A few weeks ago my mom and I went on our annual holiday outing to Christmas shop and eat and generally be merry, and we went to the Vancouver Winter Market beside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre downtown because the ad said there would be food and festivity and because this was the first time we’d ever heard of the thing.

When we got there, the first thing we saw was a kiosk dispensing something German we couldn’t pronounce, but it smelled good so we put a deposit on a pair of mugs and had our first round. Feuerzangenbowle, the thing we got, is mulled wine with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, orange, and rum, and when I did a bit of research I discovered that it’s also something that involves fire, which stirred my mild pyromaniacal urges in the best possible way.

The most important thing about feuerzangenbowle is zuckerhut, a sugar cone which is doused repeatedly in rum and set on fire above the heated wine mixture. The sugar caramelizes and melts into the wine, and the result is magic. I wanted to create this on Christmas, so I asked Brigitte, a German lady I work with, how to spell the thing I wanted to make (I still can’t, and pulled the name from the email she sent me, which also included this recipe for “rumtopf,” which I also must make) and where to buy the zuckerhut. I ended up not being able to find it in town, but she would be going to Greco’s Specialty Foods in Surrey and she had called and found that they had some, and she would pick one up for me. And she did.

To find zuckerhut, visit your local German deli; if they don’t have it, they may be able to order some in for you.

And so, on Christmas Day, we poured two bottles of cheap, off-dry red wine into a Crock Pot, and set it to heat for an hour. We added strips of orange and lemon peel, and two cinnamon sticks and two cloves to the pot and let it simmer with the lid on; next time, we’ll add two star anise pods and slice the orange and lemon into the pot so that the fruit flavour is more pronounced. Our adapted recipe comes from this one from WikiBooks, but deviates significantly enough that I’m okay calling the recipe below an original interpretation – we wanted it to taste like the drink we had at the Winter Market, and I think we made it work.

After an hour, we placed the zuckerhut in a wire mesh strainer and held it over the pot. We poured rum over top, and then lit the cone on fire. It was awesome. We ended up using about a cup and a half of rum; the cheap white stuff worked better than the good amber stuff for burning. When there was no more rum and we couldn’t light the sugar on fire anymore, we stirred the remains of the cone into the pot and let it dissolve. We served it in mugs immediately, and felt very warm and delighted and then had naps.


(Serves six.)

  • 2 bottles of off-dry red wine
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 1 zuckerhut
  • 1 1/2 cups rum

Heat wine with cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, orange, and lemon slowly. If using a Crock Pot, set on high heat and let sit for about an hour. Do not bring to a boil. If heating on the stove, heat over medium-low heat, covered, for 30 to 40 minutes.

Suspend zuckerhut in a wire mesh strainer (one that has no plastic on the edges of the strainer). Pour two tablespoons of rum over top, ignite, and continue feeding the flame with small amounts of rum until no rum remains. Do not pour rum directly from the bottle.

Stir any remaining sugar from the zuckerhut into the pot, test temperature, and if it’s warm enough to serve, ladle the drink into mugs.

Moon Chai.

Ugh December. I have a bijillion things to do and am way too easily distracted. On the one hand, my holiday shopping is just about done; on the other, my apartment looks like a crime scene.

Last night I had macaroni and cheese for dinner. From a box. Which I ate on the floor while watching the cartoon channel and wrapping presents while simultaneously attempting to defeat the cat. It’s her first Christmas and she doesn’t mean to be annoying, I’m sure, but to a tiny wild-eyed beast nothing is more thrilling than scissors cutting Iron Man-themed wrapping paper.

It’s easy for me to think that my life is real life, but I can’t imagine how overwhelming this would all be for someone with more people than I have to buy for (I’m shopping for 14) and a family who cares about folded laundry to impress. I had a temper tantrum the morning after laundry day and there’s still a pile of socks beside my front door and that’s embarrassing and it’s been that way since Tuesday. And then there are all the events, and I noticed as I was getting dressed for this evening’s party that these tights aren’t controlling a goddamn thing up top anymore.

But the party was fun, and filled with the kind of geeky people I love so much, book people, and we talked about reading and writing while sitting on my friend Tracy’s kitchen floor while her pug Penelope snorted all over us, bounding from lap to lap like the excited little monster she is. Evenings like these are why I am so excited about December.

