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Mulling: How to Manufacture the Holiday Spirit by Throwing a Bunch of Stuff in a Pot

We have entered the time of year when advertisers do their very best to instigate the holiday spirit in you, hapless potential consumer, with cheerily fatuous slogans and jingly jingles and television commercials in which beautiful, well-behaved children experience the kind of exuberant Christmas you never, ever had as a kid. If you’re a certain kind of slightly cynical person who may or may not also have seasonal affective disorder, capitalism’s increasingly aggressive attempts to make you happy so you buy things only make you feel worse, all the more so because you fear you are constitutionally incapable of feeling the holiday spirit at all.
I’m talking about mulling, the process by which wine or cider is infused with aromatic spices and other pleasant flavors, rendering it more delicious and cheer-inspiring than you ever thought possible. Pick your favorites from four basic ingredient categories — liquid, spices, citrus, and more booze — plus optional extras. Warm them all together over medium until the liquid is steaming but not yet boiling, then turn the heat down to low and let the mixture mull for 10 or 20 minutes. You’ll be feeling merry — to the extent that merriness can exist in real human hearts under nonfictional circumstances — in no time.I have good news for you: it is possible for you to feel the holiday spirit, and it doesn’t cost much money. It doesn’t take much effort, either; all you have to do is throw a bunch of things into a pot and heat them until they start smelling good.

Herewith, the ingredients you will need for mulling.

1. LIQUID

Your two main mulling liquid choices are red wine and apple cider (though if you want to try mulling other liquids, I won’t stop you!). If you’re mulling wine, go for something cheap: Beaujolais Nouveau is a popular choice, because it comes out around the same time mulling season begins, but feel free to go even cheaper. That Australian one with the kangaroo illustration that looks like it was drawn by a toddler on the label. The kind identified as “red table wine” rather than as consisting of any particular varietals. Two-Buck Chuck. You get the idea. Dry is better than fruity, in my opinion — in other words, if you have a choice between cabernet and merlot, go for the cabernet — but this is not a crucial point, because all subtle flavors will be destroyed and replaced with far less subtle flavors once you heat the wine up.

Cider is easier to choose than wine: it should be cloudy and not have any added sugar and say “cold pressed” and “100% cider” or “100% juice” on the label. Buy it at the farmers’ market for maximum smugness. Done!

You will need a 750-milliliter bottle of wine or a half-gallon bottle of apple cider for the following amount of spices and other ingredients; either will make about four to six servings. (I’m assuming a serving of mulled cider is slightly bigger than a serving of mulled wine, since it’s less alcoholic.) Feel free to multiply all ingredients as needed to accommodate the number of people you’re serving.

2. SPICES

The fun part! Choose your favorites from the list below, and feel free to adjust the quantities depending on your preferences. The cinnamon is mandatory; everything else is discretionary, but you’ll need about four different spices to get a nice and heady mixed-spice aroma. Don’t go overboard and use every spice listed here, or else the spice flavor will be bitter and muddled. But also don’t stress — you’ll be fine! If you find the spice flavor too strong after the mixture has mulled for a bit, just pour in more wine or cider.

-2 cinnamon sticks
-6 whole cloves
-1 star anise
-4 cardamom pods
-6 allspice berries
-1 whole nutmeg
-a few slices unpeeled fresh ginger, or 1 tablespoon chopped crystallized ginger

You can just throw these straight into the pot with the wine or cider, but you’ll need a small strainer to serve it later — unless you’re the kind of person who likes finding wet cardamom pods and cloves in your teeth when you’re eating rice at an Indian restaurant, in which case you can just ladle freely and let the spices flow where they may.

If you don’t have a strainer and are super-fancy and competent, you can bundle up the spices in cheesecloth before tossing them in the pot.

Holiday gift idea for people you like but not enough to spend a ton of money on: throw a bunch of the above spices in a jar, write “mulling spices” on a sticker and slap it on the side, and tie a ribbon around the neck. (Don’t attempt this with fresh ginger, though; it’ll get moldy and disgusting, and your gift recipient will think you’re playing a cruel joke on hir.)

