Fairy Tale Food: The Gingerbread House

amovitam_gingerbread house 1“What came first,” my husband asked when I made this gingerbread house last year, “the pastry or the fairy tale?”

Good question. So I looked it up. According to the internet (scholarly fount of all wisdom), there isn’t any clear indication of when the first gingerbread house made its appearance on the scene of Christmas goodies, but it does seem that it was after the Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel” became popular. Gingerbread men or other gingerbread figures for gift-giving had been around since the Middle Ages, more or less, but shaping it into a house and glueing candy on it seems to have been inspired by this lovely story of child abandonment, attempted infanticide, and cannibalism.

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I have to say that that fairy tale was never one of my favourites – I prefer stories without bad guys, and this one has not only one very bad witch, but a nasty stepmother to boot. I did like Gretel’s bad-ass vanquishing of the witch, and the ending where Hansel and Gretel get home to their father and live happily ever after.

What I didn’t notice as a kid, though, was that Daddy isn’t that much of a good guy either. In fact, he’s an utter wet noodle; all his moaning and guilty conscience doesn’t make up for the fact that he lets his wife talk him into abandoning his kids in the forest. It even occurs to him that it would be better for him to share his last piece of bread with them and then starve together with them, but does he act on it? Not Mr Wet Dishrag, no. Standing up to the wife would require a backbone, and that he hasn’t got. Macbeth, indeed, has nothing on Hansel Sr.

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Another thing I never knew is that originally, the Grimms told the story with the nasty wife being not the children’s stepmother, but their real, biological mother (the stepmother entered the narrative around 1843, according to Hans-Jörg Uther*). Now doesn’t that put a nice spin on the story? Your mom is feeling a bit peckish, so in order as not to starve, she sends you out into the woods to die. Oh yeah, and Daddy ties a stick to a tree that makes a tapping noise so you think your parents are still around, chopping wood, while they sneak away and leave you to your doom. You’d think the witch would come as somewhat of a welcome relief after that kind of loving home life… So that’s your tragic backstory, before you even run into the cannibalistic witch with the overkill kiddie trap.

Oh yes, that trap? Grimms says specifically that the witch only built the bread house to lure children, not because it was her preferred construction material for superior country cottages. I’d call that overkill, wouldn’t you? Because, as I can tell you from experience, building a gingerbread house is a lot of work.

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However, it’s also a lot of fun. Here is a relatively simple version (not cheap, because of the honey, but that does give it a great taste and texture). No windows made of spun-sugar “glass”, but hey, if you want, you can add those, too.

Incidentally, you might note there is no ginger in this “gingerbread” – there never is in German Lebkuchen. Just plenty of other spices, which were historically so expensive they were reserved for Christmas baking (and sometimes all lumped together under the term “pepper”, hence the alternative term “Pfefferkuchen” – pepper cake – for gingerbread. You might know it from “Pfeffernüsse“, the cookie).

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Gingerbread House**

(this makes one large house plus several tiny ones and a bunch of gingerbread people or bears. For just a house, half the recipe will do. Imperial measurements are approximate.)

House
-1 kg (2 lbs) Honey
-250 ml (1 c) Water
bring to a boil; cool.

Mix/knead into:
-650 g (5 c) Rye Flour
-600 g (5 c) White Flour
-100 g (3 oz) each finely chopped Candied Lemon & Orange peel
-40 g (3 Tbsp) Lebkuchen-Spice (see below)***
-30 g (3 Tbsp) Baking Soda

Let rest for a few hours, up to a day or two.
For cookies or small gingerbread houses, roll out 1 cm (1/4″) thick, bake about 7-9 minutes at 400°F (200°C).

Dimensions for the large witch’s house:
Base plate, ca. 20×30 cm (8×12″), prick with fork, bake 12-18 minutes.
Roof (x2): 13×20 cm (5×8″).
House walls: (x2) 8×16 cm (3×6″); (x2) 16 cm (6″) wide with 16 cm (6″) high at the point of the gable.
Cut windows out of the side walls and a door out of one of the gable walls (can also be done immediately after baking). Bake ca. 12 min.
Make fence posts, window shutters, chimney pieces, small trees etc. out of the remaining bits of dough – maybe even a Hansel and Gretel and a witch?
Cool everything.