When we came home, I made Nick and I mugs of moon Chai. Moon Chai is a tea we used to get at this place on Broadway. It’s a Middle Eastern restaurant that’s filled with chaises and awkward tables with tiny little stools, and for awhile I really liked it but now it annoys me to have my knees bump the table I’m eating from, and I don’t particularly enjoy their prices these days. These must be signs of aging. It’s just that I feel a buffet should be reasonable, and that the price should reflect the quality of the food, you know? But anyway. The thing I took from there was their Moon Chai, which is really just hot hot hot Chai tea spiked with brandy.

I don’t know Chai’s recipe, but I’ve adapted and interpreted and made up my own, and this stuff is a sedative if you use decaffeinated tea. I’ve never had it before 8:00 p.m. So you can see how it would be perfect for the holiday season.

Moon Chai

(Serves two.)

  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1  tsp. fennel seeds
  • 10 green cardamom pods
  • 10 whole cloves
  • 2 cups unsweetened almond milk (or real milk, if that’s what you have/prefer)
  • 1/2 vanilla bean pod
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • 1 bag black tea, such as orange pekoe (bonus points for decaf)
  • 1/4 cup French brandy (not the stuff that tastes like paint thinner)

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, toast cinnamon, peppercorns, fennel seeds, and cloves until fragrant, stirring frequently, about five minutes.

Pour almond milk into the pot. Add vanilla bean (seeds scraped plus pod), and honey, and tea bag, and reduce to medium heat. Bring to a boil, then turn off heat. Add brandy, cover, and allow to steep for five minutes.

Strain into mugs and serve hot. I guarantee instant relaxation. And possibly a slight buzz.

Stout hot chocolate.

We put up the tree a week or so ago, and the cat is just thrilled. It was cute at first, the way she’d clamber up the middle and make a nest of her own legs and tail in the branches. We didn’t put ornaments on at first, because we thought that we could get her used to the tree so she’d ignore it, but it turns out she intends to do no such thing.

Irritating as she is about the tree, the cat has had a calming effect on our holiday season. This will be our third Christmas married to each other, and so far it has not been marked with the usual bickering, moping, or scrambling to get everything done once we’ve decided we can save the fighting for February because we’re bored then anyway. It’s still early, but I’m optimistic. We’ve committed to fewer events this year, and we’re not spending so many evenings and weekends running around. We’re spending our time eating comfort food and entertaining friends and petting the cat, and it’s working out pretty well so far.

And with the exception of the dinner I ruined tonight, which was not salvageable and which I and subsequently pouted about for an hour and a half, this evening was fairly relaxing. We watched a holiday movie, and I made hot chocolate.

I love hot chocolate, but don’t make it very often – it’s a treat, and the last time I made it was this time last year. Tonight’s batch was made with stout,  just enough melted dark chocolate, a bit of milk, and cream to fill the whole thing out. It was rich and dark like coffee, and its effect verged on sedation. Nick was in bed by 9:45, suddenly overcome by feelings of warm snuggliness and a desperate need for his pillow.

The recipe will make enough for two to four people, depending on how big your mugs are. It’s rich, so you will not need a lot. It’s not too sweet, but pleasantly  bitter with that dark chocolate and beer. We drank it as dessert after Nick finally made grilled cheese sandwiches to make up for dinner.

Stout hot chocolate

  • 1 1/2 cups stout or your favourite dark beer, at room temperature
  • 4 oz. chopped dark chocolate
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla

Put chocolate into a saucepan over medium-high heat, and pour over stout, whisking briskly to knock out any bubbles and to ensure the chocolate melts without burning. When chocolate appears to have melted, add milk. Stir occasionally until the whole thing comes just to a simmer – you don’t want it to boil, but it doesn’t hurt to have it come close.

Taste. Depending on the beer you use, you may find this a touch too bitter. If that’s the case, add a tablespoon of granulated sugar (or to taste).

Whisk in cream and vanilla. Serve in mugs, with a dollop of whipped cream if you’re feeling saucy (or sulky).

Basil lemonade: Perfect for sunny patches, summer picnics, and chilled bottles of vodka.

It’s the weekend! Fantastic. And it’s sunny, which is making my headache and massive to-do list seem less like factors that could screw up my whole day … perhaps the sun will be to blame for a whole day of doing nothing, perhaps with a magazine, perhaps on the beach. Fortunately, the lemonade is ready to go, and my bike tires aren’t as flat as I thought. To the water!

Basil lemonade

  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 5 large basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice (about four ripe lemons)
  • 1/2 juiced lemon, quartered

Juice lemons. Cut half of one lemon into quarters.

