Of Nogs and Gloggs and Syllabubs
BY SUSAN AGER
Photos by Larry Coppard
Grown-ups a century ago must have enjoyed the holidays more than they do now. Christmas especially was less frenzied and more special. Back then, the holidays offered real treats: Oranges, shipped up on trains all the way from Florida! Fruitcake, baked in wood stoves by maiden aunts, doused in expensive liquors most people (especially women) didn’t often enjoy.
It was, generally, a rare chance—and sometimes the necessary excuse—to indulge.
Today, we need no excuse to indulge. We have access to everything every day. What’s to look forward to at the holidays? Here’s one answer: frothy, spicy, boozy, homey adult beverages. There’s nothing everyday about them. Many take some planning and require an actual wait (how archaic!) before they reach their prime. Their ingredients tend to be of the season—ciders and apples and exotic spices once rare and dear.
Nobody would make—or want to drink—any of these at a summer picnic. They are for the brief days and long, slow nights of winter, best imbibed by candlelight or firelight. I prefer to indulge quietly, accompanied by good friends, thoughtful conversation and full hearts. But some of my pals say the favorite recipes they’ve shared with me can turn a standard holiday gathering into a jolly, jumping fa-la-la.
Here are five winter indulgences to try, with a bit of background on why they’re special.
When I learned last fall that George Washington had a favorite eggnog, I couldn’t resist. I’m not an eggnog fan, perhaps because I’ve had too many sips from factory-made eggnog shipped in cartons. Years ago, my family liked an extremely rich eggnog traditional in the family of the security guard for the Detroit Free Press, where I worked. Joe Holloway’s Eggnog, we called it, and we made it for a couple years before Joe died, quite young, of a heart attack.
I’d avoided eggnog since, unable to forget Joe’s early demise. I knew George Washington was dead, too, but he lived to be 77. And, I thought, any recipe that old deserved to be tried. Best, this was one that needed time to reach its prime, just like people. The recipe said to let it sit in a cool place for four days to a week. I poured mine into a big glass jar, acquired free from a nearby restaurant. I sampled it right after I concocted it, then again five days later, and I can attest that time makes a difference, smoothing its edges. I sipped my stock well into January, and it just got better and better.
I jotted a note to myself atop my recipe: “Unbelievably good. Don’t change a thing.”
I read that George made his own rye whiskey at his distillery at Mount Vernon, adding it to his eggnog along with brandy, cream sherry and Jamaican rum, fashionable in those days. That I could use locally made rye, from Grand Traverse Distillery in Traverse City, and eggs from my neighbors’ chickens, and milk and cream from Shetler Family Dairy in Kalkaska, which I buy at my local grocery, made me even happier about this nog. At Suttons Bay Trading Co., I could buy whole nutmegs for just 50 cents apiece, to be grated with my microplane. What a great improvement over ground nutmeg in jars!
But wait—raw eggs? I’ve never had a problem and don’t worry about it, especially getting my eggs from Laura and Thomas’s small flock of well-loved chickens. If you prefer, you might use pasteurized eggs.
This year, remaking the recipe for this magazine, I realized too late that last year I’d cut the recipe in half, and it was plenty adequate. “How long does that stuff last?” my husband demanded, aghast at the two big glass jars, fully six quarts. I didn’t hesitate to offer an answer I sure hope is true: “Forever!”
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S EGGNOG
2 cups brandy
1 cup rye whiskey
1 cup dark Jamaican rum
½ cup cream sherry
10 large eggs or 8 extra-large eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 quart milk
1 quart heavy cream
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks
Mix liquors first in a separate container. Separate egg yolks and egg whites into two large mixing bowls. Beat sugar gradually into yolks for several minutes, until the mixture is light yellow. Add liquor slowly to yolk mixture, continuing to beat until well incorporated. Combine milk and cream first, then add to yolk mix, beating slowly. Set aside.
Wash and dry beaters, then beat egg whites until stiff. Fold slowly into the creamy alcohol mixture. Add nutmeg and cinnamon sticks, stir well, then pour into big jars or other containers that can be sealed well.
Allow eggnog to cure undisturbed for at least 4 days in the coldest part of the refrigerator or outside in a very cold (below 40°) place. The mixture will separate as it cures, so be sure to whisk to combine it before serving it cold, perhaps with cinnamon or more freshly ground nutmeg on top.
WASSAIL OR GLOGG
My friend Amy Daniels Moehle, who lives with her husband and daughters in a simple house in the woods near Beulah, says, “My favorite holiday drink recipe was one my Gramma Eleanor, my dad’s mother, would make every holiday season. One Christmas when I felt a little sick I stayed home from church with her, and we made wassail together. I can still feel the way the cloves hurt my fingers as I pushed them into the oranges. When everyone returned from Mass the house was full of the steamy cider-, clove- and orange-scented air. Then we drank it from special orange mugs.”
Wassail is from the Old English wes hal, which translates to “be in good health.” Scandinavians refer to a similar concoction as glogg, which is similar to what we might call a mulled wine.
Many wassail recipes call for beer, such as this old one from Christmas Feasts from History, by Lorna J. Sass, published by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art:
|Bake 1 and ½ pounds of cored apples at 375 degrees in a large dish until they burst. When cool, remove the peel and mash the pulp. Heat 1 quart ale in a big pot. Whisk in the apple pulp, 1 T. or more of sugar and ⅛ teaspoon each ground ginger and ground nutmeg. Serve hot in small mugs.
[But, the author cautions, this “may not be to everyone’s taste, so modest servings are suggested.”]
