“Go to the winter woods: listen there, look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest.”
— Fiona Macleod
When I need to quiet my mind, I go to the woods. And so that’s exactly what I did on the first day of the new year.
After the whirlwind of holiday activities that consumed the month of December, I was feeling frazzled, overwhelmed, and, frankly, worn out. December has always been my favorite month of the year, and yet, less than halfway through December 2016, I found myself counting the days until the holidays and the whole month would be over, because maybe then I could finally relax. I tried to keep my thoughts to myself to avoid crushing anyone else’s holiday spirit, but inside I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge (or “Scroogenezer,” which is what my older son has called him since he was four years old). Oh, December, you were a doozy! There were late nights and restless sleep and much-too-early mornings. There were sicknesses and strange symptoms and ill-advised Google searches. There were tantrums and meltdowns and heated discussions. There were busted water heaters and expensive home repairs and anxiety-provoking bank statements. There were snowstorms and cancelled plans and tears. But… BUT! Among all of those things, there were also all the moments that make me fall in love with December every year: There was decorating the house inside and out, with twinkly lights in every corner and more Christmas trees than is probably reasonable. There were whispered gift ideas and secret shopping plans and marathon gift-wrapping and card-writing sessions. There were cookies, of course—lots of cookies: baking and decorating and sharing and eating. There were impromptu kitchen dance parties and all the Christmas music on repeat. There were holiday concerts and Christmas plays and Rudolph and Frosty and Charlie Brown specials on TV. There were houseguests and family and elaborate feasts and lingering at the table long after the food had been consumed and the candles had burned out. And there was laughter, lots of laughter. Oh, I am so thankful for the laughter and the fullness of the season, but oh how my introverted self yearned for some quiet.
I suppose it’s no wonder then that as we celebrated the beginning of the new year, I was physically and mentally exhausted. There were still so many things rattling around in my brain, mostly all of the things that slipped through the cracks and/or that I didn’t get around to doing in December (writing on this blog, for example). On New Year’s Day, the boys were looking forward to our annual First Day hike, a tradition we started two years ago, with my urging. As much as I was looking forward to getting outside with them, there was a part of me that was internally protesting: I have too much to do. The laundry has piled up and the Christmas gifts are strewn about and I need to start taking down the decorations and getting the house back in order after our houseguests left and I really should write a new post for my blog and…. But I kept all of these thoughts to myself, which was one of the wiser decisions I had made lately. I think that deep down I knew that a hike in the woods was just what I needed. I felt on edge, and yet, despite being tired, I felt like I had to get outside and expend the nervous energy that was consuming me. (And honestly, I was not the least bit motivated to tackle any of the things on my to-do list.) So I ignored the laundry and the messes and the lists, and the four of us bundled up, grabbed our snowshoes, and headed out to the winter woods.
It had snowed several inches just a few days prior to the new year—that heavy, wet snow that at first clings to the tree branches like fluffy cotton balls and makes everything look like a winter wonderland (but is the worst kind of snow to shovel, or so I’m told by my husband). But by New Year’s Day, the snow had begun to melt and drip from the trees, forming a thin crust of ice on the compacted snow that covered the more well-traveled trails of the nearby woods. As we strapped our boots into our snowshoes and I glanced at the long, hilly trail ahead of us, I was still feeling prickly and tired and my mind felt unsettled. Maybe we should have stayed home? Maybe I just need a long winter’s nap? But as we set off down the first snow-covered path, the chatter in my mind gradually started to dissipate. Soon enough, the only sound I heard was the rhythmic crunching of snow beneath our feet. Just minutes into our hike, even my usually chatty boys fell silent; they weren’t shouting or bickering or trying to tackle each other into the snow or racing each other to the finish. We were all just taking in the sights and smells and sounds around us: the crisp winter air scented faintly with pine, the animal tracks in the snow, a bird chirping in the distance, the sun creating dappled shadows through the tall trees. I stopped a few times to snap some photos, but mostly I just breathed it all in. For the duration of our hike, time seemed to slow down and my to-do list was pushed out of my mind. I had nothing to do but just put one foot in front of the other. Indeed, a walk in the snowy woods was the perfect antidote to my hurried mind, and, according to my husband and kids, one of the best decisions I made in 2017 (so far).
Apparently one of the best decisions I made in 2016—at least according to the boys—was to make this homemade hot chocolate mix. Sometime in early December, I made a big batch of hot chocolate mix, intending to serve it at the annual neighborhood cookie exchange I’d been hosting for the past few years. Alas, a number of forces were working against me (the aforementioned busted water heater, among other things), and the cookie exchange had a last-minute change of venue thanks to a sympathetic and gracious neighbor. Consequently, I was left with a very large jar of hot chocolate mix that I am embarrassed to say sat idly on the pantry shelf, forgotten about until after Christmas. So when we returned home from that First Day hike, a little chilly and in need of warming up, I finally put that hot chocolate mix to good use and made us steaming mugs of rich, velvety hot chocolate, which was met with an approving chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” and “yums.”
