You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mixology Monday: Drinks for a Festive Occasion

Although this blog is not primarily about cocktails, I've been on something of a cocktail kick for the past few months. Some of my friends tell me I've just been drinking more, and I say to them: "You're right!" But I've also been drinking more widely and more creatively. Moreover, I've been eyeing the Mixology Monday event for a while now; I just hadn't gotten my act together to participate until today.

The theme for this month's Mixology Monday, hosted byThe Spirit World, is "Drinks for a Festive Occasion." My husband and I pride ourselves on our annual Christmas party, but we usually restrict our alcohol offering to wine and BYOB. MxMo could have provided us with the impetus to create some new drinks for this year's party - except that we had friends who made egg nog for us to serve. And it was both delicious and greatly appreciated!

Nonetheless, there are a couple of drinks that we have served at past parties that are probably due for renewal. When serving drinks at a party, the key is to be able to get them out fast, especially if you want to spend any time with your guests, rather than behind the bar. There are a few ways to ensure this: allow your guests to serve themselves, for example, or make a big bowl of punch. Our preferred method is to offer a house highball with only two ingredients. That way, it's quick and easy to assemble, requires no shaking or stirring, and allows you to offer that personal touch of making a drink for your guests.

Our favourite highball at this time of year is cranberry juice and amaretto. It's a festive colour and a festive flavour, and comes together in a flash. I don't think I've ever seen a name for this particular combination, though we've toyed with "Cramaretto" (which doesn't sound so great). Mostly we just refer to it by its component ingredients.

Cranberry and Amaretto
Put 1.5 oz. of amaretto in a highball glass filled with ice. Top with cranberry juice.

We don't usually insist on a garnish, but if you wanted, you could add a half-slice of orange skewered with a fresh cranberry in the middle. If you find the above version of the drink too sweet, you could replace some of the amaretto with vodka, making it a little drier while keeping its kick.

Since I'm here, I'd also like to talk about another favourite drink of mine in the winter months: the hot toddy. At their simplest, my hot toddies consist of a shot of whisky (Scotch or Canadian, depending on my mood), a spoon of sugar, and a mugful of hot water, garnished with a lemon twist. Around Christmas, you can festive it up by adding a couple of whole cloves and a cinnamon stir stick to the glass.

If you want to party-size it, though, there's another approach you can take. I always offer hot mulled apple cider at our Christmas party, and have been known to leave a bottle of rum conspicuously near the stack of mugs. After all, there's nothing that says a hot toddy has to be made with water, right?

Hot Mulled Cider
Sweet apple cider (i.e., the non-alcoholic kind)
Assorted whole spices: cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, etc.

Put the cider in a large pot. Add the spices. Bring almost to a boil, then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for at least 15 or 30 minutes. The cider improves as the evening wears on, unless it runs out! Don't let it stay at a boil for very long, or a sediment will form. If you don't want to worry about that, use filtered apple juice instead of apple cider.

To make a hot toddy with the cider, simply put a shot of the rum (or whisky) of your choice in a mug, ladle in some of the mulled cider, and garnish with a small piece of lemon and a cinnamon stir stick.


This will probably be my last post for the year, since I'm going to be on the road until January 4. Happy holidays! I'll see you in 2007.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Spiced holiday nuts

Spiced holiday nuts
For me, Christmas and nuts have always been closely related. During the holiday seasons of my childhood, my parents always had a bowl of nuts around, usually with their shells still intact. Fighting to break through that protective layer and pick out the bits of sweet meat from inside was something I always loved doing, and it was a tradition I continued after I left home.

In recent years, however, I've discovered an even better treat, and one that requires less work: spiced nuts. Specifically, the Sweet & Spicy Holiday Nuts from Bridgehead. (No, I don't work for the company, I'm just a happy customer.) These nuts don't provide the satisfaction of a shell to break through, but they make up for it with a crunchy coating of salt, sugar and spices, including one spice with a bit of kick to it that makes them more interesting than mere cinnamon would.

This year, though, my timing (or theirs) was apparently off: even though I was in Ottawa at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, the nuts were not available for sale yet in any of the four Bridgehead stores I visited. It was time to make my own.

I knew I'd never be able to match the exact seasoning, but I figured that gave me the freedom to tweak it to perfection. The real challenge was figuring out exactly how to get the clumps of sugar and spice to stick to the nuts. A little poking around online turned up the answer: egg white!

The recipe I ended up using was loosely based on this one at Epicurious. I changed it by by mkaing up my own spice mix, a combination of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, ancho chile powder and cayenne pepper. I also omitted the crystallized ginger, even though I love it; it just wasn't what I was looking for in my holiday nuts. The spice proportions weren't quite what I was looking for (next time I'd use more cayenne), but the results were certainly tasty.

I would note two things in particular with this one: First, make sure your nuts are fresh. I had a small bag of age-unknown filberts in the cupboard, and mixed them in with the new bag I had just bought. I had tested one of them, and it seemed fine, but I've since come across some pretty rancid ones in the finished product. Second, make sure your spices are fresh, or at least all of the same freshness. We just opened a new tin of allspice, and its flavour ended up dominating all the other spices in the mix.

The recipe makes a lot, but keeps well. Serve it at your Christmas party!

Spiced holiday nuts
  • A few teaspoons of your favourite spices (I used something like 2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. each of cloves, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and ancho chile powder and 1/4 tsp. of cayenne)
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 6 cups mixed nuts (I used unsalted ones from the baking aisle so I could control how salty they were. I used a mix of almonds, filberts, cashews, pecans and brazil nuts. Walnuts would be good, too, but they didn't have any walnut halves at the store where I was shopping.)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 225F. Line a large baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper. Mix the spices and salt in a small bowl. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy. (I didn't whisk them long enough, and they collapsed when I added the spices. So get them good and foamy.) Whisk in the spice mixture. Add the nuts and stir to coat. Add the sugar and stir to coat again. Spread out in a single layer on the baking sheet, and bake, stirring every 20 minutes, until they're good and roasted and the coating is dry, about 1 hour 20 minutes total. Sprinkle with additional salt if desired. Cool and store in an airtight container at room temperature.