Returning from a walk in the woods the other evening, my children and I spied a small campfire in a neighbor’s yard. No one was sitting by it. So potent is the lure of firelight in an indigo dusk that, but for our good manners, we might have walked up their driveway and made ourselves comfortable by its side.
Fire pits were the must-have backyard accessory of fall 2020, and my husband, Peter, built us a brilliant one. Yet, after a small flurry of socially distanced outdoor gatherings, I’ve been avoiding ours since November, when we held an election-night anxiety-dispelling party (its effects were not, sadly, immediate).
It’s not that I’ve come to doubt a flame’s ability to banish the cold or to warm weary hearts, but I resist the steps needed to get there: The chilling of the fingers and toes as you gather the kindling and build the structure; the chilling of everything else as you wait for the fire to grow from flicker to blaze.
But now here we are in February, the month when winter settles in and makes itself at home. And when “home,” meanwhile, shifts from cozy to claustrophobic even in the best of years. It is high time, in other words, to revisit the outdoor fire pit.
Luckily, lying smack at the proverbial heart of this month is a perfect occasion to do so. St. Valentine’s Day will soon arrive with its reminders that love thrives on creativity, generosity and a spark of daring.
As well as on chocolate. Preferably heated and served in a mug that will warm your hands and belly as you sit by a fire that will warm your feet.
In recent decades, packaged hot chocolate mixes have turned what used to be a wonderful indulgence into a bland sugar fix. (A single instant hot-chocolate packet contains 28 grams of sugar—nearly half an adult male’s daily recommended intake.) In my opinion, if you’re going to bother drinking hot chocolate, it should be a great treat, worthy of whatever pangs of nutritional guilt it might induce.
To that end, I developed a recipe inspired by the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. Made by the late City Bakery, a Flatiron District cafe with a cult following, it was essentially a melted, high-quality chocolate bar thinned with cream and milk. (I realize “thinned” is a misnomer here.) City Bakery wisely offered it in shotglass-size cups in addition to 6-ounce versions. And every February, during their annual hot chocolate festival, they served a different flavored option each day (including caramel, bourbon, cinnamon, stout and banana peel) alongside the pure-chocolate paradigm.
As it happens, my homage to their hot chocolate was on the menu at the aforementioned election-night party. Rather than playing around with flavors, I placed a bottle each of vanilla-flavored vodka, coffee liqueur and bourbon next to some thermoses of it on the bar table. People quickly figured out how to mix their own. It was a fitting way to toast a night when we were filled with the collective hope that love, good work and shared warmth might vanquish our troubles. A quarter of a year later, it’s a formula that still works.
Melted Hot Chocolate
Makes 2 to 3 servings
Use chocolate bars you’d want to eat on their own, not baking chocolate, for this recipe. You can adjust the ratio of milk to dark chocolates, but don’t eliminate the milk chocolate completely even if you prefer dark — it adds an essential silkiness to the final concoction.
- 1½ ounces Lindt milk chocolate, or other good-quality bar (see headnote)
- 1½ ounces Lindt 70% dark chocolate, or other good quality bar (see headnote)
- ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
- 1½ cups milk
- Pinch salt
- 2 teaspoons pure cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Marshmallows for serving, optional
- Dash vanilla vodka, bourbon or flavored liqueur for serving, optional
Warm a thermos with hot tap water, then drain and place near stove. Break the chocolate into small pieces. In the top of a double boiler or heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water, combine the chocolate and cream. Heat, stirring regularly, until the chocolate is completely melted. Reduce heat and keep warm.
Meanwhile, warm the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until nearly simmering, stirring frequently.
When the chocolate is melted, whisk in the salt, cocoa powder and vanilla. Whisk in the steaming milk until combined. Transfer immediately to the warmed thermos. Serve hot, with marshmallows and/or liquor.
My Two Best Winter Fire Pit Tips
One of my favorite things about outdoor fires is that they’re a chance to burn the (dead) wood from pine trees, which has a wonderful fragrance and ignites easily, even when wet. This wood, which includes hemlock, spruce and white pine, can’t be used in indoor fireplaces because the creosote it releases as it burns can cause chimney fires. Even after a snowfall, when most kindling is damp, you can usually start an outdoor fire using the feathery dead twigs you’ll find growing low on the trunks and bottom boughs of most pine trees, graduating to medium-size dead pine branches to help the fire grow. Once it’s blazing, even slightly damp logs from your woodpile should be able to catch.
If you have to dig out your fire pit after a snowfall, don’t forget to also dig a long trough leading away from the fire, on the side opposite the prevailing wind. A fire needs to be able to draw air in at its base, but a wind tunnel that catches every passing gust will blow out your sparks before they can catch.