Hot chocolate is of course meant to be sipped slowly (lest you burn your tongue) and savored. In a small way, it forces you to slow down, to enjoy the moment. As we sat around the kitchen counter on New Year’s Day, sipping hot chocolate and thawing out after our hike, I felt calm and clear-headed for the first time in a long time. This is exactly the sort of tranquility I longed for—and desperately needed!—in December, some quiet amidst all the noise, a chance to catch my breath in between the chaos. Each time I’ve made this hot chocolate since then has been a reminder once again to slow down, a reminder of the importance of taking these small moments for myself. I suppose the same reminder can be gained from sipping a cup of hot tea or coffee, but there is something about enjoying a cup of homemade hot chocolate on a cold, snowy day; it feels like more of a special treat, perhaps because it isn’t something we have every day.
I know January is supposed to be all about resolutions for becoming the New and Improved You and repentance via juice cleanses and restrictive diets for being the Old and Undisciplined You. However, I’m not one to make resolutions (mostly because, as I am apt to do, I set my expectations too high, try to tackle everything at once, then quickly burn out—see: December 2016), nor am I one to follow diet extremes (hence the balance of healthful dishes and sweet treats on this site). But I love the idea of setting an intention or just choosing a word for the year ahead: Grace. Balance. Mindfulness. Quiet. In 2017, I hope to have more intentional moments of quiet like that New Year’s Day hike in the woods. I realize I need it (and I definitely could have used more of it in December), and my boys need it too: The world can be a loud, boisterous place, and sometimes we just need to tune out, whatever that might mean for each of us.
For me, seeking quiet doesn’t necessarily mean seeking absolute silence. Let’s face it: I am a mom of two active, energetic (read: noisy) boys, and complete silence is a rare occurrence around here. (And honestly, a prolonged moment of total silence in my house alerts my mom “radar” and raises suspicions!) But an activity that quiets the mind is more attainable and is just as soul-nourishing and rejuvenating. Maybe it’s going for a hike in the woods or a long walk or run around the neighborhood. Maybe it’s attending a yoga class. Maybe it’s curling up on the couch with a good book or a stack of magazines. (Let’s not talk about my ridiculously towering magazine pile right now though.) Maybe it’s getting lost in a new recipe or an old, familiar one and spending the afternoon in the kitchen making a big pot of soup or a batch of muffins. Or maybe it’s just taking the time to prepare a hot beverage and then enjoying it, slowly, while watching the snow fall. The beauty of all of these things is that you can’t just rush through them; you can’t chug them down. They force you to slow down and enjoy the moment, to help settle the mind and revel in the quiet. And we could all use a little more of that in our lives, couldn’t we?
Since this hot chocolate mix contains so few ingredients, I’d recommend seeking out the best-quality chocolate—and cocoa powder—you can find. If you enjoy eating the chocolate on its own, then chances are you’ll enjoy it melted into a mug of hot chocolate! Just be sure to use a vegan/dairy-free chocolate if you want to keep the hot chocolate strictly vegan/dairy-free.
Yield: Makes about 1¾ cups of mix, enough for 9 cups of hot chocolate.
- -- ½ cup natural cane sugar
- -- 3 ounces (85 grams) bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped*
- -- ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I prefer to use a natural, non-Dutch-processed cocoa powder for a slightly more intense chocolate flavor, but any good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder will work here.)
- -- ¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- -- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- -- Whipped cream (recipe below), cocoa powder, and/or chocolate shavings (optional toppings)
- To the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, add all the ingredients. Turn on the machine and process until the mixture is well-combined and powdery, about 1 minute.
- Transfer to an airtight container (I use a glass Mason jar with a plastic screw-top lid) and store in a cool, dry place for up to 2 months.
- For each serving, heat 1 cup of milk (cow’s milk or your non-dairy milk of choice) in a saucepan over low heat until steaming. Add 3 tablespoons of mix per cup of milk, and whisk over low heat for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the mix is completely dissolved and it just begins to simmer.
- Pour into mugs and serve immediately. Top with whipped cream (see recipe below) and sprinkle with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings, if desired, or add a shot of espresso (or strong coffee) for a café mocha. **
** Lately my favorite way to enjoy this hot chocolate is with a shot of espresso for an afternoon pick-me-up. I simply brew a shot of espresso directly into my mug, then pour the heated hot chocolate/milk mixture into the mug with the espresso. Stir and enjoy!
Recipe adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen.
Yield: Makes about 2 cups.
- -- 1 cup cold heavy cream *
- -- 2 tablespoons crème fraîche or sour cream **
- -- 1 tablespoon natural cane sugar
- -- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, add the cream, crème fraîche or sour cream, sugar, and vanilla. Whip on medium to medium-high speed, stopping the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl and fully combine all the ingredients, until the mixture forms soft peaks. Watch carefully, as you don’t want to whip it so much that it turns into butter.
- Serve immediately, or store in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container. (I use a glass container with a tight-fighting plastic lid.) It’s ideally served within 4 to 6 hours of making it, but it will keep for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Just whisk it gently a few times before serving. (You don’t need to break out the stand mixer again; a handheld whisk will do just fine.)
** Crème fraîche—basically the “fancy” French version of sour cream—has more fat and less tang than sour cream, but it’s not as widely available and is usually more expensive. I’ve had success using either in this recipe, so feel free to use whichever you prefer.