I am not a Christmas crazy. I don’t early observe. There is never anything Christmasy visible on Thanksgiving. The tree goes up late in December, just before the kids come home, and I save the decorating until they can join in. We are the last on the street to put up lights, and I am one of those last-minute shoppers. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the season. But with the kids grown and gone, and a job to work at, the preparation has lost its magic. (Relax. I am not going to complain about my empty nest again this month.)
The only exception I make to pre-Christmas revelry is the immediate tuning of the car radio to the station that plays Christmas music, and the regular purchase of eggnog. The way I see it, drinking eggnog with one’s leftover turkey-cranberry sandwich is totally acceptable. I love it so much.
The eggnog selection at the grocery store is crazy right now. You can get eggnog to suit whatever stage of lactose participation you are in. And because it is so readily available, it has become a regular item on the December shopping list. Eggnog lets me feel the holiday spirit with very little effort, and without lining the pockets of Starbucks.
The eggnog that you buy in the grocery store is the descendant — or rather, the amalgamation — of several old-timey milk-based beverages. Granted, milk plus alcohol sounds gross on the surface. The combination always reminds me of the time I was served homemade “Bailey’s,” then had to call in sick the next day. But in the Middle Ages, milk and booze was, as they say, fancy pants. In preindustrial Northern Europe, few people had cows, so moo juice was largely the privilege of wealthy landowners. The best chance to find one of these milky cocktails was after a fox hunt on the estate of Lord Rupert Brimblegoggin-Tricklebank.
The first written version of something similar to eggnog was called posset, documented in 14th-century cookery books as a beverage made from milk, wine and spices that would be curdled and strained. Yes, you are right if you think it sounds like whey that gets you drunk. To that I say, “No, thank you.” Fifteenth-century recipes saw the addition of sugar, cream and sometimes eggs, which sounds a little better. They even had special posset pots for this, which look something like a teapot, but with two handles. If there is a recipe that involves an obscure piece of crockery I can buy, then I am completely on board.
Nog was a 17th-century term for English ale, and wooden drinking cups were called noggins. There are English recipes from that century that mix ale and milk, but it is thought that the term eggnog was coined by American colonists who mixed rum — or grog — with eggs and milk. Egg-n-grog eventually became eggnog, because here in America we never use two names when they can be combined into one. (See “Bennifer”).
These drinks gained popularity in the American colonies, where, though there were few fancy estates, there were plenty of cows. Here, colonists mixed their milk with rum, not ale, because, thanks to the triangle trade, it was cheap and plentiful.
(Stop here for a moment and reflect on the terrible history of slavery before resuming blissful holiday reading.)
Even though I consume store-bought eggnog on the regular, I will, when the occasion arises, happily whip up a batch from scratch the old-fashioned way. Especially when it means I can dust off the punch bowl. I could very easily turn to the Internet for an eggnog recipe. But I am not interested in a lame recipe that involves cooking your eggs into a custard. This is a modern step that was added when people started freaking out about raw eggs. I do not condone such paranoia, as I have only ever gotten salmonella from old fish, and I know that salmonella is more easily contracted from cutting a melon than cracking an egg. Also, I know that agitation (a.k.a. “beating”) denatures protein in the same way that heat does, and therefore whipped eggs are technically cooked.
Also, I live on the edge.
So, instead, I like to thumb through my ridiculous cookbook collection and find something truly ancient. My new favorite eggnog recipe came from the crispy, browning pages of America’s Cook Book, compiled in 1938 by the Home Institute of the New York Herald Tribune. The eggnog recipe in the cocktail chapter is the same as the recipe from the beverage chapter, but the former’s title was changed from Egg Nog to New Year’s Egg Nog because it sounded mighty boozy. Apparently, the ladies (I’m obviously making a gender assumption here) of the Home Institute of the New York Herald Tribune wanted you to think they only drank on holidays. The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, ladies! Have at it!
NEW YEAR’S EGGNOG
Dust off your punch bowl or posset pot and try this for your next holiday gathering. I dare you! This recipe makes 24 1938-style portions, meaning dainty punch cups. If you are using larger cups, plan accordingly. Similarly, if you are just making this for yourself, cut down all ingredients equally across the board.
6 eggs, separated
¾ cup granulated sugar
1½ cups cognac
½ cup rum
4 cups milk
4 cups heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg
1. Whip the egg yolks and sugar until very light in color, and about as thick as sour cream (known in the biz as a “ribbon”). Slowly, while still beating, add the cognac and rum, then the milk and cream.
2. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks, then gently fold them into the yolk mixture. Top each serving with a generous sprinkling of grated nutmeg.
Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.