, just so I could say how much I used, and I found that the four ounces I measured was probably about twice as much as I'd used the first time. And it's good either way, but I think it's a little better with the extra wine. I can't bring myself to measure the honey, but I think the 2 tablespoons is a good approximation. If, you know, it's not sweet enough, just squeeze a little more in. If you add a little too much, well, this is a pretty weak drink, so you'd have to add a lot too much for it to be a big problem, I think.
In any case, if your amounts are anywhere close to the amounts here (and probably even if they aren't), this is going to be an awfully good drink. It may not have any proven medical benefits, but it's very salutary to your mood. It is just the ticket for a tough day. Or, indeed, for a day that might turn unexpectedly tough. And what day is immune from that affliction? Better not to take chances: drink your punch.