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 Case Study | Mull This

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PostSubject: Case Study | Mull This   Mon Feb 28, 2011 4:07 pm

Photograph by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times, arrangement by Toby Cecchini

I’ve never had a particularly great rapport with mulled wine, that
staple of ski slopes and Christmas markets throughout Northern Europe.
In theory it should be a tremendously restorative, literally
heartwarming (one tries to avoid the reference to Gemütlichkeit)
tonic from the alpine quiver, carried to table preferably by a St.
Bernard. In reality, however, I couldn’t count how many frankly
off-putting mulled wines I’ve choked down slopeside over the years:
harsh reds gussied up with a load of sugar and overwhelming spices to
cover their unpalatable edge, then cooked, which only intensifies the
jangle. Nein, danke.
But the other week found me clomping mid-blizzard into the Upholstery Store, the year-old wine bar semi-attached to Wallse,
Kurt Gutenbrunner’s restaurant on Washington Street in the West
Village. The waiter offered gluhwein (literally “glow wine,” in German,
for its chuffing effect), and it was so in sync with the weather that I
couldn’t refuse. The hot elixir he poured from an antique silver teapot
was unlike any mulled wine I’ve ever had: softly spiced, broadened with
vanilla but by no measure overly sweet. I was, in fact, paying no
attention to the drink, lost in a business meeting, when I took my first
sip and was pulled astray: Oh, oops: waiter, there’s something
exquisite in my glass. …
While varying wildly on ingredients, the majority of recipes for what
would seem the obvious process of mulling wine will tell you to follow
roughly the same protocol: dump sugar and spices into a big pan of red
wine (typically, although some people use whites as well) and fire away.
Some say to boil it up hard and fast, some say cook it slow and low for
hours. All make for what Gutenbrunner describes as “a bad Christmas
cookie.” If there is a secret to his delicious gluhwein, it’s that he
doesn’t actually cook it. He infuses the spices at room temp and not for
terribly long — a few hours, he says — before straining them off, and
then heats it only for serving. This small change in process comes off
in the final drink as a revelation, teasing the flavors subtly out of
the spices and citrus rather than wringing them out while boiling off
the floral and citrus high notes.
Though entirely forthcoming about his ingredients, Gutenbrunner
wouldn’t give me an exact recipe, emphasizing how using instinct and
what appeals to one’s own palate is often the best way to cook. After
recommending a northern Italian red as his base, he brushed it aside
breezily: “Look, use what wine you have. But just don’t kill the wine.”
He took a similar tack on quantities: none provided. Use … some. Enough,
but not too much. Maddening if you’re an A-type, but an amusing Zen
exercise that reminds you that all recipes are really just suggestions.
The safety net in this game of instinct is that without the heat, you
really can play much more fast and loose, while the spices, vanilla and
sweeteners still do cover up a litany of ills. I made my first batch
with two bottles of D-grade southern French merlot I had laying about —
cooking wine, literally. I cut the citrus peels off roughly, including
the pith; used a pliers to crack up the cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and
star anise; left out some of his ingredients; and added others I found
in my cupboard. I forgot about it for almost a day and a half, and still
the result was astonishingly nice. Gutenbrunner mentioned a friend who
likes to add orange juice to his. “Really anything goes with this
recipe,” he says, adding that you can also goose it with a high-strength
rum to make what the Teutons call jagertee, or hunter’s tea.
I found that a squeeze of fresh lemon dropped into mine at the end
brought it all to an extraordinarily perfect balance, and now I’m
watching the icy rain outside with my hands around a hot mug and a
conspirator’s smirk on my face.
Gluhwein ingredients, from Kurt Gutenbrunner:
Red wine
Frozen huckleberries
Star anise
Cardamom
Nutmeg
Mace blossom (ground)
Vanilla bean
Allspice
Honey
Orange peel
Lime zest
Black pepper
Coriander
Cinnamon
Cloves
Sugar
To which I add my own options:
Peels of any alternate citrus: grapefruit, tangerine, lemon, pomelo
Powdered ginger
Dried elderflower
In a large, nonreactive (glass, plastic or stainless) bowl or pot,
pour room temperature wine. Add whatever ingredients you like except the
sugar and honey. Cover and macerate for anywhere from a couple of hours
to a day, tasting at intervals to determine the strength of the spices.
When the spices are prevalent to your liking, strain off and add honey
and sugar (either or both) in small amounts just until it begins to seem
sweet. Always underplay the sweetness; you can add more later, if need
be. Keep in an airtight jar and refrigerate. When ready to drink, heat
lightly on low, never boiling. Garnish as you please, with a cinnamon
stick, a slice of orange spiked with cloves, a squeeze of lemon, a
dusting of nutmeg, a stag’s horn. …
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