Winter, to me, will always be hot chocolate. Not the kind you buy in a tin, either; the real stuff, painstakingly prepared on Nana's old-as-time-itself stove.
Nana and Napa lived in a cabin in the woods and neither thought a new stove a wise investment. So the capricious goat of a thing stayed in the kitchen, where it still stands. Nana, my grandmother, is still the only one that can coax it to life, but, when she does, it turns out the best hot chocolate this side of the Swiss Alps.
Watching Nana shred the chocolate into fine pieces, stew a whole vanilla bean and a cinnamon stick in milk, and mix the two together as the white milk slowly turned brown, was a ritual that fascinated me from the time that I could pull a kitchen chair to the stove and peek into the pot. After one too many burnt fingers, however, Nana took to throwing my brother and I out into the cold as she worked in the kitchen.
"Bundle up!" She said, her childhood on the French coast softening even harsher reproaches, "And give me a half-hour! Thirty minutes, Meghan, and I mean it."
So my brother and I played the part of intrepid adventurers in a world defined by endless glittering white on one side and an equally infinite sky on the other. We build forts, complete with armies of snow-people, and waged war on one another. We made angels, our eyes tightened against the violent blue of the sky and our faces scrunched against the encroaching cold. For a half hour at least, we were free from care and we wandered the snowy land like Columbus.
But we always knew when our half hour exile had elapsed, and our freedom was willingly forsaken for the promise of sweets to come.
My brother and I, we would trail snow indoors, divesting ourselves of hats and jackets, faces glowing and stomachs craving. That first step into the small cabin that smelled like bitter chocolate and sweet vanilla and spicy cinnamon was almost the best moment of the day. It was pure agony every time.
"Assez." Nana would bark from the stove, and my brother and I sat as quickly as we could. My grandmother would raise an eyebrow at one or the other of us, remind us to take off our forgotten boots or gloves. When everything had been settled, Nana set heavy mugs between our numb fingers, and the cabin itself seemed to sigh its contentment.
As I grew, the making of hot chocolate became less of a magical experience and more of an opportunity to bond with my grandmother, who lived in the majestic woods of northern Michigan. In time, I learned how to coax the stove to life, although I never developed the knack she had for it.
I learned the recipe by heart as she made me recite it, fourcupsofmilkabarofchocolatetwocupsheavycream. I learned how to curse and love in French, everything tied together by the simmering pots on the stove, the same thick mugs that used to warm a numb child's figures, and a counter full of cutting boards, raw ingredients, and a cross-generational understanding that I have not found since.
And to this day, the taste of winter is still bitter chocolate, sweet vanilla, and spicy cinnamon on my tongue.