Culinary Reviews

A Tasting Of Maple

The first full moon of the year, and the decade, fell on a weekend in Melbourne that had surprisingly mild weather for summer. To celebrate, I treated myself to brunch at Stokers Fine Pancakes. I chose a maple syrup tasting platter offering pancakes and three different grades of maple syrup. I couldn’t wait for the tasting to begin!

Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. There are many species but the trees most commonly tapped for sap are sugar maple, red maple or black maple. To tap a maple tree, holes are drilled into the trunk and the sap is collected. The sap is then heated to remove most of the water leaving a concentrated syrup.

The Canadian Single Origin maple syrups on my tasting plate were from the Escuminac Estate. They are bottled on the estate, are unblended and sourced from a single forest. The styles were – Early Harvest, Great Harvest and Late Harvest. I tasted them in that order and was surprised at the differences between the three.

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The Early Harvest was the lightest in colour and the sweetest. It was also the most runny. It tasted lovely and was similar to the many maple syrups I have tried, only much better! The Great Harvest was darker and less sweet and also thicker. It was a step above the first and I really liked it. The star, however was the Late Harvest. It was the darkest, thickest and the least sweet of the three. It was so syrupy and had a dark caramel and toffee flavour. I loved it so much I bought a bottle to take home.

You can read about my first visit to Stokers Fine Pancakes, and its predecessor, in We’ll Always Have Stokers. 

You can also check out my recipes for pancakes to pour maple syrup over!
Pumpkin Pancakes
Stout Pancakes
Yeasted Pancakes

A Rosy Midsummer

The Summer Solstice occurs near xmas in Australia, so while I’m getting ready to celebrate the longest day of the year and the shortest night, most of the stores are selling produce geared towards a winter feast day. I don’t mind, as I always look forward to the range of new shortbreads that are only available during xmas.

One of the other winter treats I used to enjoy at Summer Solstice was a Persian fruitcake filled with plump fruits and crunchy nuts and delicately flavoured with rose water. It was one of the most delicious fruitcakes I had ever tried. Every xmas I eagerly waited for the fruitcake’s arrival at the store until one year it wasn’t there and it never returned. That was almost two decades ago.

A few months ago I went for a country drive to Malmsbury Bakery, famous for its homemade Dundee cake. I was keen to try to this Scottish fruitcake as it was rumoured to be a favourite of Mary Queen of Scots. Queen Elizabeth II is also reported to enjoy Dundee cake at teatime. A cake fit for royalty was something I just had to have!

The cake was quite large, but I was assured that once opened, it would keep for months in an airtight container. I wasn’t sure how long it would last but I was happy to take a chance. As I cut a generous slice I noticed how large and plump the glazed cherries were, which immediately brought back memories of my cherished Persian fruitcake. I took a bite and was rewarded with the flavour and texture of one of the best fruitcakes I had ever tasted. This was as good as the Persian fruitcake.

The cake lasted weeks and I enjoyed every slice. With only a few slices left I decided to make a bold experiment. Could I add a rose water element to a slice without ruining it? I had to try. At first I was going to sprinkle rose water over a slice but I decided to make a rose water icing instead. I simply mixed icing (powdered) sugar with rose water until it was thick enough to drizzle and then drizzled it over my slice of fruitcake. While it wasn’t my coveted Persian fruitcake, it was floral and delicious and brought back many happy memories of solstices past.

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In keeping with the xmas spirit I also dunked a few pieces of shortbread into the rose water icing and then let them set. Happily they were a delicious success as well.

Happy Solstice!

A Quartet Of Chocolates

Recently the culinary world was introduced to a pink chocolate called Ruby Chocolate. It was created by Barry Callebaut, a Belgian-Swiss company, and marketed as the “fourth chocolate” following dark, milk and white. It’s the first new variety of chocolate to be introduced in 80 years. The method of production remains a trade secret but industry suggests that the ruby cocoa beans are unfermented cocoa beans which can have a naturally pinkish colour. There are other things to know about the production method but I lost interest as all I wanted was to get my hands on some pink ruby chocolate!

