Offscript: Chilly weather sippers

Meeting for coffee or tea is a great way to connect with community members. You never know who you’re going to see. (Crystal Apilado/Winters Express)

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As an adult, or so my age says, I have really come to appreciate what downtown Winters has become.

There is something special about having the opportunity to enjoy good food, good drinks and good company within city limits. These little joys are especially important right now as we make efforts to reconnect and make up for lost time together.

The California version of Autumn has begun to transform into its version of Winter with chilly temperatures, misty atmospheres and even colder nights. There are so many places in town to enjoy a hot sip of something.

One of my favorites is Steady Eddy’s Coffee Shop. I love the outdoor seating areas. There’s something comforting in sitting out in the brisk air with a hot cuppa in your hands. Between home-roasted coffee varieties, fancy mochas and lattes, and a selection of teas to choose from there is something for everyone. My daughters appreciate a cup of hot cocoa topped with a mountain of whipped cream.

I’m also a fan of enjoying an after meal cup of coffee or tea at Preserve and Carboni’s Risorante. Both also have a fantastic outdoor seating area to enjoy the California winter.

However, Putah Creek Cafe cannot be beat if you’re looking for a simple cup of coffee and good company. One of my favorite things to do is to go in early to see the ranchers at their morning breakfast table. It must be one of those small-town joys and community comforts.

It’s the perfect time of the year to bring out the crock pots and dutch ovens to make delicious hot drinks (with or without the alcohol) to enjoy at home. Even more of a delight is mostly everything, depending on how fancy you want to get, can be bought from around town.

Cider sipping
Mulled cider is one of my favorite drinks. My favorite version came from a restaurant I worked in when I lived in Portland and includes mulling spices, cranberry juice, fresh squeezed lemons and local honey. I have used (and seen in recipes) both bourbon or brandy added to mulled cider recipes for an adult beverage. 

Other recipes I’ve seen include a spiced version with fresh oranges studded with cloves, black pepper and brown sugar. These are more along the lines of a traditional Wassail recipe made for Christmas or New Year’s.

If apple cider is not your jam, perhaps you’re more likely to be found curled up with a book sipping on mulled wine. Winters and Capay Valley offer a variety of wineries to choose from. There is no shortage of good wine here. Red wines tend to be the popular choice, however white wines also make a delightful sipper. 

Traditional mulling spices and cinnamon bark are also used in these recipes. However, instead of sugar you may opt to try a local infused honey or maple syrup. brandy, bourbon or cognac are often used to spike a mulled wine recipe. I have seen that any favorite liqueur will do though. I’d assume it’s up to personal tastes and preferences to find the balance of spice, sweetness and warmth.

Tips for a smooth cup
I prefer to use whole spices vs ground spices. Whole ingredients allow the drinks to infuse better than sprinkling in finely ground spices that may not incorporate in as well. Occasionally we also cheat and buy mulling spices packaged in little tea bags. They make crafting it in the crock pot really easy.

The use of a fine mesh strainer or a cheesecloth also helps to strain out any stray spice ingredients from your final product. At my house we make a big batch and strain it a few times to try and get any floaties out. Then once it has cooled down we repurposed the giant apple cider bottle to save for later.

Hot Apple Pie cocktail
Other popular cold weather, spirited drinks include hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps, hot toddies, and the Tomat’s Hot Apple Pie.

Since they’ve retired, you can create your own Hot Apple Pie cocktail with a mug of hot apple cider and about 1 ½ ounces of Tuaca (an Italian brandy-based liqueur with hints of orange and vanilla). Top it off with whipped cream and a light dusting of cinnamon or a cinnamon stick. That’s how Susan De la O used to make it. I’ve watched her make it hundreds of times over the years, usually for me.

Cocoa Sipping
My family enjoys a mug of homemade cocoa. I don’t care much for the packets you mix into hot water. Although, I will not knock them completely. When it comes to convenience and consistency — or when a four-year-old child insists she can do it herself — they get the job done.

My favorite weekend morning is to make a big pot of hot chocolate with milk, cacao powder and a sweetener of choice. I also like to dust in cinnamon for a little extra family-friendly kick.

While my children prefer their cocoa made with whole milk, I have been using a nut milk. So far my favorites have been hazelnut and walnut. I’ve been dabbling with cashew milk. Any other alternative milk can be used if you prefer coconut, oat or soy milk.

For a sweetener I prefer the pure maple syrup. However, my husband is a fan of honey. We have quite a few local beekeepers who make a variety of types of honey so we like to have fun with the different honey varieties in our cocoa and our morning cup of coffee.

I use organic cacao powder because I’ve been trying to cut down on sugars. I’ve also read that it has some great health benefits, and I now put intention into what I put into my body and diet. But cocoa powder can also be used just fine. Cocoa powder comes with its own set of benefits, especially when compared to the manufactured counterparts.

Hot cocoa recipe – Serves two

2 cups milk of choice
2 tablespoons cacao or cocoa powder
1 tablespoon maple syrup, honey or sugar of choice.
½ teaspoon vanilla
Pinch sea salt

In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the milk, cacao/cocoa powder, sweetener of choice and whisk until smooth. Once combined, add in the vanilla and a pinch of salt (this is where I add a sprinkle of cinnamon). Continue to mix until smooth.

Once combined, turn it to medium heat, and bring the milk to a simmer, stirring often often. Don’t let it boil.

Tips for a smooth cup
If you’re unsure of the sweetener preference, start by adding in one to two teaspoons at first. You can add more as you go suiting your preference. You won’t want to go over the one tablespoon or it may overpower the chocolate flavor.

Some sweeteners mix better in warm liquid than cold. Also, I do not suggest mixing sweeteners. The different flavors can be overwhelming by themselves, mixing them may overwhelm the chocolate taste.

Don’t let your mixture come to a full boil. You want to heat it, but not to the point that it begins to get filmy at the top.

If your cocoa is a bit grainy you can pour it through a fine mesh strainer to help filter out chunks or anything.

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