Icing
-500 g (1 lb) Icing Sugar
-2 Tbsp Lemon Juice
-3 Egg Whites
Mix together to thick consistency (kind of like peanut butter). If it’s too runny, add more icing sugar; if too stiff, more lemon juice or water, a teaspoonful at a time. If you want to keep it vegan, skip the egg whites and just use lemon juice.
For the house construction, you might want to trim the edges with a knife so they are straight and hold together better. Support the roof plates (prop a cup under the bottom edge) until the icing has dried a bit and they no longer slide off. When things are holding together, go to town with covering everything in icing “snow” and candies. “Icicles” at the corners of the roof can be achieved by dribbling runny icing down the edge.

***Lebkuchen-Spice (Neunerlei – Nine Spice)
Lebkuchen spice can be bought ready-mixed, but if you can’t get it, here’s my own blend that I made up from the ingredients list on the package. All the spices are ground.

Zest of 1 orange & 1 lemon
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp star anise
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp mace
1/4 tsp fennel
1/2 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp cardamom

To build into full-size cottage, multiply ingredients by approximately 500. Proceed as above, but build roof out of smaller tiles and use scaffolding for construction. In case of intrusion by marauding small children, keep phone number of child welfare services on hand to report the parents for abandonment.

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References:
*Hans-Jörg Uther, Handbuch zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013. p.13.
**recipe adapted from: Christian Teubner & Annette Wolter, Backvergnügen wie noch nie. München: Gräfe und Unzer, 1984.

Let Them Eat Cake, or: How to Have Kaffee und Kuchen

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The cake buffet

The first event on my current trip to Germany was yet another family birthday, a big one. And, as is usual, it was celebrated with food – lovely food, homemade food, mountains and lashings of food. In this case, cake.

Germany has a cake culture. Well, a whole baked-goods culture, actually – it’s the country with the most varieties of bread, which is the staple food, eaten for breakfast, break (even called “Brotzeit“, bread time, in some places), and supper. (Dinner – eaten at midday – is a cooked meal, and it does not usually include bread.) Having a good bakery in easy reach is crucial for one’s comfort – “Give us this day our daily bread”, and all that.

But there are times when the occasion calls for cake. And Germans know how to make the most of it. None of this “Bake one cake, and serve a single slice at the end of a large meal when you’re already stuffed” thing. No – cake (like bread) needs to be properly appreciated. So eating cake is a separate meal here: Kaffee und Kuchen, coffee and cake. It takes place in the mid-afternoon, half-way between dinner/lunch and supper, and it consists of, well, coffee and cake. Or tea and cake, or cocoa or milk or juice and cake.

Now, let me be clear: this is not a daily occurrence. Not even a weekly one, to the extent I’m showing it here. It’s a special-occasion one, for holidays, celebrations and company. On an ordinary weekday, many Germans have a cup of coffee and perhaps a few cookies or some other goodie in the middle of the afternoon; and for Sundays, they might bake a cake – a simpler one, say, a pound cake – or get a few pieces of Torte from the aforementioned bakery. But if there’s special company (like, a relative who’s visiting from Canada), or it’s Easter, or someone has a big-number birthday, they’ll pull out all the stops. It’s perfect for inviting guests – as festive as you could wish, but you can prepare everything ahead of time, don’t have to fuss with hot food, and the guests don’t stay ’til all hours.

So next time you find yourself in Germany, and someone says “Kommen Sie zum Kaffee!” (“Come for coffee!”), first of all, feel honoured (Germans aren’t quick to invite people to their houses, so an invitation like that is special). And here is what you can expect:

Kaffee und Kuchen usually happens around 4:00 PM, or 16:00 Uhr (saykh-tsayn Oor, sixteen o’clock). It’s not just a quick hand-you-a-cup-of-coffee affair, but a sit-down meal at a nicely set table, and it can easily last an hour or more – because, of course, eating is only part of the point; having a conversation is the main thing.

Kaffee
One of the fancy-set tables

For a proper Kaffee a hostess will often put out her good china, and perhaps bring out a nice cut-crystal dish for the whipped cream. (Side note: no ice cream with cake here – ice cream is another thing that’s enjoyed by itself in its own right, not as an afterthought to cake; and it usually comes out as an immediate after-dinner dessert or special treat, not with Kaffee und Kuchen). The table is set with cake plates, coffee cups & saucers, cake forks and teaspoons. In the middle of the table, there’s the creamer and sugar bowl, whipped cream, and platter of cake – or platters, rather, as it’s usual to have at least two, if not three or more kinds of cakes.

