Once you layer yourself with enough wool to make peace with the cold, January can be a beautiful, restorative, and soul-enriching month.
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Ah, January… the frantic shopping, the holiday music, the parties, the mad rush, the New Year’s hangover… all suddenly gone, gone, gone. Now it’s time to embrace the cold stillness. I learned this one January many years ago, during my post-college Northampton period. I had found myself suddenly single after a nearly year-long series of intense and emotionally draining relationships, and I sought soul-soothing solace in the cold itself… on ice skates in the fleeting crystalline sunshine by day, and during long walks under the unfathomably deep and star-splattered night sky.
I was working dinner shifts, so I spent my January days busy with a variety of self-improvement activities– immersing myself in martial arts, as a distant cousin and thus a tenuous connection, perhaps, to the stew of New Age “isms” that had so thoroughly guided the sensibilities of my most recent girlfriend and her family. I also spent time weight training and especially skating (sometimes for hours!) on the glorious Smith College pond while listening to music like this on my Sony Walkman. After lunch I read a lot of fringy stuff on loan (or maybe assignment) from my ex’s quirkily professorial mother, like Tales of a Dalai Lama and Sheldrake’s Theory of Morphic Resonance. When I finished working well into the evening, I honed my taste for sake before my long and solitary midnight walks.
Oh, the silent, delicious stillness beneath the brilliant Milky Way in winter! I’ve never felt such a close connection to the Divine or whatever else is out there as I did while gazing upward on those frosty strolls when the rest of my world was sound asleep in their cozy beds. I experienced an unfamiliar sensation... a feeling that baring myself to depths of our galaxy in the cold darkness of January was simultaneously humbling and empowering.
As the days slowly but steadily lengthened I felt myself growing stronger, inside and out. By March the first suggestions of springtime were wafting up the Connecticut Valley. The ice was finally melting, and come April I was suddenly in a new relationship with Melissa, a very smart and lovely Smith sophomore from San Francisco who smiled and laughed a lot. In retrospect, ours was by design a short-term romance– she left town in June, as long scheduled, for her junior year in Paris… right when I suddenly became the 16-hours-a-day general manager at Beardsley’s, the French restaurant where I had started as a busboy less than two years before.
Smith College’s PARADISE POND in full New England autumn glory.
It’s just as gorgeous in the frigid depths of winter, only very different.
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Some of my recent sweater-hunting haul.
By day or night, proper appreciation of January requires great sweaters. Please see my essay from last year– Good Sweater Hunting– for pointers on thrifting your way to a collection of fabulously cozy winter wear such as that shown above. At the risk of sounding like someone who quotes himself, I’ll do exactly that, as it seems precisely on point here– “A great, well-made sweater is not unlike a beloved dog or even a romantic partner— it offers comfort, it caresses rather than squeezes, it makes your soul smile. It is a wonderful companion for snowy winter walks followed by some snuggly sofa time with hot chocolate. But unlike puppies and partners, a sweater will never break your heart or crap on your rug. You can comfortably fall asleep in the right sweater, for it provides soothing warmth rather than heat. It is sturdy, but never heavy. And with minimal maintenance you can count on it growing old with you.”
The hardest part, I found, was forcing myself to stop buying $250 sweaters for $60 or even less.
And speaking of Hot Chocolate– Although I grew up on Swiss Miss, I always suspected that there had to be something much better out there. For this essay I did my usual due diligence, reading through every recipe I could find, and I concluded that, once again, less is more. For instance– no, I will NEVER drink anything with cornstarch in it. And marshmallows are essentially made out of crap. Alas, it seems that perfectly good hot chocolate is so simple that Internet foodies feel the need to jazz it up in order to appear original. And so, just as I did with my Minimalist Chili, I stripped hot chocolate to its bare minimum– except in this case I then built it back up into something more complicated (as in MOCHA, because I love coffee) and, of course, something all the more wonderful and delicious.
I’ve always loved these glass mugs for fancy coffee drinks and such.
Look for short straws that double as stirrers.