When I finally got to try some ruby chocolate I was a little disappointed. It didn’t taste much like chocolate. To me it tasted like the yoghurt covered fruit balls I used to eat when I thought I was being healthy. Even though ruby chocolate contains cocoa solids like dark and milk chocolate, it just doesn’t have the taste or feel of chocolate. I didn’t dislike it, but I wouldn’t buy it again expect for creating recipes with a pink theme  – like a naturally pink chocolate frosting for a cupcake. 🙂

But wait there’s more!

Just in time for the holiday season, Barry Callebaut has introduced a new chocolate to the market called Gold Chocolate. While ruby was a new variety of chocolate, gold is a new flavour. The naturally gold coloured chocolate is made by adding caramelised milk and caramelised sugar to white chocolate. A touch of salt is also added. Naturally I couldn’t wait to try it.

San Churro Chocolateria have featured both ruby and gold chocolate on their menus. As a big fan of their churros, I decided to try gold chocolate as a dipping sauce. My platter of churros arrived with four dipping sauces, gold, ruby, dark and milk. I tried each chocolate sauce on its own before beginning a thoughtful dunking process. I began with gold, followed by ruby then milk then dark. The gold chocolate was reminiscent of salted caramel but not as sweet and with a distinct chocolate taste. It felt rich, creamy and decadent. The dipping sauce was garnished with little beads of gold chocolate and these gems were a true delight. I loved it! Surprisingly the ruby chocolate tasted great paired with the fried cinnamon magic that is a churro. The only thing that would have made this a perfect chocolate dipping experience is if there was a bowl of white chocolate. Then I could have enjoyed a pentagram of chocolates. 🙂 

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A Taste Of Autumn In Spring

The 8th of November is Bram Stoker’s birthday. Stoker was born in autumn in 1847 during the sign of Scorpio. His most famous creation is the gothic novel Dracula. 

Every year I like to celebrate his birthday by doing something special. This year I treated myself to an autumnal breakfast in the heart of spring.

The Coffeeologist is a cafe which recently opened near me. It’s been getting rave reviews so I couldn’t wait to go. The menu looked good and there were a few items I wanted to try. The Red Velvet Hotcakes were tempting as was the selection of sourdough fruit breads, but the winner was the Spiced Brioche. 

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My plate arrived and it looked beautiful. A pool of burnt apple puree supported a thick slice of spiced brioche French toast topped with a rasher of maple bacon, hazelnut cream and scattered with almond granola. I took one bite and thought “This tastes of Autumn!” Memories of Halloweens past and present and ideas for future Halloweens swirled in my mind while my taste buds were blown away by the cacophony of autumnal delights. I can think of no better way to celebrate the birth of the author of Dracula than with a Halloween treat. 🙂

This is my basic recipe for French Toast. Dress it up with a drizzle of maple syrup or go all out and add as many seasonal accompaniments as you like!

French Toast
Ingredients
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
butter or oil for frying
2 slices of bread*
maple syrup
seasonal accompaniments

Instructions
Lightly beat the egg in a bowl.
Add the milk and beat until combined.
Melt a small knob of butter or heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat.
Dip bread slices in the batter.
Place the bread into the frying pan and cook for 2 – 3 minutes or until golden brown.
Turn the slices over and cook the other side until golden brown, adding more butter or oil as needed.
Place on a serving plate and drizzle with maple syrup.
Add whatever seasonal accompaniments you desire.

*I usually use sliced white bread but you can use whatever bread you like.

A Tale Of An Unripe Avocado

Every month our big chain supermarkets put out free cooking magazines which I love collecting. It’s an obvious advertising ploy as the recipes “encourage” you to use their supermarket brands. While I’m not usually interested in buying their products, I am interested in their recipes. 🙂 One of the recipes I couldn’t wait to make was an Avocado and Pistachio Cake. 