The number of goodie varieties depends on the number of guests, of course. For today’s birthday party, which took place in a church hall and had about 45 guests, there were 12 cakes. Go ahead, pick up your dropped jaw again. It was lavish, and people commented on just how lavish (especially as the hostess had baked almost all of the cakes herself), but not all that unusual. Did I mention Germans know how to appreciate cake? By the end, about half or two-thirds of the cakes had been eaten, and whoever wanted to got to take a few pieces of the remainders home.

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Some of the aftermath, complete with paper plates for leftovers.

Of course with this number of cakes you don’t get to try every single variety – not because it would be socially unacceptable, but because it’s physically impossible. So you choose your favourites, and have those (apricot cheese cake, raspberry cream, red currant meringue, and fruit flan for me, in this case). With a buffet-style Kaffee und Kuchen like we had today, it’s fine to put a couple of pieces of cake on your plate at once, eat them, and go back for seconds; in a smaller circle (which is the normal way) you’ll just let your hostess serve you one piece at a time, eat it, make appreciative noises, then have another one. Repeat until fill point is reached, then say “Nein, danke!” (No, thank you!) to the next offering (you might have to repeat that phrase several times with escalating levels of firmness before it’s accepted as a fact that you actually don’t want more).

Speaking of appreciative noises, letting your hostess or host know that their cakes are amazing, impressive and utterly delicious and that you’d love to have more but you absolutely can’t (“Ich kann nicht mehr!“) is always acceptable. Appreciated hostess is a happy hostess, and you’re that much more likely to get invited back next time. Incidentally, you might also bring along a little hostess gift to express your gratitude for the invitation, especially if it is a special occasion – some flowers, or chocolates, or what-have-you.

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Someone’s leftover-cake package with the butterfly decorations from the tables.

By the way, Kaffee und Kuchen is something that’s practised at all ages. A children’s birthday party is often held as a Kaffee – it’s still called that even though the kids don’t drink coffee, but have cocoa or juice or pop. Also, the goodies are often more kid-friendly; one of my aunts, who long since passed away, for kids always made her specialty of fresh-baked waffle cones, which she filled right in front of you with whipped cream from a cream syphon (the kind that coffee shops top fancy drinks with) – it was very exciting.

As I said before, many Germans will bake their own cakes for a nice Kaffee und Kuchen, but it’s also perfectly acceptable to buy some from a bakery, which will usually have a really good selection. Another option for Kaffee und Kuchen is to go to a café for it. In that case, the timing is the same (mid-afternoon on Sundays or special occasions – perhaps on an outing), but you’ll generally only order one piece of cake with your cup of coffee or tea – and that’s usually enough, too, as café portions tend to be generous.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever heard the term Kaffeeklatsch or Coffee Klatsch, that’s where it comes from: women meeting in the afternoon over Kaffee und Kuchen and having a big gossip fest.

Life, the Universe, Kaffee und Kuchen. What’s your favourite kind?

Stuttgart: a Brief Photo Collage

I just spent another couple of weeks in Germany on a short family visit. Just to catch you up, here’s a few pictures of Stuttgart in February (mouse over the photos for captions, or click on one for a slide show):

 

Holiday Slide Show, Part 3

Slide holder is changed. Here goes the rest. (Yes, lil’ Joey, Aunty A. is almost done; then you can go out and play. I brought you a chocolate from Germany; you can at least have the good manners to sit through my slide show, can’t you? Oh, fine, here, have some more gummibears.)

