In precisely six days, my family will arrive for the holidays. And exactly five minutes after they arrive, my father will start poking around our fridge looking for a glass of eggnog.
I realized this yesterday on my way home from Woods Hole, at the same time I realized that the eggnog takes four or five days to make and at least six or seven days, in my father's words, to become excellent. I pulled off the highway so fast I think the cashier at the Eastham Spirits shop thought I was about to hold the place up.
The thing is, eggnog in my family is not optional. There could be Christmas without presents, there have been plenty of Christmases without snow, and I'm willing to bet we could even give up getting a tree for a year and still feel pretty holly-jolly-festive all month long. But it wouldn't even be December without a batch of Colonel Miles Cary's eggnog in the fridge, and it certainly wouldn't be festive at all. The eggnog goes back waaay too far for that.
My father is the one who usually makes it, but the recipe actually comes from my mother's side, from her great-grandfather Miles. He lived in Richmond, Virginia, where being a Cary was a big thing, and where having a secret family eggnog recipe was an even bigger thing. (Do not skip that article, and especially do not skim over the part where the New York Times blames Boxing Day headaches and cross dyspeptic feelings on turkey and plum pudding.) At any rate, according to my grandmother, when she first met my grandfather, the recipe was kept in a safe deposit box at the bank.
Since then, my grandmother's copied it down, and my mother and father, and more recently my sister and I have our own print-outs, too. There are stories that come along with the recipe, starting with the year my grandparents kept the eggnog pot in their garage and, when my grandfather went out to stir it up one day, discovered a dead mouse floating on top. This did not end, like a sane person might imagine, with my grandfather throwing the batch out. No, he looked around, fished it out, and, praying the alcohol was strong enough to kill anything ugly, brought it inside to finish up. Another year my grandfather held a Christmas party for his congregation in Younstown, Ohio, where he was the minister for the local Episcopal church. My grandmother, making sure to do the rounds that Mrs. Reverend Hunsdon Carys ought to, peeked into my grandfather's study and found the visiting English sexton, Sparky, passed out in the chair with a newspaper over his face. Both my mother and my aunt Elizabeth admit to having had a little too much eggnog at a certain holiday party when they were twelve or maybe even only ten, and to have learned from an older cousin that it was very helpful, instead of lying down, to keep one foot on the ground when getting tucked into bed. And after my grandfather had passed away, one year at my parents' house in Maine, my grandmother and my father made a four-dozen-egg batch of the Colonel's eggnog and drank several glasses before realizing they'd forgotten to put in any of the twelve cups of milk.
You see now why without the eggnog it just couldn't be a real, honest-to-goodness holiday. I have a feeling that if the pot weren't already chilling by now, my father wouldn't bother to come until at least next Tuesday. There are seven days to excellence, which means that until you start, eggnog worth bothering for is always a week away. Thank goodness for Silverbrook Farm eggs and Sunday night milk pick-ups and a steady supply of Jim Beam.
The only hitch—and it's a very big one, unfortunately—is that I've been sworn to secrecy. I can no more give out Colonel Miles Cary's 19th century eggnog recipe than I could pull out a gun and shoot the squirrels that steal our birdseed, or become a Wall Street banker, or make February first be the official start of spring. I ran the idea by my grandmother last year (Hi, Biee! Don't panic!), and she just about took my copy of the recipe back to be inked out, shredded, and burned in an undisclosed fireplace.
So all I'm going to say is this. Not that it means anything, but I am very fond of the eggnog recipe in the 1975 Joy of Cooking. I am also fond of multiplying it so that instead of using one egg, you use thirty-six, and so that instead of using 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1/4 cup of whole milk and 1/4 cup of bourbon whiskey, you use 2 and 1/4 cups and 9 cups and 9 cups. So, not for any particular reason, but just in case you think you might be fond of it, too, I figured I'd type it out, and here it is.
Happy ten-days-before-Christmas, everyone.
adapted from the Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, 1975 edition
The best part about this recipe is the quote the authors offer at the beginning. "Too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is just enough." Well said, Mr. Mark Twain, and like a true Tennessee man. The worst part about this recipe is that it leaves out the most important part that everyone should know about making eggnog in general, which is that it gets better as you wait, preferably over a span of days.
1 egg, separated
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup bourbon whiskey
In a small bowl, beat the egg yolk with an electric mixer until it becomes pale and light. Slowly beat in the sugar and the milk, and then, in a slow but steady trickle, add in the whiskey, beating all the while. (Don't do this too quickly or it will ruin the consistency of the eggs, sort of like how adding olive oil to an egg yolk too quickly when making mayo upsets the whole batch.) In a separate bowl, whip the egg white until it's stiff, and fold that into the other ingredients gently. Chill the eggnog for at least a few hours before serving, and preferably more like four days.
Now if you make a big batch (multiplying quantities as I mentioned above), keep it in the fridge and use an electric mixer to beat it once a day. (There will be foam on the top; this is normal, but you have to beat it back into the liquid.) Keep this up, scraping any foam with a spatula down off the sides of the pot (lobster pots work very well as far as quantity goes), and in four or five days take the first sip. Also, if you're going homemade this year, eggnog in Mason jars makes a top-shelf gift.