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Have Yourself a Drunken Little Christmas: Mulled Cider

The day before our holiday party it was 65° in D.C. and I thought to myself, if the weather’s going to be this ridiculous, there is no way in hell I’m serving a hot drink. Of course, as it turns out the weather WAS ridiculous, but on the other end of the temperature spectrum… to the point where our favorite Australian parked himself next to the stove and refused to move.

So, a good thing that I had been mulling (har, har) a hot spiced cider and, more importantly, that  Mr. T was gracious enough to trot off to the market and pick up a few gallons at the last minute. The cider must have been good too, because even with the chilly weather, I was surpised at how quickly it got sucked down.

On reflection, though, the cider did have some seriously winning charms–sweet but not cloying, with a pronounced apple-y flavor and a tingle of warm Christmassy spice. It was even better with a judicious splash of spirit (the bottle kind, not the pep rally kind…).

I kept the cider pot virgin but parked a bottle of rum next to the stove and let people mix to their heart’s desire. I think this is considerate of the drinkers as well as the teetotalers… who wants to see good alcohol just evaporate anyway? Of course, I caught one discerning friend who knows his way around our liquor cabinet mixing his cider with rye whiskey instead, and frankly that sounds like an even better idea than the rum.

No matter what booze you choose, though, I’ve found that the key to success with mulled cider is the exact opposite of the secret to mulled wine. For the latter, the answer is sugar, a TON of sugar. When wine is heated–particularly the less-than-stellar vintages used for mulling–all those bitter notes come to the fore and thin everything out. A ridiculous amout of sugar is needed to smooth things over and round out the mouthfeel.

Sweet cider, though, needs no more sugar. In fact, in addition to the usual festive spices, it needs something bitter and tannic to give it backbone. The answer? The blackest, baddest, most powerful tea you can get your hands on. We’re talking paint-thinner tea, here. Fortunately, I live with an Englishman, and we are never without some ridiculously strong tea. So into the spice pot went 6 sachets of Yorkshire tea, and while it made the spice concentrate a chokingly bitter mess, it was just the thing when combined with the cider and hotted up a bit.

Mulled Cider
Yield: ~18 servings

2 oranges
5 c water
1 tbs *each*: cardamom pods, black peppercorns, allspice berries
1 tsp cloves
the nub-end of a nutmeg, if you’ve got it
1 1′ chunk fresh ginger, crushed
4 3-4″ cinnamon sticks
3/4 c sliced or slivered almonds
1 tbs salt
1 gallon sweet apple cider

Rum, bourbon, or rye whiskey
1 additional orange for garnish

Cut the two oranges and the lemon into 2″ chunks. In a 3 qt saucepan combine the citrus, water, spices, almonds, and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for a good hour or so. Add the tea bags, top up the water if need be, and simmer another half hour.

If serving immediately, strain the mixture into a bowl and set aside. Pull out the cinnamon sticks and give them a quick rinse before setting them aside. In a large soup or stock pot, warm the cider over med-low heat till hot but not burningly so. Turn the heat to low and add about 3/4 of the strained spice liquid (to taste). Cut the remaining orange into rounds and float in the cider. Toss in the cinnamon sticks as well.

If preparing for later, pour the unstrained mixture into a bowl, cover, and chill in the fridge for up to a few days. When preparing to serve, strain as described above and carry on.

Serve in hot-friendly cups (paper, or with handles) with a bottle of suitable liquor alongside and prepare to get merry.

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