I bought my ingredients and eagerly waited for my avocado to ripen. Squeezing it every day, it finally felt ripe enough to use. I got my ingredients ready but left the avocado for the end as I didn’t want it to go brown. With a bench full of measured ingredients, the oven preheated and the pan ready, I cut open the avocado only to discover it wasn’t ripe. Instead of a beautiful soft inside, ready to be scooped out into the cake mix, it was tough as rubber and definitely not cake-friendly! 

Thinking quickly I grabbed a ripe banana that I had waiting for another recipe and substituted it for the avocado. The result was a delicious and aromatic banana cake that I would definitely make again! 

The recipe included a lemon icing which I omitted as the cake is sweet enough from the banana. As I wasn’t icing the cake, I didn’t have to wait for it to cool completely so I had a couple of slices warm from the oven. You can ice the cake if you like but I do recommend eating some while it’s still hot. And yes, I do plan on making this cake with avocado, I’ll just make sure I cut the avocado before I start.

Banana and Pistachio Cake

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Ingredients
70g shelled pistachios
70g unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup caster (superfine) sugar
1 large ripe banana, mashed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
1 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup almond meal

Instructions
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 10cm x 21cm loaf pan with baking paper.
Process the pistachios in a food processor until they resemble breadcrumbs.
Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar in a bowl until combined.
Add the banana and vanilla extract and beat until combined.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.
Stir in the flour, baking powder, almond meal and pistachio meal until the mix is smooth.
Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Allow to cool in the pan for 5 minutes.
Slice and eat while warm or place on a wire rack to cool completely before icing.

Lammas Down Under

February 1st is Lammas or Lughnasadh in the Southern Hemisphere. In the pagan calendar it marks the halfway point between the Midsummer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. It is the first of the harvest festivals and the first autumn festival of the year. It is a time of thanksgiving and sacrifice. The name Lammas is derived from an Old English term for “loaf mass” while Lughnasadh is derived from the name of the Celtic God Lugh.

Back in my coven days we followed a Celtic calendar so we celebrated Lughnasadh. When I left the coven I tried to continue embracing this ritual but found it difficult. Using the name Lammas rather than Lughnasadh helped as I could focus on bread and the harvest rather than a male Celtic God. Unfortunately Lammas is celebrated in Australia during the hottest time of the year. Temperatures soar, days are hot and sticky and nights are warm and muggy. It’s hard to get into the spirit of a festival focussing on baked goods when you yourself are baking as long and hot as a Lammas loaf. So instead of baking bread, I thought I would concentrate on the thanksgiving part of Lammas and make a sandwich I had on a recent trip to the USA. 

One of the things I am really grateful for is being able to visit my dear friend Anne on Whidbey Island in Washington State. She was a great host and tour guide and took us to some fantastic places to eat. For our last meal on the island we had lunch at Pickles Deli. There was so much on offer so I took my time devising the perfect sandwich. For the fillings I chose turkey with cranberry sauce and mayonnaise. This combination always makes me think of a thanksgiving dinner. Feeling adventurous, I did something I have never done before, I chose lettuce leaves instead of bread as my wrapping. My bread-free sandwich was a light and fresh taste sensation!

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The great thing about this sandwich wrap is that you can make it with homemade ingredients or store-bought ones and you can also substitute chicken for the turkey. I’ve made it many ways and they have all been delicious.

You can read more about my travels and recipes from Whidbey Island and other parts of the USA in my book Bites and Pieces of America. 🙂

Cosy To A Tea

When you’re rumoured to have the best scones in Sydney you better deliver! Happily the Tea Cosy did just that. When we arrived we were greeted by a long queue of people eager to sample the Tea Cosy’s world-famous scones. We debated whether we should wait or leave, but when we saw the trays of scones being delivered to lucky tables, we eagerly joined the queue.

