Warm and Wonderful Drinks for the Holidays 

The end-of-the-year holidays are upon us.

This year, for some reason, the mad dash to New Year's Eve feels like the end of days. Maybe it's strain caused by the political clime, anxiety about North Korea's newfound nuclear abilities, or just a general discomfort about the money I'm piddling away as I prepare for Christmas. Whatever it is, I find myself stressing — and drinking — a little more than normal.

One thing I won't worry about is how to entertain this holiday season. And no, I'm not locking the front door and turning out the lights. Instead, I'm plugging in my trusty slow cooker, and filling it full of booze. I think it's something Barbara Stanwyck might've done in the 1945 romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut — in which the formidable actress portrays madcap journalist Elizabeth Lane, a single woman who masquerades as a Martha Stewart of the post-WWII era. Lane didn't know her way around the kitchen, but she knew how to fake it well enough to have a ridiculously fun holiday. Slow cookers didn't appear on the market until five years after Christmas in Connecticut debuted, but had they existed, Lane would've used one to keep her cocktails simmering.

Last week, my co-columnist Richard Murff offhandedly mentioned an Alabaman he knew who filled a coffee urn with a mixture of vodka and Red Hots and tried to pass it off as a holiday quaff — an Elizabeth Lane gaffe if I've ever heard one. I'm happy to report that for the rest of us, there are much more sophisticated slow cooker cocktail recipes available. They make entertaining much simpler, too — instead of mixing individual drinks, you can combine the ingredients beforehand and let them meld while you mingle with your party guests.

Last weekend, I got slightly buzzed on Southern Living's Orange Spiced Cider. The drink — a combination of apple cider and dark rum, spiced up with cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, an orange and ¼ cup brown sugar — takes a little prep work, but it will make your kitchen smell delicious. Boil everything but the rum in a pot on the stove, then strain and discard the solids. An hour or two before your guests arrive, pour the concoction into your slow cooker, add the rum, and let it simmer. Put out a ladle, some cinnamon sticks, and your best coffee mugs.

Over at Delish.com, I found a slow cooker recipe for a familiar party grog: that old favorite called mulled wine. This drink is made directly in the slow cooker — all you need is a bottle of red wine, apple cider, cranberry juice, sugar, cranberries and oranges, plus the usual spices: cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star anise. Cook on high for at least 30 minutes, and serve warm.

Cranberries, oranges, and cinnamon sticks also make a mean Hot Sangria. You'll need two bottles of Rioja, a cup of brandy, peppercorns, and a few more ingredients to make your cocktails pop. Find the recipe — and some great serving ideas — at the website Inspired By Charm. Pro tip: Serve these drinks in clear glass mugs, if you have them. This is one beautiful drink!

For a lighter take on mulled wine, pour a bottle of Riesling, a few cups of apple cider, and ¼ cup honey into the slow cooker. Tie a knob of fresh ginger, some allspice, and a few cardamom pods into a piece of cheesecloth, and cook everything on low for 3 to 4 hours. Just before serving, stir in ½ cup of Calvados. Serve this Mulled Reisling Punch (the full recipe is available on Better Homes & Gardens' website, bgh.com) with a garnish of apple slice and a cinnamon stick.

There are also dozens of spiked hot cocoa recipes online that are suitable for the slow cooker. My favorite is a Baileys Irish Cream Hot Chocolate. You'll want to start this recipe a few hours before serving. Just put 8 ounces of high-quality semi-sweet chocolate into the slow cooker, along with ½ cup each of unsweetened cocoa powder and sugar. Add a tablespoon of vanilla extract (I recommend Mexican vanilla for extra flavor), 1 cup of heavy cream, and 6 cups of milk. Cover and cook on high for 90 minutes, stirring every half-hour. Once everything has melted, add a cup of Baileys to the mix.

Serve with marshmallows or a dab of whipped cream. Sip, ideally, while you're watching the family unwrap their presents on Christmas morning, or while you're curled up on the couch watching a holiday classic — my favorites are Holiday Inn, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and, yes, Christmas in Connecticut. Thanks to the Baileys, and the effects of the slow cooker, this drink will warm you from the inside out, making for a very merry holiday.

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