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We went on a train. That’s how fast it went. Yup. You think the Autobahn is fast? ICE trains leave those cars in the dust.
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This is the lovely little town of Wetzlar, in Hesse (central Germany). The town centre is almost unchanged from 240 years ago, when the young Goethe visited here – a visit which inspired him to write his runaway bestseller “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.
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You barely need any imagination to see Goethe walking through these streets. Do away with the cars, add a few powdered wigs and pannier dresses, and you’re in the late 18th century.
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Fachwerk – half-timbering. Isn’t this beautiful?
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And THIS is the Lottehaus, the very house where Goethe met Charlotte Buff, the original of the Lotte in the book with whom Werther falls in love. (DESPERATELY. Clutch hair, press wrist to forehead. I mean, emo isn’t even in it.) The Werther story is almost entirely autobiographical – however, those aspects end, obviously, before Werther blows his brains out (Goethe survived to a good old age). That part was modelled on the suicide of a guy named Jerusalem, which happened in the red-beamed house on the far right of the above picture.
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I was fascinated by the slate tiles on the roofs – so different from the red clay tiles which dominate in Southern Germany. Sometimes the whole side of the house is tiled in these, arranged in fancy patterns. Incidentally, this is the roof of the Lottehaus.
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Germans have their ducks in a row.
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Pretty flower being pretty.
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The Cathedral in Wetzlar. There’s a story here too, but I’ll tell you that some other time.
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This is how Germans celebrate birthdays. Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) is a meal in its own right, and you can see here why. Mind you, that’s not a daily or even weekly occurrence, just for special occasions. But then you pull out all the stops. Oh, and all those cakes are homemade.
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In a field on the edge of town: Flowers, 50 cents. In other words, you drop half a Euro into the little box on the post, and help yourself to a sunflower bouquet (a knife to cut it is provided as well). Gotta love it.
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Warnings in the commuter train on the way back to the airport: Don’t Eat Bananas. Don’t Listen to Music Off-Key. And above all, Do NOT Play the Accordion! I thought y’all needed to see that; who knows, it might prevent disaster.

Chick-chook, and there’s that last slide. Turn on the lights in the room, yawn and pretend you hadn’t dozed off half-way through. These were just the highlights, anyway – I spared you the other 790 pictures I could have inflicted on you as well; aren’t you grateful?

And that, folks, was Life, the Universe, and What I Did On My Holidays. Thanks for listening!

Holiday Slide Show, Part 2

Okay, the second slide holder is in. Lights off, here we go (chick-chook):

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Palaces aren’t the only buildings that were dripping with gilding and marble in the Baroque. This is the Abbey Church of Fürstenfeld, outside of Munich, which was one of the strongholds of the Counter Reformation. They pulled out all the stops to convince the people that the Catholic church was worth sticking with. Speaking of pulling out all the stops, we got to hear an organ concert here – it was fantastic.
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Yes, that’s a dead guy. A 1900-year-old dead guy, to be precise – St. Hyacinth, who starved to death at the age of 12 around the year 100 AD because he refused to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. You can tell that his weight loss program was effective. But at least he got impressive duds out of the deal, even if it was a millennium or two after the fact.
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Munich has several world famous art museums. I took the time out to visit the Neue Pinakothek, which holds a selection of 19th-century art – well, from the late 18th century to the early 20th. I was thrilled to find that there were several pieces by Angelica Kauffmann – for example, this, her most famous self-portrait. She’s got to be awesome with a name like that, no?
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Moritz von Schwind, “The Fairy Tale of Cinderella”. Probably my most favourite piece in the whole collection… (sorry, Vincent van Gogh).
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Cinderella tries on the shoe.
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One of the labels in the frame.
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Fernand Khnopff, “I Close the Door Upon Myself”. There’s something about this chick’s eyes that I find kind of creepy, in a rather awesome way.
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Klimt, “Margaret Stoneborough-Wittgenstein”. My favourite of all the famous pieces there.
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A German supper: at least three different kinds of bread, cheeses, meats, tomatoes, stuffed peppers… I miss it. Can I go back?

Another slide holder change…

Holiday Slide Show, Part 1

I’ve been trying to think of witty things to say about this trip which Steve and I just got back from. Erudite things, informative ones – but I can’t really come up with anything. So I think I’ll just show you a few pictures, and you can decide yourself what you think of it all.

Imagine yourself in my living room, the blinds drawn, a slide projector set up, and the painting of the West Coast taken off its hook so I can project my pictures against its spot on the white wall. (That, dear children, is why they call it a ‘slide show’ when you put pictures in consecutive order to show to people. It’s how folks back in the dark ages, ca. 1975, shared their holiday experiences with friends, family, and other unsuspecting victims. Depending on the liveliness of the presenter, one was rather apt to want to fall asleep – the darkened room didn’t help. However…)

So here goes, the first slide (chick-chook goes the slide projector):