DANNY’S DUTCH MOCHA
½ Cup of Water
1 Tsp. (or more) Starbucks “Via” Instant Dark Roast Coffee
1 Quart Whole Milk
½ Cup Granulated Sugar
¼ Cup Dutch Process Cocoa Powder
A tiny pinch of salt
1 Cup Heavy Cream (for whipping)
Dash of Vanilla Extract
Booze (Optional; Your choice)
Before we begin, I need to (grumpily) mansplain a little about Cocoa Powder. There are two main types– “Natural” and “Dutch Process.” The dull brown Natural cocoa is naturally quite acidic, while the reddish-hued Dutch Process cocoa undergoes a chemical process that neutralizes its pH. We’re using Dutch Process here to balance the high acidity imparted by the instant coffee.
In lieu of the god-awful creation known as marshmallows, we turn to whipped cream for a proper topping. So, whip the heavy cream and flavor it w/ the vanilla. No sugar, unless you truly feel you must. If so, add a judicious sprinkle of confectioner’s (powdered) sugar while whipping.
And please– do NOT use whipped cream from a spray can. Next time you’re shopping, read the label and you’ll see why. Similarly, read the label on the heavy cream container… if it contains anything other than cream, leave it on the shelf.
Bring the water to a furious boil. Stir in the sugar and chocolate and boil for a good minute. (This allegedly activates the deepest chocolate flavors.) Add the instant coffee and the pinch of salt. Reduce the heat and slowly stir in the milk. (Do NOT boil milk.) It is ready to serve when it is hot but not boiling.
To serve, add a splash of your booze of choice. (Remember, less is more.) Cognac and other unadulterated brandies work just fine. If you like brandy-based sweet liqueurs like Grand Marnier or Benedictine, consider replacing half of it with the aforementioned Cognac to keep the sugar level in check. Bourbon works just as well here as it does with eggnog, and trace amounts of Peppermint Schnapps or Creme de Menthe dovetail deliciously with chocolate. There are many other options… just don’t make it too sweet or weird.
Top with a sensibly-proportioned dollop of the vanilla-enhanced but unsweetened whipped cream. A little cocoa powder or shaved chocolate on top is a nice touch. But if you opt for cinnamon, nutmeg, or some other spice, go lightly and sprinkle carefully.
Now enjoy! Hopefully while wearing a big, cozy sweater… snuggled up on your couch with a dog, a lover, or just a good book. If you have a fire going, great… If not, there’ll be a nice warm glow in your belly soon enough.
Upon reviewing this piece, my health-conscious bride Andrea strongly suggests replacing the sugar with a natural sweetener such as maple syrup or honey. She is generally a fan of pure and natural products sold without the addition of chemicals, sugar, and such. Andrea prefers canned unsweetened coconut milk to the standard dairy product, and she raises the nebulous and technically unregulated distinction between “cacao” and “cocoa powder.” The implication in the marketing is that cacao is closer to nature than is cocoa powder, and cacao IS generally (but not always) less processed. As you should normally do, read the label carefully. For more info, click HERE. And finally, the Missus likes to emulate the Mayans and spice it up with cayenne pepper. (I don't, but that's okay.)
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If you want hot chocolate without the coffee, simply replace the coffee and Dutch Process cocoa with an equal amount of Natural cocoa.
I studied and practiced Isshin-ryu Karate for the remainder of the 1980’s. Long after throwing my last reverse spinning side kick, I regularly wore my hard-earned black belt for added inspiration during my grueling ergometer races.
Many of us David Bowie fans began to explore the works of Brian Eno after he and Bowie collaborated on the late ‘70’s “Berlin Trilogy” of Bowie albums. Considered by some to be “the father of New Age music,” Eno produced “Ambient 3: Day of Radiance” with Laraaji, a percussionist whom Eno discovered performing in a public park. I love this album (especially in the context of this essay) because it reminds me of ice crystals.
I’m really good at finding old friends (and, truth be told, non-friends) when necessary. In accordance with a self-imposed ethical standard, I’ve located and emailed Melissa to let her know that I’ve mentioned her by name. I will dutifully add to this appendix any input of hers. Wherever you are and whatever you're doing, Sweet Melissa, this is for your permanent place in a corner of my heart-- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggeab0lKz2c