Located in Sydney’s famous Rocks area, the Tea Cosy is a heritage listed terrace house transformed into a sumptuous tea house. Adding to the old-world ambience are eclectic decorations and artworks which are scattered throughout the grand house. There are a variety of eating areas downstairs and a staircase leads to extra eating spaces upstairs including a few tables out on the balcony. The tables are decorated with baskets of wool with knitting needles and I watched lots of people knitting while they waited for their orders to arrive. A few patrons were chilly and they were offered knitted rugs to keep them warm. It had such a cosy feel, I couldn’t wait to be seated. 

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After waiting a surprisingly short time, we were told we had a table upstairs on the balcony. This was just where I was hoping we would be seated! We had a lovely view of the street below which kept us entertained while we waited for our much anticipated afternoon tea.

Our pots of tea arrived, snuggled in knitted cosies, followed by scones, jams and cream served in baskets. I loaded my scones with jam and cream and bit into them. Wow! I have eaten a lot of scones in a lot of different places and these were some of the best. 

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Feeling nourished and nurtured we relaxed and watched as two curious birds paid us a visit. The Tea Cosy is one of those rare places that lives up to its name and reputation.

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Not sure whether to add jam or cream first on a scone? Check out my previous post on cream teas which also includes a recipe for a cupcake cream tea 🙂

Act 1 – Shakespeare Around The Globe

This Sunday is both Easter Sunday and April Fools’ day and I know which one I am most excited about!

April Fools’ Day for me is a day to celebrate the spirit of the tarot Fool. The Fool is the first card in the major arcana and it is the Fool who journeys through the tarot and learns the lessons of the cards. The Fool is so important it is the only major arcana card to be represented in modern playing card decks. In these decks the Fool plays the role of the Joker.

Fool

fool card from the dracula tarot

The Fool symbolises new beginnings, adventures and journeys – that’s why I have adopted April Fools’ Day as my personal New Year’s Day. On April Fools’ Day I take time to look back on the year that has passed and make plans for the year ahead. What is most exciting for me is that my plans for this coming year are intertwined with the journeys I made this past year.

Last year I travelled to America and fulfilled a childhood dream of visiting Salem, Massachusetts. I also got to meet in person a friend I have known online for many years. Plus I visited the island where an Atlantic puffin I sponsor spends their summer. A few weeks ago I travelled to America again to attend a giant panda fan convention in San Diego, something I have wanted to do for many years. I ended this trip with a visit to San Fransisco where my partner Paul and I celebrated 30 years of not being married by walking on the Golden Gate Bridge 🙂 Both trips have been enriching and will provide me with inspiration – and recipes – for this year’s blog posts. They may also have given me material for a book or two!

What does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well Shakespeare was no stranger to the power and importance of Fools. Many of his most memorable characters were witty and clever Fools. Plus, it was two Shakespeare inspired establishments that provided me with comfort and nourishment in San Diego. That’s right – Shakespeare’s influence extends around the globe!

One of the things I love to do before I travel is research places to eat. Two of the places I picked in San Diego were the Shakespeare Pub & Grille and Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe and Afternoon Tea. I couldn’t wait to visit them.

The Shakespeare Pub & Grille was established in 1990 by British expats. It is modelled on a traditional British pub in English Tudor style. The food is classic British comfort food and the bar stocks beers from around the world. We ordered a couple of beers and their signature dish – Fish & Chips. We were treated to crisp and crunchy pieces of beer battered cod with peas and chips (fries) served with tartare sauce and malt vinegar. It was delicious. After such a tasty meal we had to try their desserts. Paul chose Sticky Toffee Pudding – a steamed light sponge cake covered in a sweet and sticky toffee sauce. He couldn’t decide between custard and ice cream so he had both. I chose something I have never tried before but have always wanted to – Spotted Dick! This amusingly named dessert is a steamed suet pudding containing dried fruit and is traditionally served with custard. YUM 🙂 Each bite melted in my mouth and I was rewarded with the scent and taste of a soft, warm and spicy fruit cake. The custard was smooth and creamy and complemented the pudding perfectly. We were ready to go back to the hotel and have a nap but we had one more culinary stop to make.

