Winter can be a thrilling season of beauty and possibility. Fresh snow and ice sparkle in the pale sunlight, sending shards of rainbow over the cold landscape. And for those lucky enough to witness them, the Northern Lights decorate the dark sky with ancient, numinous shapes. Winter is a quiet time, a respite for reflection and secret growth.
Our Winter Afternoon Tea is designed to create a moment of stunning beauty that your friends will never forget. However, you may choose to celebrate January in a simpler way. This year, after baking my usual fruitcakes and dozens of Christmas Cookies and distributing them to my family and loved ones, I have decided to welcome winter by snacking on simple comfort food, much of which I received as Christmas gifts from relatives and friends.
My husband Wayne is on board with this idea, as we were blessed with an especially promising collection of food and beverage treats in our Christmas packages. Other items are stored in our pantry, found at our local farmers’ market or ordered online as gifts for ourselves. January will be a month of staycation for us, but the foods we will be enjoying come to us from all over the country, and indeed the world. Let’s start with warm beverages, a comforting way to ward off winter’s chill. This January, as the temperatures in Hawaii dip into the 70s, or even the 60s at night, we plan to sip Sassafras Tea, Hot Mulled Cider and Hot Chocolate, not all at once.
My cousin Marny Pickett sent me a little package of Sassafras Root Bark from Fox Farm Whole Foods in Joplin, Missouri, in my Christmas card this year. Sassafras Rood Bark, used by Native Americans in the Ozarks centuries ago for a variety of healing purposes, makes a strong, bracing and mildly licorice flavored tea. Sassafras is also used as the flavoring agent in Root Beer and stick candy. While modern food scientists deny any medicinal value in sassafras and caution against excessive or long-term use, we were delighted by the beautiful dark red color and sweet nostalgic taste of the Sassafras Tea we made at home.
To make your own Sassafras Tea, boil one quart of water in a medium sized saucepan and add about two tablespoons of Sassafras Root Bark. Simmer for about fifteen minutes; then strain the tea into two cups through a coffee filter placed in a sieve. Sweeten by adding about one teaspoon of maple syrup or honey per cup and stir. We used maple syrup. Add a little hot water to each cup if the mixture seems too strong. Wayne and I both liked the very intense flavor of strong Sassafras Tea, which is very good with any leftover Christmas Cookies you might have lying around. I recommend mildly flavored butter cookies such as shortbread, as you don’t want to create a flavor war, which the Sassafras Tea will ultimately win. This recipe makes about four cups.
Another favorite winter beverage is Hot Mulled Cider. This simple drink is just apple juice heated with a variety of spices with perhaps a little citrus peel or juice added. The word “mull” refers to the process of heating and spicing. Wine and rum can also be mulled to create festive winter beverages. Kathleen made my job easy this year by tucking a packet of Mulling Spices in with the fabulous fruitcake she sent me for Christmas. Produced by Martinelli’s, this mixture of organic spices includes cinnamon, orange peel, cloves and allspice. Of course, I will use these Mulling Spices to flavor Martinelli’s Gold Medal Apple Juice or Cider, produced by the Martinelli family in Kathleen’s home town of Watsonville, California, since 1868.
If you want to make Hot Spiced Cider for a large group, just heat a gallon of apple juice or cider in a large Dutch oven on the stove and add two or three sticks of cinnamon bark and three or four slices each from the center of an orange and a lemon with a few whole cloves stuck into each slice. The citrus fruit slices will float on top of the hot cider, creating a wonderful spicy aroma and a very festive visual effect. Hot Mulled Cider is a perfect partner for my favorite winter dessert, Fruitcake. If you received a fruitcake for Christmas, count your blessings, as fruitcake lives forever, and only gets better with age, unless you devour it as we did Kathleen’s California style dried fruit cake. Fortunately, you can find the recipe for Kathleen’s Fruitcake without Candied Fruit in the “In Defense of Fruitcake” section of our website following our December Christmas Tea menu.
Hot Chocolate is also wonderful on cool winter evenings, and it is one of the easiest of all hot beverages to prepare. Hot Chocolate, sometimes referred to as Cocoa, is simply a combination of heated milk, chocolate and sugar, whipped until the three ingredients are incorporated and optionally topped with whipped cream or marshmallows. The internet teems with all sorts of recipes for hot chocolate, and we include recipes on this website for Mexican Hot Chocolate in our October Tea to Honor Our Ancestors (Dia de los Muertos) and Hot Chocolate in our Afternoon Tea for Children menu in the Special Occasions section.
Another food that lives forever and can be easily stored in the refrigerator is cheese. Again, Christmas was kind to us, as my sister and her husband, Rudy Pedulla, sent us a huge one pound, fourteen-ounce round of Cougar Gold Sharp White Cheddar produced at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. This gift was especially meaningful, as it brought back happy, albeit frigid, memories of the three years our family spent in Pullman during my childhood while may father earned his Ph.D. in History and my mother completed her M.A. in Public Speaking at Washington State. We are eating our way through the Cougar Gold as I write this blog and enjoying every breathtaking bite along with the enormous Royal Riviera Pears we ordered as a gift to ourselves from Harry and David in Medford, Oregon.
Winter is famous for hot soups, and my preference is a big pot of bean soup. This dynamic source of protein and flavor can reside for several days in your refrigerator and would be very good served with some of the above-mentioned cheese and bread. Once again, Kathleen’s Christmas box has brought inspiration in the form of a package of Mexican Tortilla Soup mix from Fabulous Fixins in Redding, California. This intriguing assortment contains pinto and red kidney beans, dehydrated onion, salt, chili powder, chili de arbol, garlic and cumin. All the cook has to do is soak and boil up the beans in tomato sauce and add the spice packet. The instructions on the package recommend stirring shredded Jack Cheese into the soup and pouring it into bowls filled with tortilla chips. What could be better on a cold winter night?
Finally, those of you who love easy to prepare comfort food need to look no further than your own neighborhood. Seek out the closest farmers’ market, and you will discover more than fruits and vegetables that you will have to cook when you get home. Most farmers’ markets sell a wide variety of freshly prepared local foods that you can enjoy in your toasty warm home as you gaze out the window at winter’s majesty.