The first refreshment of the day is the historic eggnog, made in a great bowl which is never used except for this famous Christmas beverage. Around the eggnog gather black and white, and healths are drunk to a constant accompaniment of “Merry Christmas.” This famous decoction of old Virginia is made of twelve eggs, four glasses of gin, five of brandy, four of sherry and two cups of sugar. The liquor is poured on the yolks of the eggs and the sugar, which are beaten together till thoroughly mixed. Then are added the whites of the eggs, well beaten and milk enough the taste is agreeable.
So religiously is this custom of the eggnog drinking observed that Judge Garnett of Mathews County tells a story of rushing in on Christmas morning to warn his father that the house was on fire. The old gentleman first led his son to the breakfast table and ladled out his glass of eggnog, drank one with him, then went to care for the burning building. Good Housekeeping, December 1900
One of the most comforting things about holidays, regardless of your ethnicity or religion or place of origin, is the simple repetition of tradition. Perhaps it is the smell of roast goose or latkes from the kitchen. Perhaps it is a touch football game on the streets of your hometown with the same faces, aging in yearly increments, as from your youth. Perhaps it is the high music of Midnight Mass or a Solstice Bonfire or that first lighting of the Menorah with Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh echoing in the air.
Whatever it might be, tradition has weight that defeats cynicism and, while traditions evolve and change, they are part of the weave of our lives. So, while Tom & Jerry is a fine holiday drink indeed, if you are not a native of, or resident in, the Upper Midwest or Great Lakes region, your tradition may call for that other great holiday egg based tipple, Eggnog (or Egg Nog or Egg Nogg). Unfortunately, real eggnog, with origins as far back as the 15th Century, is in short supply these days and simply cannot be purchased from a store. It takes some work, some whisking and folding and egg separating, but when made properly is far superior to any off the shelf product, lighter in body, almost ethereal, and potent enough to be used medicinally if your traditions include relatives that foster insanity.
It Begins With a Posset
According to the OED, the word “Posset” is of 15th Century Origin, and referred to a mixture of fresh milk, heated, then curdled with wine, or more usually ale. After cooling, the whey was removed, and the resulting liquid flavored with ginger, sugar and sometimes sweet wine and candied anise. It was commonly served as medicine, usually used to treat colds, but also just generally for whatever might be ailing you. Possets even pop up, as most things to seem do, in Shakespeare, with Lady MacBeth conniving:
The doors are open, and the surfeited grooms
Do mock their charge with snores. I have drugg'd their possets
That death and nature do contend about them,
Whether they live or die.
(Act II, Scene ii)
This is important, because as time passed, Possets came to be compounded with the addition of eggs, and by the time of the settlement of the American Colonies, the Posset was well established in English life and quickly adapted for the ingredients on hand in the New World, most particularly, rum. Mix together milk, eggs and rum with a bit of sugar and spice and you have a proto eggnog, one that blazed through the Colonies and was popular throughout, with variations and improvements coming as fast as ingredients could be raised, produced or procured.
A Brief Interlude from George Washington
From Mt. Vernon’s recipe archive, allegedly in Washington’s hand:
One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.
NB, George forgot to include the number of eggs. A dozen will do.
Be Warned: Riots May Ensue If You Serve Without Booze
Despite the fact that the father of our country, himself once a general, had a fondness for liquor and for eggnog, the United States Military Academy, under one Sylvanus Thayer, saw fit to ban liquor in 1817. Despite the fact that drunkenness could get a cadet expelled, by 1826 there was concern amongst the brass that drinking was a shade out of control amongst the corps.
During the Christmas of that year, several cadets, including one Jefferson Davis, conspired to smuggle whiskey into the barracks for the purpose of making illicit eggnog on Christmas Day. In this aspect, they were successful. But the eggnog party was discovered and broken up by the authorities, with severe disciplinary action promised to all involved. Shortly thereafter, mayhem erupted with roughly seventy of the two hundred and sixty cadets on campus going apeshit. This continued for a couple of days, severely disrupting the academy. This so-called Eggnog Riot resulted in a number of courts-martial, expulsions and suspensions, but Jefferson Davis was let off easy because he surrendered without fuss at the start. One wonders if history might have been different had he been deprived of his military education on account of a bit of eggnog.
A Note on Linguistics
The earliest known printed reference to “egg nogg” appears in 1801, and by 1862, when Jerry Thomas published his first bartender’s guide, he included six versions, some credited to places (i.e., The Baltimore Egg Nogg, spruced up with rum, cognac and Madeira), individual versions (which are more properly a form of what we could call a flip, as the egg is not separated, mixed and reincorporated as it would be with a traditional eggnog) and some credited to people (i.e., General Harrison’s Egg Nogg, made boozy with hard cider).
So, how did we get from “Posset” to Nog? There are two competing, equally plausible ideas. The first is English in origin and posits that eggnog is derived from the word “noggin,” referring to small wooden vessels first used for drinking the original “Nog,” a strong ale from Norfolk, England. The theory goes that as time passed and Possets moved from the medicinal to the recreational, people would order them by requesting an “egg in nog” or the like, which eventually became Egg Nog and then Eggnog (from whence the extra “G” on the end of early spelling springs, history is silent).
