The Milk of Holiday Kindness
What’s your favorite sweet and dairy-laden beverage of choice?
According to a popular holiday tune, when our lang syne gets auld, we need to lift a cup of kindness. You’d be hard pressed to find a kinder cup than one of these traditional holiday offerings: eggnog, boiled custard, and/or milk punch. There’s no need to wait until New Year’s Eve, so let the ladling commence.
Eggnog doesn’t occupy middle ground; people either love or hate the stuff. Let’s focus on the lovers, shall we? Some of us begin drinking it daily as soon as it shows up in the markets, going so far as to purchase pint bottles that will fit into the cup holders in our one-horse open sleigh, or minivan. For others, it’s an indulgent treat reserved for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and perhaps the only day of the year that tea-totalers look the other way when someone spikes the bowl with a bit of good Southern bourbon. Some say that the only reason to even drink eggnog is to get that wee nip. The inimitable Eudora Welty was once asked whether it was fitting to serve her signature egg nog recipe without the whiskey, to which she replied, “A bird can’t fly on just one wing.”
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Eggnog is insanely rich, generously sweetened cream enriched with egg yolks and topped with billows of whipped cream or rafts of beaten egg whites. Let’s be honest; it’s the raw eggs that turn some folks away, although these days not all eggnog concoctions contain eggs at all, must less raw ones. There is, for example, vegan eggnog, which is certainly an oxymoron. That being said, the eggs and dairy are traditional, dating back to possets served in medieval times, which was hot curdled milk mixed with a strong ale known as nog, thickened with whipped eggs, sweetened, and spiced—a beverage only for the wealthy who could afford such rare and pricey ingredients. Even when made with sherry, whisky, rum, or other spirits, the nog name stuck. The British brought eggnog to the colonies where it became popular with farm families who had their own cows and chickens. They say George and Martha Washington served it to Mt. Vernon’s winter guests, which started eggnog’s association with the holidays. Plus, in the days before refrigeration, that whole raw dairy and egg thing was less dicey during cold weather.
In Southern families where eggnog doesn’t rule, boiled custard often holds sway, perhaps because it is less likely to be spiked and is more family-friendly. Boiled custard is also known as drinking custard, which is a spot-on description. This cooked vanilla custard is sipped warm or chilled from small serving cups. It is often dusted with nutmeg, although some families prefer a version known as “float,” which is garnished with mounds of whipped egg whites floating on top. People often say that chilled boiled custard tastes like a partially melted vanilla milk shake, which makes sense considering that the recipe is essentially the same as the base for homemade vanilla ice cream.
Despite its name, boiled custard isn’t actually boiled, but simmered gently in a double boiler to keep the eggs from curdling. In these days of heavy-duty cookware, most cooks no longer need a double boiler, but the name persists, as does the Southern devotion to this delicious stuff.
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Milk punch is the third in our trio of sweet and dairy-laden holiday beverages, albeit egg free and uncooked. It’s less well known across the South, although equally beloved in certain circles. Milk punch is always spiked, heavily, making it essentially a stiff bourbon (or brandy) cocktail that contains milk and sugar. Milk punch is strongly associated with Sunday brunch in New Orleans, although it’s currently garnering attention beyond NOLA thanks to the hubbub over small batch bourbon and the cocktail renaissance. Devotees claim that a Sunday morning milk punch is the appropriate response to a hangover accrued on Saturday night. Like a Bloody Mary, it’s a bit of the hair of the dog that bit you, so to speak. The ratio of bourbon to milk in most recipes makes milk punch one hairy dog.
In theory, eggnog, boiled custard, and milk punch could be made in single servings, but it’s not likely. Nor is it a good idea. A solo serving, no matter how large, is missing the point. Among the appeals is that these holidays classics are served from pitchers and punch bowls, which are communal and convivial serving pieces. For these drinks, family and friends can draw their cups of kindness and good cheer from the same well.