There are many hot beverages that are great during cold weather in general, and the cozy, convivial Christmas-to-New-Year's-Day period in particular, but my favorite is spiced cider.
It's more warming and flavorful than hot cocoa, and not as cloying (don't get me wrong -- if you offer me cocoa, I'm not turning it down). The flavor is fresher and often more complex than that of mulled wine; it's also more family-friendly in its unfermented form. It's even a healthy drink for people who are under the weather.
You can get really fancy with the recipes, creating a concoction that's almost more of a punch than a cider and takes as much time to make as a small meal.
However, I know of two ways to make a few servings of tasty hot apple goodness in well under five minutes, with special ingredients that make it easy. You'll find more about them after the break!
Fast spiced cider
The fastest and easiest way to fix hot spiced cider for yourself is simply to take advantage of the ground spice blend called Apple Pie Spice. It includes cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Try my recipe, meant to imitate a simple mulled cider:
Apple cider: 12 to 16 oz (1.5 cups to 2 cups)
Apple Pie Spice: several dashes
Ground clove: very small pinch (optional)
2 or 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup or other microwave-safe vessel
Possible garnishes: whipped cream, cinnamon sticks, etc.
Pour cider into measuring cup. Add a dash or two of Apple Pie Spice and a little pinch of Ground Clove (be careful not to overdo it with the cloves; you only need a few grains, and you may choose to float a whole clove in the cider instead). Heat in microwave until hot: around two minutes on "high" for an 1100 watt microwave. Pour into heated mug, garnish as desired, and serve.
Caramel apple cider
If you prefer something a little more like a candied treat, why not try caramel apple cider? A recipe has been floating around the Internet for years, since its initial appearance on Usenet's rec.food.recipes newsgroup. It has been reproduced on many, many blogs and recipe sites.
This recipe is meant to imitate the caramel apple drink concoction sold by popular coffee chains like Starbucks and Caribou. If you visit one of their shops, you will notice that neither calls the drink "Caramel Apple Cider": it contains no cider, just apple juice, and both eventually complied when they were asked to stop representing it as a cider drink. Regardless, it's yummy! The recipe calls for apple juice, but you can still make it with cider.
Treetop premium apple juice
Cinnamon syrup: a couple of squirts (I can't find an official measurement for a squirt, so I would try adding this a tablespoon at a time, to taste)
Pyrex measuring cup or microwave-safe vessel
Caramel sauce (or the syrup meant as a garnish) drizzled on top
Heat the apple juice in the measuring cup for about two minutes or until it's the temperature that you like. Blend cinnamon syrup with apple juice and pour into mug. Top with whipped cream and caramel syrup. Enjoy!
Starbucks now uses their Cinnamon Dolce syrup, which can be purchased in the store. The caramel syrup drizzle can be done with any plain caramel syrup (i.e., not "Magic Shell") made for ice cream: some come in bottles that are perfect for drizzling. In a coffee shop, the apple juice would be steam-heated; if you have an espresso machine at home with an attached steamer/frother for milk, you should be able to use that to heat your cider, if you choose.
If you'd rather make this with no cinnamon flavoring and caramel flavoring syrup (rather than caramel sauce), Walking.about.com has a caramel apple cider recipe too.
Looking for more interesting things to do with apple cider? This cider thread at Chowhound has some ideas. And if you're interested in knocking off other coffee-shop drinks, try Starbucks Drinks Simplified (kinda).
For many more great recipes, visit our sister site Slashfood.