More modern recipes turn to wine, brandy and cider. Here is Gramma Eleanor Daniels’ quick and easy wassail, the one Amy remembers. It’s pretty in a nice bowl or pot with the orange quarters floating on top. The recipe calls for a cup of sugar, but I cut that in half and found it sweet enough. The brandy can be left out if children are sipping, or increased for more potent toasts.
2 quarts sweet cider
2 cups pineapple juice
½ cup lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup sugar
4 oranges, studded with whole cloves then cut in quarters
1 cup brandy
Combine cider, juices and cinnamon in kettle; heat to simmer. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add clove-studded orange pieces. Simmer for a few minutes. Remove from heat, add brandy and serve. Tastes good at room temperature or even cold, but to reheat, just simmer. Don’t let it boil.
Here’s another mulled wine my friend Susan Odom suggests as an unusual, authentically traditional holiday indulgence. Susan, the proprietress of Hillside Homestead Historic Farmstay, a B & B near Suttons Bay, has enjoyed the recipe for years after finding it in an 1839 cookbook. The original recipe called for roasting oranges over an open fire, which Susan has done, saying the finished drink “always reminds me of Christmas.”
Dubbed Bishop Punch, it is also known as Smoking Bishop, perhaps because it was served in a bowl shaped much like a bishop’s headgear. It is also mentioned in the closing paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge gustily promises Bob Cratchit: “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of Smoking Bishop!”
Here is a version for modern kitchens in which I’ve also cut the sugar.
¾ cup sugar
1 bottle claret or burgundy wine
whole nutmeg to grate
At 350°, roast oranges in a pan, turning occasionally, until light brown, about 30 minutes. Slice into a big bowl, sprinkle with sugar, pour on half the wine and set aside in a cool place overnight. The next day, squeeze oranges into the wine they were sitting in, eventually wrapping oranges in a clean dishtowel to squeeze out the last bits of juice. Meanwhile, heat remaining wine until just simmering, then stir in wine/orange juice mix. Serve warm in mugs with nutmeg grated on top.
The Scandinavian version of wassail is called glogg. Here is an incredible recipe that requires waiting even longer—about two weeks—before the glogg is ready. It comes from Viveka Kjellgren, a friend of a friend, a Swedish woman who moved with her husband to Connecticut 14 years ago. She told me by email, “In Sweden when I was young, the tradition was that when it was ‘window-shopping Sunday,’ the first Sunday of Advent, when the stores changed their displays to holiday decorations, you went downtown to look at them and afterwards went to a friend’s for glogg in order to warm up.
“Our first year in the States, we invited our new neighbors to have some glogg, thinking nobody would really like it. We were wrong! They loved it. We serve it from two-ounce glass glogg mugs, about the size of espresso cups, because it has sugar and alcohol and is warm and goes straight into your blood! Now our Annual Glogg Party is a huge success, to which we invite about 200 people.”
SWEDISH CHRISTMAS GLOGG
[Note: Viveka’s original recipe specified jug burgundy and “the cheapest you can find” liquors. Perhaps the heat and spices overwhelm any flavor nuances, but we’ll let you choose your shelf.]
8 liters (2 large jugs) Burgundy wine
7 cups sugar
2½ cups port
2½ cups sherry
Tie into cheesecloth:
6 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 tablespoons whole cloves
a couple of pieces of dried ginger
½ cup raisins
2 cups vodka
Mix everything but the vodka in a large stainless steel pot and heat until sugar has melted, but keep heat low so alcohol doesn’t evaporate. Bring it to about 160°, below boiling. Turn off the heat and leave for about a week.
Taste! Add sugar or increase the amount of spices; heat up again then leave for a couple more days.
Before bottling, remove the cheesecloth bag of spices and add 2 cups of vodka. Pour finished glogg into bottles, perhaps the emptied liquor bottles saved from making the punch.
Serve warm with almonds and raisins and enjoy!
Somehow this unusual word popped into my head as I was thinking about festive holiday drinks. I’d never had a syllabub but discovered in my research that it was a common indulgence in Britain at holiday times. Its odd name, which reminds me of the syllabus I’d get at the start of every college course, might come from the combination of the words sille, a French wine used in the drink, and bub, Old English slang for a bubbly drink. I also read about a version called “farmer’s syllabub,” in which most of the ingredients were put into a bucket then placed beneath a cow, its jets of milk frothing the concoction perfectly.
My tasters loved syllabub’s zesty freshness, some saying they couldn’t even detect its alcohol. Some wanted a spoon to eat rather than drink, it. Either way, it’s fast and fabulous. I used British food pro Nigella Lawson’s recipe, which calls for Calvados. I found Black Star Farm’s Apple Brandy an honorable substitute. I also used, as the dry hard cider, Tandem Ciders’ driest draught, Clear Conscience, made with Jonathan, Northern Spy and Winter Banana apples from local orchards. And while the British recipe calls for “double cream,” which is 48 percent fat and far richer than supermarket cream, our own Shetler heavy cream comes close at 42 percent fat.
APPLE BRANDY SYLLABUB
½ cup dry hard cider
2 tablespoons Calvados or apple brandy
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons castor sugar (granulated sugar ground finer in a food processor or clean coffee grinder)
juice from 1 lemon
10 ounces heavy cream
6 cinnamon sticks for serving
Put cider, apple brandy, ground cinnamon, sugar and lemon juice in a bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Slowly pour in cream, continuing to stir. Using a whisk or hand-held electric mixer on low speed, whip the syllabub until it is about to form soft peaks. The sooner you stop, the more drinkable it will be; whip longer and you’ll need spoons. Spoon it into festive glasses—I filled almost six— and garnish with a cinnamon stick.
Susan Ager is a former Detroit Free Press columnist who lives in Northport and likes very little about the holidays except the food, the drink, the friends and the fellowship. Susan@SusanAger.com.