Over high heat in a heavy-bottomed pot, heat sugar, water, basil leaves, and quartered lemon-half until sugar has dissolved. Let stand five minutes, pour into a bowl or large measuring cup, and chill up to four hours.

Pour lemon juice into a pitcher, and strain sugar-water-basil mixture into the pitcher as well. Stir, and add three to four cups of cold water, to taste. Alternately, you could use sparkling water for fizz.

Serve chilled, with basil leaves to garnish. Is improved greatly by a generous splash of vodka and a patch of sunshine to sip it in.

Chai tea: Perfect for thunderstorms.

When I was young, my parents had some very good luck with daycare providers. There weren’t after school programs or “amenities,” but there were very interesting people like Mrs. Gill and Mrs. DiAntonio, immigrant women with fantastic recipes who were at home all the time, cooking. And looking after me, I guess, but mostly cooking. And more often than not, they shared. From Mrs. DiAntonio, I learned about the other kind of amaretti cookies – the soft ones with the almond thumbprint in the centre, about how magnificent just tomato sauce could be on pasta, that mozzarella doesn’t come in bricks, and that wine is something that happens after you squish grapes with your feet. I never got to taste the wine, but Mr. DiAntonio would make it that way, and grew his own grapes to boot.

From Mrs. Gill, I learned about bright red tandoori chicken, still one of my favourite things, about samosas (and, incidentally, ketchup on samosas which is still the only way to have them) and potato pakoras and twisty orange jalebis and chai tea. At one point, Mrs. Gill and my mother traded skills – my mom taught Mrs. Gill to sew, and Mrs. Gill taught my mom about Indian cooking. Armed with spices Mrs. Gill had given her, my mom was able to make that chai tea at home. I still remember the taste of Mrs. Gill’s chai – it’s nothing like the Starbucks iteration, and nothing at all like what you buy in teabags labelled “chai tea.”

Today it rained a lot, and there was thunder (and I discovered that Molly is a scaredy cat), and I had a lot of housecleaning to do. A regular cup of tea would not quite have done. I don’t have Mrs. Gill’s recipe, but I remember the taste. If you don’t keep them in your kitchen, go buy the spices – you can buy them at Indian grocery stores, and you get a lot of them for not very much money. I buy most of my spices from Indian grocers (or from the Indian section of Superstore), because they are so plentiful and inexpensive.

So, here. A recipe for chai tea, which I’ll hope you enjoy anytime there’s thunder and downpour, even if you end up drinking it while cradling (and reassuring) a bawling kitten.

Chai tea

(Makes two cups)

  • 2 cups cold milk
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tbsp. whole green cardamom
  • 2 tsp. whole cloves
  • 2 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp. fennel seed
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 1 slice of ginger (sliced horizontally from ginger root, about the thickness of a quarter)
  • 1 piece dried orange peel (optional, but if you have it, all the better!)
  • 2 teabags of black tea

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, toast whole spices until just fragrant, about two minutes, moving them about the pan frequently. Reduce heat to medium, and add milk and honey, stirring to dissolve the honey. Add teabags once honey is dissolved, and allow to come very slowly to a gentle boil, about 40 minutes.

Once it begins to boil, remove the mixture from the stovetop and strain into mugs. Serve immediately.

Bribe Santa and warm your little bones with Mexican hot chocolate.

There was fog this morning, and I almost thought it was snowing. It was dense in parts, but clear in others, and maybe it wasn’t fog as much as it was the fluff of a low-slung cloud, but for the whole rest of the day I felt a chill in my bones. Especially the little ones in my feet, to where the heat of the office never seems to creep.

Tonight was the first night in a long stretch of nights where there wasn’t talk of holiday logistics, empty bank accounts, frustrating jobs, or family pressure. No leaving the apartment, nothing frantic. This evening, with a stack of toys and two rolls of paper to bring together, I ate this for dinner, and there was frothy chocolate and I felt warmth and cheer, as far down as the tiniest bones in the tips of my toes.

Please make this right now.

Mexican hot chocolate

For each big mug of hot chocolate, you will need:

  • 2 oz. dark chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. Mexican chili powder (or to taste)
  • 1.5 oz. Kahlua (or coffee liqueur)

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt dark chocolate into the milk, whisking as you do so that the chocolate doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pan. Once the chocolate is melted, stir in the vanilla, cinnamon, and chile powder, then whisk continuously until the mixture comes to just a boil. It’s got to be frothy, with a dense layer of bubbles on top.