The second is Colonial American in origin, and leans heavily on the early American use of rum. The slang for rum is of course, “Grog,” and a mixture of eggs and rum would be “Egg in Grog.” After a few of them, that easily could become “Egg Nog.” Again, no word on why early spellings use that extra “G.”
Off the shelf eggnog, available seasonally at every MegaMart and convenience store, is nothing like the real thing, made from scratch. The store bought stuff, even brands labeled organic or farm fresh or small batch are not eggnog as it should be; they are thickened with stabilizers and emulsifiers, they are frequently flavored with high fructose corn syrup and are far sweeter than they need to be. Many are artificially flavored and nearly all have added color, either artificial or natural.
But, most important is the star ingredient, the egg. Every early and traditional eggnog recipe calls for the use of both the egg yolk and the egg white. Store bought brands almost never contain the white, and instead rely on additional cream or milk to add volume. Under FDA regulation, products labeled “Eggnog” need only contain 1% egg yolk by weight (“Eggnog Flavored Milk” calls for only ½% of egg yolk by weight). Consider that homemade eggnog usually starts with around a dozen eggs, and the realization quickly sets in that store bought brands have to get their thick, coating texture from somewhere.
The first somewhere is actually probably from the egg yolks, which in commercial nog are usually cooked into custard rather than simply whipped into shape with sugar before blending with the dairy components. The second is from the use of emulsifiers like guar gum, locust gum or carrageenan.
Looking at the current regulations governing commercial eggnog (which, by the way, allow for “Liquid egg yolk, frozen egg yolk, dried egg yolk, liquid whole eggs, frozen whole eggs, dried whole eggs, or any one or more of the foregoing ingredients with liquid egg white or frozen egg white, a wide array of sweeteners, including HFCS, Maltose, Dextrose, etc, “Flavoring Ingredients,” and stabilizers), and it’s clear that store bought eggnog is not remotely similar to what you can produce at home with a bit of effort and time.
Speaking of Time
It has become the fashion amongst a certain class of the food obsessed to age their eggnog, sometimes for as little as three weeks and sometimes for as long as a year. You’ll note that the George Washington recipe above, from the time before refrigeration, calls for leaving the nog to rest for several days, so this is not unheard of, and food science says it’s perfectly safe provided you keep the nog below 40 degrees for the duration of its aging (read, in the fridge), you use enough booze and you toss it should it begin to bubble, dramatically or rapidly change color or smell like sulfur.
Allowing a nog to age, even for a short period, will better integrate the flavors and improve the mouth feel. In the simplest terms, volatile compounds in the booze react with the sugar and egg proteins to better mingle and mellow the various flavors, while also changing the quality of the egg proteins, causing a slight deepening in color and a thickening texture which is further enhanced as egg yolks gelatinize in solution. These egg enzymes, at these temperatures, work slowly, so long aging is possible.
In terms of taste, aged nog is mellower nog. Is it necessary? Not remotely. But it’s nice to know that you can prepare this in advance of a party or gathering, and not kill anyone and gain an arguably better product.
A Note on Ingredients: The Booze
Early eggnog would have been produced with the American made rum from New England, generally rough stuff, aged to mellow, and full of hogo and flavor. Whiskey would have been used in those backwoods regions where it was distilled, and fortified wine, typically Madeira or sweet Sherry was added to the mixture by the well heeled. At some point prior to 1862, brandy comes into use. None of these are bad ideas, and all will result in a tasty concoction, though a mixture of Cognac and dark rum lands us in a sweet spot.
That said, use what you like or what you have, just keep the proportions of booze to egg parts and dairy consistent and adjust to taste.
Baltimore Egg Nogg, Jerry Thomas, adapted by David Wondrich
10 Eggs, Separated
3-4 oz Superfine Sugar
2/3 of whole nutmeg, grated
5 oz. VS Cognac
3 oz. Dark Rum (something Jamaican in style, see here for suggestions.)
4 oz. Bual Style Madeira
6 pints Whole Milk
Beat the sugar into the egg yolks in a large bowl until the mixture is the consistency of cream. Add your grated nutmeg and rum, Cognac and Madeira. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they form a stiff froth. Fold this mixture into the yolk mixture until well combined. Stir in milk and serve.
Eggnog, Derek Brown (The Columbia Room and The Passenger, Washington, DC)
NB, This is a Large Bowl, Suitable for Parties, Serves 25
2 dozen Eggs, separated
1 (750 ml) bottle VS cognac or other brandy
16 oz Jamaican rum
2 lb Powdered sugar
3 qt (96 oz) Whole milk
1 qt (32 oz) Heavy cream
1 tsp Salt
3/4 tsp Grated nutmeg
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks until light and lemon-colored. While continuing to beat, add the brandy, rum, sugar, milk, heavy cream and salt. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and nutmeg until they form stiff peaks. Fold the whites into the yolk mixture. Serve in punch cups.