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Next door to the Shakespeare Pub is Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe and Afternoon Tea which is run by a British family. We had hoped to have a cream tea in their patio tearoom but we were too full from lunch. Instead we decided to check out the store and see what they had on offer. Not surprisingly the shelves were stocked with British produce. Missing my nightly tea and shortbreads, I was happy to find a box of Earl Grey teabags and a packet of Scottish shortbreads. I also found an interestingly shaped spoon which the staff told me was a Black and Tan spoon used for pouring layered cocktails. As a fan of layered cocktails, I had to have it. In the fridge I saw a jar of clotted cream which I was so tempted to buy but valiantly resisted. When I went to pay I noticed they were selling scones to take home. I looked at Paul and he knew exactly what I was thinking – Cream Tea for Dinner! We grabbed scones, a jar of strawberry jam – and the jar of clotted cream 🙂 That evening we sat on the balcony of our hotel room and enjoyed our cream tea. We even had enough scones, jam and cream left for a cream tea breakfast the next morning.

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While there may not have been too much “Shakespeare” in this story I shall make up for that in Act 2, which tells a tale of my Shakespearean adventures in Melbourne. It will be closely followed by Act 3 – a recipe inspired by these tales.

If you are need of more adventure this Easter weekend there is a Full Moon to celebrate. And for those of us in Melbourne, Australia, due to time zone differences, this will be a Blue Full Moon!

A World Of Donuts

There are some pretty good things to do on a rainy weekend in Melbourne, and going to a Donut & Beer Festival is one of them!

I arrived at the festival nice and early and did a tour of all the food stalls. There were so many different types of donuts on offer, from cold and filled to fresh cooked hot ones. There were even glow in the dark donuts. There was no way I was going to be trying all of them. Having my partner Paul there to share the “burden” helped. After much thought we narrowed it down to five food trucks offering a range of hot and cold donuts from different countries.

First stop was Honey Dee Loukoumades. We’ve had these warm, honey drenched Greek donuts before and have even made them ourselves.

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There were four flavours to choose from:
Honey Cinnamon Walnuts
Caramel with Artisan Salts
Nutella
Callebaut Milk Chocolate with Dark Chocolate Rocks
Luckily they were offering a tasting platter with all four donuts so we chose that. They were all delicious but our favourite was the traditional cinnamon and walnut one. I really liked the salted caramel one too.

I couldn’t wait to try the South African Koeksister Donuts at the Ostrich and the Egg. I have heard of them but have never had them so I was really looking forward to them.

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They had three offerings:
Traditional – Coconut
Garden Route – Sable Biscuit, Pistachio, Sesame Seeds
North of the River – Cocoa, Coffee Crumble
Happily they too had a tasting platter deal so we got to try all three. I thought I was going to love the coffee crumble one but I think one of the spices was cardamon which I don’t like. Surprisingly Paul, who loves coffee but not coffee flavoured foods, liked it. We both loved the other two donuts. They were moist and flavoursome and really unusual.

When I first saw the sign for Yuzu Donuts I thought it was a Japanese stall. Then I saw the familiar black, red and white decor and knew this was a New Zealand stall. The name Hangi Boys Kiwi Kitchen was also a big clue 🙂 I was very excited as I love New Zealand and have visited the country a couple of times. But I haven’t had Kiwi donuts before!

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They only had one donut flavour to chose from:
Grapefruit & Yuzu Custard with Dried Raspberry
Yum. It was like a cold jam donut but with a tart and creamy centre. We both enjoyed this Kiwi treat.

A real show stopper was the Hungarian Kurtosh Donut Cone at The Hungry Boys stall. They reminded me of Romanian kürtőskalács. Everyone who walked passed had a good look, including me, but I was the first to stop and buy one! There was no way I could resist a donut moulded into the shape of an ice cream cone which is then filled with warm, creamy delights.

