As the weather has gotten cooler and the pandemic news grimmer, we’ve cast our eyes ahead toward the holidays and the long winter to come and joined the hordes of Americans buying fire pits. We’ve socialized extremely rarely over the months since March, always outdoors, masked and socially distanced, but the encroaching dark and cold clearly call for new strategies, and I’ve hoped that having a backyard fire would provide a means to safely socialize with friends just a bit longer into the cold months, before the reality of winter and conducting most relationships via Zoom sets in.
I can see the end already, though. While I generally like the cold, here in Maryland right now the fire pit is adding just enough warmth to the increasingly chilly evenings that the half of my body facing the fire still enjoys being outside, while my backside, facing the dark and the cold, is ready to go back inside and return to its well-worn divot on the couch.
Still, I plan to hold out as long as I can. To be by the fire feels comforting, primal and human in a way little else does right now.
If yours is one of the many households that has acquired a fire pit to help you cope with the upcoming hellish winter or facilitate a safer gathering for Thanksgiving, you might consider doing this cocktail over it. Much has been written about the communal nature of punch, the flowing bowl around which celebrants come together, and if there’s anything that will increase the large-format cocktail’s inherent invitation to gather, it’s adding a fire underneath it — casting light and warmth and giving people something to stare at. Put on your jackets, put your chairs in a circle a safe distance around the fire, and pass out the blankets and mugs.
Some fire pits come with grates that allow for cooking, but if you have one that doesn’t accommodate a grate, you can buy a steel tripod that will allow you to suspend a Dutch oven above your pit. I’ve made hot drinks over both models, and each of them is workable. But you can easily do this on the stove top instead – in fact, the stove top is really optimal, because it makes controlling the heat easier.
I offer the fire pit option only because, for me at least, gathering with a few others around a fire, the vast outdoors around us, has felt like one of the few true comforts of the past eight months, and one of the few that seems safe to indulge in. Smelling spices toasting over a fire you’ve made and watching the steam start to gather above a pot full of wine and autumn fruit – well, the world isn’t offering too many good things right now, but this feels like one. It’s also a cocktail that facilitates social distancing: Once the drink is hot, each person can approach the pot in turn and ladle out their own portion, minimizing the need to get close for serving.
There are any number of hot drinks you could do in this large-format, fire pit mode, so I invite you to find a favorite recipe and experiment with scaling it up. I’ve done versions of spiced cider and Irish coffee this way. But for the holidays, I circled back to an idea that’s been floating in the back of my head for years: turning a classic dessert into a cocktail.
The dish I’ve had in mind is pears poached in port. It’s delicious and festive, yet pretty simple to prepare. And it captures the flavors and colors I want to experience during autumn: the voluptuous fruit glazed in deep burgundy hues, the dig of your spoon exposing the golden flesh underneath, the whole dish redolent with cinnamon and cloves. Throw a little vanilla or ginger ice cream in with it, or serve the pears over a slice of pound cake, the syrup soaking into the crumb. Heck, do both. A pandemic is no time for dieting.
When I’ve made this dessert, I usually reduce the liquid I’ve used to poach the pears down a bit, so it becomes a rich syrup to pour over the pears and ice cream. But it’s amazing the syrup ever makes it to serving. I can’t cook without snacking on ingredients as I eat, and the flavor of the poaching liquid is so delicious, I’ve long thought it deserves more of the spotlight. Hence this cocktail, in which the pears themselves are optional, but the classic flavors of the dessert become a warm, cozy cocktail – to sip in front of the fire, or in front of whatever show you’re bingeing to get through this craziness.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
— Look for fruit that’s just ripe. If you decide to include the pears to serve as a dessert later, look for ones that are just ripening – not hard and woody, not soft. Feel around the stem, and if the pear gives a little right there at the top, you’ve got the just-right Goldilocks of pears. Most supermarket varieties will work fine here; the degree of ripeness is more important than the type, since an overly ripe pear may fall apart in its hot wine bath, and an unripe hard pear won’t absorb enough of the liquid or soften enough during the cooking process to work for the dessert.
— Prep the serving mugs. It’s not critical, but if you’re able to warm the punch cups or mugs in advance by filling them with hot water as the drink warms, your drinks will stay warm longer once you serve them.
— If you’re cooking over a fire, using one pot is fine. For the sake of ease, you may opt to toast the spices in the same pot the drink will be made in. Once the spices have toasted over the fire for a few minutes, just add the pear nectar, port and strips of orange peel. The liquids may sizzle a bit, but that’s OK. Just stir them up with the spices and watch for the drink to start steaming. The cook time will depend on the heat of your fire – I got the best results putting the pot on once the biggest flames had started to die down a bit.
— Let it steam, but don’t let it boil. While you’re not going to lose all the alcohol content as the drink warms, you don’t really want the drink to boil. Allowing it to simmer for 5 to 10 minutes is fine; that will provide more time for the spices to infuse. But if you see the drink is starting to bubble, take it off the fire. Add the brandy and bitters, stir it up, and it’ll be ready to serve.
— Practice fire safety. Keep some water nearby in case of rebellious sparks, and you’ll want a good oven mitt or work glove to handle the pot.
Active time: 15 minutes | Total time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
If you want a little more sweetness, add a tablespoon of brown sugar, or maple syrup to taste. You can even cook ripe pears in this drink as it warms, and serve them with vanilla or ginger ice cream. If you opt to do this, add them to the pot with the nectar and port.
Storage Notes: The leftover cooked pears can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
- 6 allspice berries
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 whole cloves
- 6 black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 cups pear nectar
- 1 1/2 cups ruby port
- 4 ripe pears, peeled, cored and quartered (optional)
- Stripped peel from 1 orange
- 1 cup brandy
- 1/2 teaspoon Angostura bitters
- Nutmeg, for garnish (optional)
- Fill your serving cups with hot water to keep them warm while you prepare the drink.
- In a small pan over medium heat, toast the allspice, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns until fragrant, stirring frequently to ensure they don’t scorch.
- In a large pot over medium heat, warm the pear nectar and port. Add the quartered pears, if using.
- Add the toasted spices and orange peel to the mixture and bring to a simmer, then decrease the heat to medium-low. Let the drink infuse over the heat for 10 to 15 minutes, then add the brandy and bitters. Stir to combine, and let the drink warm up for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Ladle the drink into mugs. Garnish with a sprinkle of nutmeg, if using. (Reserve the pears to serve with ice cream.)
Nutrition | Calories: 217; Total Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 4 mg; Carbohydrates: 17 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 16 g; Protein: 0 g.
From columnist M. Carrie Allan.