Winter is upon us and, normally, that means holiday parties, indoor gatherings and lots of time with extended family and friends. But not this year.
The vaccine is on the horizon, and there is hope that there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but guidance tells us to stay the course for now. That means keeping to your “pod,” practicing social distancing and wearing masks.
But we are social animals, and simply locking down is too isolating for many. During the warm weather, we shared various strategies for safe gathering — backyard setups that adhered to distancing protocols, menus that avoided any type of sharing, BYO picnics and happy hours. As Old Man Winter descends, however, those backyard get-togethers are less appealing and more difficult to orchestrate. But they are not impossible.
The key is to keep it simple, choose a warm-ish day and meet on the early side before it is pitch dark. If you have a fire pit or outdoor fireplace, great — light it up and gather ‘round. But if you don’t, a few candles add to the atmosphere. Consider putting cozy blankets out on your chairs and serving hot beverages to a small number of guests.
These “parties” are not attempting to replicate their summer counterparts, when we stayed outdoors with friends and neighbors for hours on our designated benches, taking turns approaching the bar or the buffet. The winter gatherings are shorter and, because guests may want to keep their gloves on, you are only serving mugs of something warm.
I attended one such gathering last weekend — my sister’s 50th birthday. It was nothing like the celebration I envisioned for her, which involved a trip. But we are resilient and recognize that these days there are far worse things than a pandemic milestone birthday. So I drove to her house on Sunday afternoon to deliver her gift, along with a dinner and cake for her family to enjoy that night. It was just her immediate family, myself and my parents, all bundled up and carefully distanced on her patio.
We sat around the fire pit, coats on, wrapped in blankets, and toasted to Sis with hot tea. I stayed for about an hour and, as the sun began to wane, I drove home. The moral of the story is that you can still socialize but, like everything this year, it’s not exactly the way it was — and hopefully will be again soon. Meanwhile, skip the dinner and snacks and offer your outdoor guests a blanket and a mug of something warm.
This is an authentic version of the seemingly ubiquitous drink — which, in my experience, is perpetually over-sugared at most cafes. The recipe was taught to me by an Indian friend. If you wish to spike it, making an adult version, bourbon, whiskey or dark rum will pair well with these flavors.
A word on the spices: If you don’t have them all, fear not, you can make a perfectly respectable masala chai if you omit a couple of the seasonings listed below.
4 plain black tea bags
2½ cups water
2½ cups milk (any type)
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 sprinkle ground cloves
(or 2 whole cloves)
1 sprinkle nutmeg
1 sprinkle black pepper or
2 whole peppercorns
1 sprinkle cardamom
1 sprinkle ground ginger
1 sprinkle allspice
2 whole star anises or a pinch of ground
4 teaspoons sugar
2-3 shots liquor, if desired
Place all the ingredients (except liquor, if using) in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Remove it from the heat, cover and allow it to steep for 5 minutes. Remove the tea bags and any whole spices you may have used. Add liquor, if desired. Pour the chai into mugs and serve immediately.
Swiss Hot Chocolate
On a trip to Europe just before the pandemic, I learned that there is a vast difference between the types of hot chocolate served in different European countries.
Switzerland, a country that prides itself on the quality of its dairy products, makes very milky hot chocolate. Both Spanish and Italian hot chocolates are prized for their thickness, and many recipes call for cornstarch. France, on the other hand, is known for rich, velvety dark, molten hot chocolate.
Normally, I would lean toward the French version — served in small demitasse cups as a decadent dessert. But for the purposes of these backyard winter gatherings, where a big steaming mug is needed to keep us warm, the Swiss have the edge.
If you wish to make this an adult beverage, you can add rum, bourbon or any flavored liqueur such as Kahlua, Frangelico, sambuca, peppermint schnapps, Grand Marnier, etc.
4 cups milk (any type)
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ cup sugar
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips
2-3 shots liquor, if desired
Place the milk, cocoa powder and sugar into a medium-sized saucepan. Heat over medium, whisking frequently. When warm, add the chocolate chips and continue whisking until the chips are melted and the mixture is steaming hot. If desired, add liquor and serve.