Spice up holiday traditions

Mitch Mariani

Traditions of Christmas can be hard to change. New traditions may face some resistance. I have been caught between the old and new before. With the easygoing nature of my family, anything new or different has been completely embraced as part of the celebration.

When I took over Christmas Eve hosting duties, I didn’t change too much. Gone were the casseroles in favor of an all appetizer menu. I also brought back a family favorite, Sfingi, fried dough dredged in sugar.

One of my favorite changes was the hot beverage selection. We had coffee all the time, but my soul yearned for something different. I wanted something very special and so decadent that it would only be served once a year as a special treat. That job went to my hot chocolate. I also wanted something that wasn’t so heavy in calories and a little bit healthy too. Spiced apple cider would fill that requirement.

One key fact: Hot chocolate and hot cocoa are not interchangeable. Hot chocolate is made with chocolate while hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder. Both are good, but I have always preferred hot chocolate. The recipe for hot chocolate is sure to become one of your new family traditions as it is for ours.

Also, don’t let the recipe be something set in stone. Use it as a guide to your own creativity. If you have heavy cream on hand, use that instead of the Half & Half to increase the creaminess.

When the chocolate and Half & Half have melted, it is a ganache. This is the perfect point to mix in powders and oils to add flavor. Perhaps a dash or two of cinnamon or a few drops of peppermint oil will be to your liking. Go wild with a little bit of chili powder for a “can’t quite put your finger on it” surprise taste. Once the hot chocolate is ready to serve, make it a little more adult-like with a shot of amaretto or coffee liquor. With the basic recipe, the possibilities are endless.

The spiced apple cider recipe is very basic and can be adapted to your own creative touches too. It is very important that fresh pressed apple cider from the refrigerator section of the grocery store be used. Regular apple juice is not the same in this recipe, but if it is more affordable, by all means, use it instead. Try a dash of salt for a taste that is line with salted caramels that are all the rage right now. Also, a little whisky for the adults can be a welcome addition too.

Decadent Hot Chocolate

Serves 4-5

• 4 Ounces Semi Sweet Chocolate, chopped

• 4 Ounces Bitter Sweet Chocolate, chopped

• 1/2 Cup Half & Half

• 3 Cups Milk

• 1 1/2 to 3 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar

• Whipped Cream or Marshmallows

Step 1: In a heavy pot, mix the two chocolates with the Half & Half over a low heat. Using a whisk, stir constantly until all the chocolate is melted and well incorporated into the Half & Half.

Step 2: Increase the heat to medium. Immediately, stir in one cup of milk until it has been fully incorporated. Do the same with each of the two additional cups of milk. Add the sugar.

Step 3: Continue stirring the hot chocolate mixture. Pay close attention that all spaces of the bottom of the pot get a good pass with the whisk.

Step 4: Once the hot chocolate has begun to simmer, continue checking the temperature until it is of your liking. Serve with a garnish of whipped cream or marshmallows.

Spiced Apple Cider

Serves 4-5

• 1 Quart Fresh Pressed Apple Cider

• 3 Sticks of Cinnamon

• 3 Cloves

• Light Dusting of Nutmeg

• Additional Cinnamon Sticks for Garnish

Step 1: Add all the cinnamon sticks, cloves and dusting of nutmeg to a heavy pot and pour the apple cider over the spices and cover with the lid.

Step 2: Place the pot over the lowest heat setting. Steep the spices in the apple cider for a total of one hour, checking occasionally. Do not allow the cider to boil rapidly.

Step 3: Serve the cider with a cinnamon stick.

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