Cream? Sugar? Booze? Tick, tick tick. Eggnog’s virtues are many. For someone who has leant on Baileys as much as on friends and family during lockdown, I need no convincing when it comes to dessert-like drinks.
And it helps to think of it as a dessert, both because eggnog is essentially boozy, drinkable custard and because it puts you in the patient frame of mind required to make it. There’s no pretending that eggnog can be knocked together as quickly as an Old Fashioned. But it is worth the effort, and should be as part of your Christmas build-up kitchen routine as making mulled wine.
Eggnog is British in origin, hailing from the late Medieval drink sack posset, consumed with such commendable gusto by Falstaff (“If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked.”). It subsequently became very popular in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the American colonies, and indeed today it is considered by many a Thanksgiving essential.
It is worth saying at the start that some people will hate eggnog. Curdled dairy tends to split opinion in a way that G&Ts don’t. But if some in your family can’t stand it, any leftovers can be poured on top of mince pies or Christmas pudding. After all, it is no different really to brandy cream.
Part of the fun with eggnog is the many varying techniques and schools of opinion to experiment with. Should one stick with the traditional rum, or use bourbon, whisky or brandy? Nutmeg is obligatory but should one use vanilla and cinnamon too? Cream or milk, or indeed condensed milk? And perhaps most importantly, to cook the eggs in a custard, or keep them raw?
There are no hard and fast rules but I err on the side of tradition, which means not cooking the eggs. Many nog aficionados point out that the reaction between the alcohol and the egg enzymes (a process that would be killed by heat) is what gives real nog its je ne sais quoi. The booze also acts as a steriliser and preservative, killing off any bacteria (or salmonella) in the eggs, enabling you to keep the nog to age for the flavours to develop—American cook Michael Ruhlman has a recipe that will apparently keep happily for several years.
Personally, I think overnight in the fridge is time enough, both because temptation gets the better of me and because in the middle of a global pandemic the safety of fermenting boozy eggs for months on end is one health consideration I can’t be bothered to think about.
As for booze, any of the sweet brown spirits work. I like a combination of a dark rum (bourbon tastes just as good but is less authentic to the drink’s origins) and brandy or cognac. If you want a mellower taste you could substitute half of the hard spirits for a fortified wine like cream sherry or Madeira.
I use a mix of milk and cream, and you can vary the proportions according to how lusciously rich and thick you want it. For sugar, although I usually like the molasses notes of brown sugars they can turn this drink the colour of muddy puddle, so plain white caster sugar is best. Nutmeg—both left to infuse in the booze and grated on top—is traditional. I like to add cinnamon too. Fresh vanilla can be a nice addition, though the pods cost a pretty penny and the flavour can sometimes be drowned out so I don’t bother.
Serves eight (or two, rather more generously). Serve chilled.
What you need
6 free-range eggs (the fresher the better)
600ml single cream
300 ml whole milk
250 ml dark rum
100 ml brandy
150g caster sugar
What to do
1. A day or two before you want to drink the eggnog, break the nutmeg into several pieces using a pestle and mortar (or a rolling pin with lots of enthusiasm) and snap the cinnamon into two. Add the spices to the rum and leave to infuse.
2. Separate the eggs into two bowls. Cover the whites and refrigerate until needed. Whisk up the yolks with half the sugar until they are thick and light in colour. Fish out the nutmeg and cinnamon pieces and whisk in the rum, brandy, cream and milk. Cover and pop it in the fridge overnight for the flavours to develop.
3. Whisk the egg whites until frothy, then gradually add the other half of the sugar whisking until you have soft peaks. Fold the egg whites into the eggnog until well combined and then pour into glasses.
4. Serve with a little more nutmeg grated on top and, if you like, a cinnamon stick to stir.
N.B. If you are serving the pregnant or granny and therefore want to avoid the use of raw eggs you can gently heat the cream mixture in a pan before pouring over the whisked eggs yolks. Return to the pan to gently cook until thickened as you would with a regular custard.