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You could choose a banana or an apple filling but as Paul cannot eat bananas we chose:
Mama’s Apple Pie
The cold donut cone was filled with stewed cinnamon apples, toasted granola and heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream. It was topped with whipped cream, caramel sauce and a chocolate biscuit. It took a while to make our way through this enormous donut but we did! Having so much creamy goodness made the task easier, as did the comforting flavours.

With almost no room left in our bellies we made our way to Blondies Doughnuts. Thankfully their specialty is mini doughnuts 🙂

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We chose a tried and true classic:
Mini Cinnamon Sugar
I really think hot cinnamon donuts are the best and these mini morsels were outstanding. I was considering having a second serve but I thought that would be tempting fate. Plus, we hadn’t even started the beer tastings.

After a fortifying coffee we tasted a few Indian Pale Ales. There was also a mulled wine stall which I quickly made my way to. The warm wine was sweetened with molasses and spices and was divine. They were selling jars of their concentrated mulling syrup which I bought. Now when I want a mulled wine I can make an individual cup, adding one or two teaspoons of their Smoking Bishop Syrup. I can’t wait to start mulling 🙂

Hot & Cold Lemonade

As winter slowly moves into spring, the weather in Melbourne goes topsy turvy. Yesterday was so warm and sunny I was wearing a teeshirt and sandals. This morning I’m rugged up in pyjamas and a dressing gown, listening to the rain pouring outside. That’s change of season time in Melbourne – and I love it!

Last week I celebrated the last nights of winter by visiting the Queen Victoria Winter Night Market. I was pretty excited as there were so many new food stalls and some of them had food I could eat!

I started with dessert because it’s one of the safest food groups 🙂 for me due to my allergies and sensitivities. (Also the queue was short and I had a feeling it would get longer.) I wasn’t disappointed with my huge serve of apple crumble with granola topping served with custard and ice cream.

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I wasn’t really looking for a drink but a stall selling hot buttered lemonade caught my eye.
Butter in lemonade? I just had to try it. It was as I suspected – fresh lemonade mixed with butter and a surprise hint of cinnamon and it was divine. The butter added a creamy element to the drink and helped balance the sweet acidity of the lemons. I loved that it was served hot. Excited at the new food on offer I continued my culinary journey.

As I wandered the food stalls I stopped and drooled at one serving polenta. A mound of soft, piping hot polenta was just waiting to be scooped up and topped with a choice of delicious accompaniments. My mouth watered as I wondered if any of the toppings had chilli or tomato. And then I saw them; fried polenta chips. My choice was made and my order quickly placed. As I bit into the crispy crust I was rewarded with a mouthful of that soft, creamy polenta. The dipping sauce of lemon myrtle mayonnaise paired beautifully with my buttered lemonade. It was a wonderful way to enjoy the last of our winter nights.

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I couldn’t get the hot buttered lemonade out of my mind so I just had to make some myself. I decided to make another one of my favourite lemonades – pink lemonade – and then turn it into a hot buttered lemonade. The recipe below makes about 3 cups of lemonade so you can have some cold and some hot – just like Melbourne weather!

Pink Lemonade
Ingredients
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups water
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed ruby grapefruit juice

Instructions
Place the sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan.
Heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Remove from heat. Set aside.
Pour the remaining 1 + 1/2 cups water, lemon juice and grapefruit juice into a jug.
Stir in the sugar syrup.
Place in the refrigerator and chill before serving.

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Buttered Pink Lemonade
Ingredients
1 teaspoon butter (or to taste)*
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup Pink Lemonade

Instructions
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.
Add the cinnamon stick and juice.
Stir until the juice is cloudy and hot.
Pour into a mug or heatproof glass.

*my drink was quite buttery so you may want to experiment with the amount of butter and tailor it to your taste 🙂