Measure Kahlua into your mug, and then pour the hot chocolate mixture in. Stir to combine, and then drink right away. You can top it with whipped cream or marshmallows if you like, or on its own, with a side of sugar cookies for dunking.

This is rich stuff, and can work all on its own as dessert. It’s sweet, but not too sweet, and layered with spicy, robust flavours – dark chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and spice. It’s robust. It’s infinitely better than any seasonal hot chocolate that you’ll find at Starbucks or its ilk. And it goes well with the smell of wrapping paper, cookies, and tree.

Three more sleeps (that’s it!) and Santa’ll be here! I’ll bet if you leave a mug of this out for him, he’ll leave you something equally special. It’s caffeinated, so if you make yourself a mug too, maybe you’ll even stay up late enough to greet him?

Happy holidays!

August 6 was National Root Beer Float Day. Did you know? DID YOU CALL YOUR DAD?

And, most importantly, did you celebrate? I did everything except for the Dad-calling part because when I finally got around to celebrating it was after ten o’clock and he gets up at 4:30 in the morning because he’s insane.

I made a root beer float. Here are instructions. I know you know how to make one, but you’d be surprised what other people don’t know. I continue to be surprised by that.

ingredients.Root beer floats will forever be inextricably linked to dads. Particularly my dad, but I suppose you could replace my dad with your dad if you’re remembering, but if you want to remember my dad as an integral part of your childhood, I wouldn’t think anything of it.

There are a few things that I remember for their Dad-specificity – Cheez Whiz and marmalade sandwiches, long john doughnuts, Get Smart, sitting in front of my bedroom door to think about what I’d done while everyone else watched Star Trek … things that I’ve mentally filed next to “Parents > Dad” in my memory-bank, like that time I ordered kalamari at the Knight & Day on King George Highway on my twelfth birthday and I didn’t realize it was going to come out looking like spiders because I really didn’t know for sure what kalamari was at that point, or what a squid looked like, and I looked up with panicky eyes and my mom was all, “you don’t have to eat that,” but my dad made me eat it anyway because Knight & Day was even overpriced then, so I ate the spiders and tried to wash it all down with Orange Crush but then I got this gross feeling and threw up all over myself, and then I think my dad was going to make me eat the spiders that didn’t get covered in Crush-puke, but my mom was all, “it’s her birthday,” so I didn’t have to finish. My dad starts a lot of his stories with, “nobody else thought I was funny, but I laughed, and laughed, and laughed.”

Which is how I start a lot of my stories, actually.

Which I think means that my dad is hilarious.

He once ran for president of his union just to annoy the president, who ran every year unchallenged, and who had gotten just a tad too comfortable. He almost won. He would have had to move to Ottawa.

My dad is hilarious.

Dad didn’t just make me puke on myself, though. He made some good things, too. Like apple fritters, which were chunks of apple dipped in batter, then deep fried, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar. And bread, without a bread machine. He’d make the dough, and I wouldn’t be paying all that much attention, and then he’d stuff it in a huge, cleaned-out can, and then all of a sudden the house would smell like fresh bread and it was glorious, all yeasty and warm-smelling, and when it came out of the oven, it looked like a giant, super-tall muffin and he’d pop it out of the can and slice it up and we’d get to eat it with jam that my grandma had probably made and it was the best bread I’d ever had. I’ve never seen cans big enough to re-create his makeshift bread pans, and I’ve always kept my eye half-peeled. I bet when I find them, Nick and I will have to eat our way through a lot of baked beans.

Root beer always reminds me of Dad. The A&W kind, specifically, even though there are better root beers, and I can’t remember which parent introduced Henry Weinhardt’s into my life. But it’s A&W root beer when I think about floats, because that’s what we had (though sometimes we had floats with Orange Crush, or cream soda, and those were also quite good). That, and ice cream that comes in brick-form, or in those big buckets. I didn’t think ice cream came in either anymore. They do. And this was a very satisfying rediscovery.

You can make root beer floats fancy, but that’s not the point. There are some things that you have to think about as if you were eight years old, and they should never, ever change, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Change sometimes equals bastardization (see TMNT), and to bastardize the root beer float would be unholy. It gets its own day. Like Christmas. And Father’s Day.

If you didn’t celebrate, it’s not too late. Just grab a brick of ice cream and a bottle of root beer, pour yourself a float, and call my dad.

This is a picture of me and my dad. He's the one in black. I don't think he reads this.
This is a picture of me and my dad. He's the one in black. I don't think he reads this. We're dancing here, which is weird, since neither of us actually knows how.