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“Mulling is when you infuse your cider with other flavors and aromas,” said Kathy. “You can use spices, herbs, fruits, or even sugars.” She pulled a pile of saucepans from under her stovetop. “Shall we start heating things up?”

First came the Aspen Mulling Cider Spices ($2.99 for 5.65 oz. at Cost Plus World Market). “This says it’s good for cider, wine, tea, or even brandy,” I read as Kathy heated the apple juice. “Looks like sugar and ground-up spices to me. You use two teaspoons per cup of liquid.”

“It smells like cinnamon,” said Donna. Kathy agreed, “All I get is sugar, apples, and cinnamon.” Michelle added, “It’s thick on the tongue. Cloying.”

Martinelli’s Mulling Spice ($4.99 for 2.38 oz. at Ralphs) came in a pack of 25 individual bags. “How convenient!” I marveled. “Instead of tea, you have cinnamon, orange peel, cloves, and allspice, but other than that it’s the same. Pour a cup of water over the bag, and let it steep.”

“It’s not worth the saved effort,” grumbled Kathy. “It tastes a lot like hot apple juice. If you really give a good snort, you can sort of smell some cinnamon, but other than that it’s pretty flat.” Nobody disagreed.

We moved on to the loose-pack mulling spices, starting with Trader Joe’s house brand ($3.99 for 5.5 oz.). Again, the lineup was cinnamon, orange peel, allspice, and cloves — two teaspoons per quart of apple juice, simmered for 20 minutes. We were quickly disappointed. “Waaay too much cinnamon,” exclaimed Donna. “I can taste a little orange, but, yeah, the cinnamon assaults your tongue and leaves a bitter taste.”

The Winter Sippers New England Mulling Spices ($4.99 for 4.5 oz. at Vons; $1.99 for 1.2 oz. at Sprouts) managed better results with the same lineup of ingredients. “The elements are balanced,” I said. “I can taste the citrus, and the apple of the juice, and also the cinnamon.” “Maybe even a hint of the clove,” agreed Kathy. “It’s pretty good.” But I winced at the thought of a “pretty good” Christmas memory.

I turned to the bag of chunky Cost Plus World Market Mulling Spice ($5.99 for 6 oz.). The bold bits inside — whole star anise, a half-inch cinnamon stick — gave me hope. And no other cider spice mix had included cardamom seeds. As with the Trader Joe’s, we had to simmer it for 20 minutes. Unlike the Trader Joe’s, we had to add a whopping half-cup of spices per 750-ml bottle of apple juice, as well as brown sugar and water. Our efforts were rewarded.

“The star anise is assertive on the nose,” said Kathy, “but it doesn’t overpower the other flavors.” Michelle added, “It’s much more complex than everything else, and yet you can still taste the apple of the juice.” “You can taste every ingredient,” agreed Donna. Kathy said, “And the cardamom adds a subtle pepper flavor.” Me, I loved the visuals — all those little star anises floating in my mug like exotic marshmallows.

The goodness of those chunky bits of seasoning got us wondering: could we make the mix ourselves and do better? The next day, I called In Harmony Herbs & Spices in Ocean Beach (619-223-8051; inharmonyherbs.com). Saleslady Rhonda told me, “All our spices are organic. We get the finest herbs and spices, we get them harvested at the right time, and we sell them fresh.

“This time of year, people come in looking for things such as cloves [$2.20 per oz.], ginger [$2.26], allspice [$1.75], orange peel [$1.55], and cinnamon. We have three kinds: sweet cinnamon [$1.81], cassia [$1.81], and cinnamon sticks [$1.34]. They also buy cardamom [$2.80], which is a green pod with black seeds inside. And star anise [$2.32]. We sell nutmeg, ground [$2.41] or whole [$2.50]. If you grind it yourself, you get a fresher flavor. We have a grinder for sale [$17.95]. I think it’s wonderful to make your own mulling mix; that way, you really get to know the spices.”

Peoples in Ocean Beach (619-224-1387; obpeoplesfood.coop) also sells bulk spices. The clerk noted that they carry a bulk mulling spice mix ($19 a pound), and a “small packaged version” from Simply Organic ($1.49).

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