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Air Canada Jazz planes looking decorative at the Calgary airport, where we switched from a little cloud hopper like this (I think ours had a yellow leaf on in) to one of the big jets.
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Munich, Marienplatz. The towers in the background are those of the Frauenkirche (Our Lady’s Church), the icon of Munich. This is the Fussgängerzone (pedestrian zone), which is roughly speaking a giant outdoor mall. I love Fussgängerzonen. Stroll around on the city streets, with no cars to get in your way – it’s the best shopping and hanging-out-in-the-city experience ever.
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Munich City Hall. What everyone is staring at is the Glockenspiel, the musical bells, where a bunch of little puppet guys pop out of the tower and do a dance. It’s sort of half-way up the tower.
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Weisswurst and a Brezel at the Viktualienmarkt (victuals market) in Munich. They’re an institution. Oh, and Weisswurstsenf – a special sweet mustard which is mandatory to eat with Weisswurst.
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View over the Marienplatz through the ancient window panes of the toy museum.
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Nymphenburg, the baroque summer palace of the kings of Bavaria.
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I did say baroque, didn’t I?
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A selfie the old-fashioned way. The green bed in the background is where Ludwig II of Bavaria was born (the royal nut bar who built Neuschwanstein, that Disneyland castle that Americans are all so terribly fond of).
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Nymphenburg was, and still is, the site of a world-famous porcelain manufactury. These are from the 18th century, by Bustelli (I think). They’re no more than 20cm (8″) high; the detail is astounding.

Excuse me while I change the slide holder. Anybody want another drink of Spezi (cola-orange pop mix) or Apfelschorle (apple juice spritzer) while I do that? No?

To be continued…

Gingerbread!

Lebkuchen (1)Except, I lie. Not one speck of ginger, fresh or dried, has come near these goodies. They are, in fact, genuine, honest-to-goodness German Lebkuchen. Yes, I know, I know, over here we call them gingerbread. So be it – as long as you keep in mind that ginger plays no part in it.

It’s a new recipe I tried from a cookbook I’ve had for a long time, and I’m very pleased with it. It tastes exactly like Lebkuchen should.  Except for the texture – boughten Lebkuchen, the ones from Nuremberg (which is famous for them), are soft and kind of chewy, more of a cake texture; these things that I baked today went rock-hard once they cooled off, kind of like biscotti. I guess they’re dunkers. Put on a pot of Glühwein (mulled wine), or if you don’t want the booze, some spiced soft cider, and you’re in business. Aaah.

Lebkuchen (3)It’s the quintessential Christmas goodie, loaded with ingredients that for Germans are exotic imports, because they can’t be grown in north-central Europe. Almonds, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg – things that come from the south.

And now they’re going into the cookie tin, the big one with the rounded lid, which years ago came in a Christmas parcel, filled with the real chocolate-glazed Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Of course, it’s the tin for keeping those gingerbread cookies in – just look at the picture on the lid!Lebkuchen (2) It shows exactly that kind of cookie, almonds and all. Baked by friendly little dwarfs, no less, who get the nuts from a squirrel family, take them home to their dwarfs’ cottage, bake them into gingerbread, and then take some back to the squirrels to share.

And just so you can share, too (maybe not with squirrels, but I’m sure you’ve got some friends who might be into it) here’s the recipe:

ALMOND LEBKUCHEN
***
4 eggs
250g sugar
400g flour
1 tsp baking powder
400g ground whole almonds
100g mixed candied peel
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp each cloves, nutmeg and allspice
***
1 egg yolk
80 blanched almonds
***
Beat the eggs with the sugar until foamy. Sift together flour and baking powder, mix with almonds and spices. Stir into the eggs and sugar, knead together into a firm dough. Wrap dough in tin foil or parchment paper; put in the fridge (or on your sub-zero-temperature deck) for two hours to rest.
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F). Roll dough on floured surface to 1cm thickness. Cut into 40 even-sized squares; put on a cookie sheet. Beat the egg yolk with a little bit of water. Brush squares with egg wash, decorate with one almond half in each corner (I used sliced almonds instead). Bake on the centre rack of the oven for 20 minutes or until light brown. Cool on racks. Store in Lebkuchen tin with pictures of friendly dwarfs on the outside. Defend from marauding family members so a few cookies are left until Christmas.

And as a bonus, here’s how I make Glühwein and/or mulled cider:
MULLED WINE/CIDER
1 bottle of red wine, or 1 litre of apple juice
1 cinnamon stick
about half a dozen whole cloves
if using wine, about 1/4 c sugar (or more, to taste)
***
Put all ingredients together in a slow cooker or a pot on low heat. Simmer anywhere from 1hr to all afternoon. Serve in mugs. Perfect while shopping at the Christmas market with snow drifting down on you, or perhaps while going carolling. Or just for sitting by the fireside and dunking gingerbread into.

There you are. Life, the Universe, Gingerbread and Mulled Wine. Wassail!