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Heat up cold nights with mulled wine Add to ...

They do it all night in Scandinavia. They do it in public in Eastern Europe. In Germany, there's a hard-core twist I've seen only in steamy YouTube videos.

Making mulled wine is something of an art in Europe during the holidays. Each culture has its own variant, though the basic principle is the same. Heat wine - usually red - with a mix of spices, sugar and fruit, ladle into mugs.

In some countries, it's served with aesthetic flair, and some cases evenflare. The Nordic version, known as glogg, is blended the day before to get the flavours mingling and calls for a floating garnish of raisins and blanched almond slices. In Germany, there's an extreme ritual called Feuerzangenbowle, in which a rum-soaked sugar cone is set ablaze and drips into the simmering wine. At the glorious outdoor Prague Christmas Market, you can sip svarene vino when you need it most, while shopping in the cold air.

One thing I love about mulled wine is you don't even have to drink alcohol to enjoy the stuff. The aroma is half the pleasure, like a fresh-cut spruce or mom's holiday baking.

Problem is, concoctions that tend to pass for mulled wine on this continent can be ghastly. Bad wine, the wrong spice combination or too much sugar can put a person off mulled wine for life. But the biggest culprit, in my experience, is heat - namely too much. The key is to warm the wine until it starts to give off steam. Once that happens, immediately turn down the element to the lowest setting and keep the pan at a bare simmer for 20 or 25 minutes. Never allow the mixture to boil or it will take on a cooked-prune-like flavour.

Technically, any wine is fair game, but it's critical it be something you enjoy drinking at room temperature. Hot plonk is still plonk. I generally prefer European reds, such as Côtes du Rhône from France, tempranillo from Spain or montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Italy, because European wines tend to be higher in acid than most wines from the New World, and heat can soften the acidity on the palate. They also tend to be lighter in colour. Inky mulled wine is not appealing.

Recipes vary but common ingredients include cloves, cinnamon, star anise and citrus (though berries are often used as a garnish). I like cardamom best of all, either ground or in the form of whole pods. It's an underappreciated spice, I think, with an attractively fresh fragrance. Gluhwein, the version popular in Germany, Austria and Alsace, France, often contains vanilla pods. But I'm not much of a fan: It gives the drink a cloying Starbucks note I don't enjoy.

The drink goes by many local names, as you'll discover travelling through Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Italy, among other places. But it's the Scandinavian version that may have the most familiar name here, glogg. That region also boasts the most heartwarming recipe, which usually calls for a good splash of spirit, usually in the form of akvavit or vodka. Those bottles sold at Ikea, by the way, are non-alcoholic and must be spiked with spirit. You can also find flavour concentrates designed to be reconstituted with red wine.

Don'tbother with prepared products: You can create a better-tasting blend more cheaply with spices from the pantry. If the spices have been sitting around for ages, take a smart cue from Cook's Illustrated magazine and toast them briefly in a non-stick skillet to unlock more flavour. The magazine also recommends simmering the brew for a full hour, though I've had good results in less than 25 minutes.

Powdered spices dissolve neatly into the wine, but there's no need to grind whole cloves, star anise or cinnamon. Cheesecloth tied into a sack with butcher's twine works nicely, as will a strainer. Alternatively, you can stud the peel of a whole orange or lemon with cloves to keep them out of your mug.

Like the Scandinavians, you can make mulled wine ahead of time and gently reheat when guests arrive. Until Ikea comes up with a glogg-scented candle, mulled wine may be the easiest way to get your home smelling like the holidays.

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