3. CITRUS

Citrus is absolutely crucial for mulled wine or cider — it sort of heightens and brightens the flavors of the spices and keeps the whole thing from tasting like a melted scented candle. Orange is my go-to mulling citrus fruit. (Lemon works only if you’re mulling cider, since apples and lemons have an affinity for each other.) The easiest thing to do, in my opinion, is cut an orange in half, squeeze the juice into the pot, and then toss the orange carcass in after it. That way you get flavor from both the sweet-tart juice and the aromatic rind.

I’ve seen recipes that call for a tablespoon or two of dried orange and/or lemon peel instead of fresh fruit, but why, why would you do this? Fresh citrus is much cheaper and more flavorful, so don’t bother with dried peel, unless you happen to have a ton lying around and are desperate to find something to do with it.

4. MORE BOOZE

It may not be immediately obvious to mulling novices why you would want to add more booze to mulled wine. The legit-sounding answer is that when you heat up the wine, even without boiling it, some of the alcohol evaporates, so you have to replace it to get a nice balance of flavors. The real answer is that when you add more booze to mulled wine, it gets you tipsy faster.

Cheap brandy, which is not good for very many things, is perfect for mulled wine; it’s made out of wine, so all it does is make the mulled wine taste winier. I’ve also seen recipes call for rum, which I feel pretty meh about, and vodka, which is more or less the most useless liquor ever. (The only reason I would ever consider putting vodka in mulled wine is that when you do this, you get to call it “glögg,” and cocktails containing umlauts are always fun.) Whatever you use, add about 1/4 cup along with the wine, spices, and citrus. Maybe another splash. Haha, yeah, just a tiny bit more than that.

It’s obvious why you need more booze when you’re mulling cider: there’s no alcohol in it yet. (Sorry. If you are a child or don’t consume alcohol for some other reason, you can certainly skip this part; holiday spirit not guaranteed in this case.) It’s best not to add alcohol to cider until you’re ready to serve it; the easiest way to go is just to pour a shot of liquor into a mug and then ladle the mulled cider in after it.

Whiskey is the only acceptable liquor to mix with mulled cider. The apple flavor and the whiskey flavor interlock to form some kind of perfect new flavor that is so much more than the sum of its parts. I’ve never come as close to understanding what people mean when they talk about soulmates as when I’m drinking mulled cider with whiskey.

(Okay, fine; you can use rum instead of whiskey with cider, but only in an emergency.)

5. EXTRAS

You will probably have to add a little sugar, brown sugar, or honey to your mulled wine to keep it from tasting too sour. Start with a tablespoon of sweetener and taste to see if you need more. Mulled cider is usually sweet enough without extra sugar, but if you have a sweet tooth, go for it.

You can add other things to the mulling pot, too, if you’re feeling adventurous. Some mulling recipes call for black tea (either a teabag or half a cup or so of already-brewed tea), which does not do it for me AT ALL, but please don’t let my prejudices sway you.

In Scandinavian parts, people put almonds and raisins in their mugs before adding mulled wine, which is just kind of INSANE, but great if you want to nibble while drinking but are too lazy to actually make yourself a snack.

But do whatever you want! Chop up whatever random fruit you have in your fridge and throw it in there! Try crazy flavored liqueurs instead of brandy or whiskey! Tell me how it goes!

And once, after a glass or two, you suddenly feel the holiday spirit — that flush in your cheeks and heat in your stomach and smile on your lips — please try to enjoy it. Because moments of mediocrity and disappointment and heartbreak and frustration vastly outnumber moments of happiness in life, so you’d better make the most of whatever tiny instants of joy you manage to experience, even when they are just the temporary side effect of drinking hot, sugary alcohol.

L. V. Anderson lives in Brooklyn and works at Slate.

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