Many countries have sweet ened, spiced wine for Christmas, a custom that goes back to medieval times, when wine was sold extremely young and needed help from sugar and spices to make it palatable. This recipe can be multiplied to make enough for a crowd.
1 bottle red wine such as merlot
1 to 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 cinnamon sticks, each about 3 inches
8 black peppercorns
Pea-size piece of nutmeg
Juice of 1 orange
1/3 cup rum, brandy, or port (optional)
1 orange, washed and sliced
1 lemon, washed and sliced
Put the wine, 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, the cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns, and the piece of nutmeg into a medium saucepan. (To get a chunk of nutmeg, just chop it off a whole nutmeg using a heavy knife.) Add the orange juice and place the pan inside a much larger pan or Dutch oven. Add enough hot water to the large pan so that it comes well up the sides of the smaller pan.
Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then simmer for 15 minutes, stirring the wine occasionally and tasting to check its sweetness. Add the remaining sugar if you would like a sweeter brew. Do not let the wine simmer, but let it get very hot.
Just before serving, add the rum, brandy, or port, if desired. Ladle into glasses, making sure you have a spoon in each glass before you pour in the hot wine. Add the orange and lemon slices. You can keep the remaining wine hot by covering the pan and standing it in the bath of hot water.
Serves 4 to 6.
By Claire Hopley, Globe Correspondent