Every holiday season, the refrain from an old English folk song runs through my head on near-constant repeat: “What gave you that jolly red nose? Cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg and cloves—that gave me my jolly red nose!” The “jolly red nose” always sounded like Santa Claus to me, and the delicious list of spices evoked the scents of a kitchen during holiday baking time, so the song naturally slotted in alongside other much-loved Christmas music. It took tracking down the whole song for me to realize that it was actually a rather risque drinking song—an affectionate ode to the mulled wine that the singer apparently drank in great quantities!
What’s in a Mulling Mix?
Those four spices—cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves—form the foundation of most mulled wine recipes (lucky thing there’s a song to help you remember them!). The magic mulling spices are perfectly adaptable to non-alcoholic drinks as well: Apple cider is delicious served hot and spiced, as are many black teas. You don’t have to create a drink to let mulling spices set the seasonal tone: A pot of spices in simmering water gives the home a warm, comforting aroma with none of the cloying or artificial edge that comes with many commercial potpourris. You can even use a mulling mix to flavor maple syrup, or to make a seasonal spiced beer.
There are tried and true, go-to recipes for a basic mulling mix, and recipes for mulled wine, cider or wassail will include their own combinations in their steps. But the beauty of a homemade mulling mixture is that the contents are entirely up to you. Start with a couple of the core four spices and then experiment, adding and adapting to suit your own tastes. Allspice, cardamom, star anise and some kind of citrus note are found in many mulling mixes. Brown sugar adds sweetness; dark brown sugar adds a hint of molasses flavor. Vanilla beans are a great addition, as is dried fruit—raisins, currants, plums and cranberries. Black peppercorns bring a smoky flavor with a little bit of bite to it.
Fresh Versus Dried Mixes
There are only a couple of hard-and-fast rules for creating your mulling mix, and they mostly depend on when and how the mix will be used. If you’re using the mix immediately, then use fresh orange slices or orange or lemon peel as the citrus note, or fresh apples (halved or sliced) to make your kitchen smell like apple pie. For the ginger, peel and slice fresh ginger root.
If, on the other hand, you’re creating a mix to be packaged as gifts or stored for future use, trade the fresh fruit slices and rind for dried—either buy dried fruit and crystallized ginger at the store, or dry the orange and ginger in your oven:
• Cut oranges and ginger root into 1/8-in. slices, and bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 3 to 4 hours at 170°.
• Bake citrus zest or peel on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 1 hour at 200°.
When it comes to the spices, they should be whole, not powdered. Nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon should be broken up before being added to a dry spice mix, but not ground fine. Seriously, the easiest way to do this is to put the spices in a heavy plastic bag and then just whack them with a kitchen mallet, a rolling pin or something flat and heavy (a cast-iron skillet works beautifully for this!)
Mixes as Gifts
Create a homemade mix for a mulled wine to serve at your next party, or package up the mix to give as a gift. If it’s a gift, you can pair it with a suitable bottle of wine (a bold red wine, like a zinfandel or a malbec, is great for mulling) or a jug of sweet apple cider. For more elaborate gift-giving, include glassware for serving up the delicious result.
To package your mix for storing or gifting, you can put it in a decorative canning jar—either a new one from the canning section of the grocery store, or a vintage piece from a flea market or antique shop. Jar up the mix loose, to be measured and used as needed, or create individual spice bags out of a double layer of cheesecloth or commercially available tea sachets. It’s a gift any home cook would love.