It doesn't surprise me that eggnog was one of George Washington's favorite beverages, not because it is particularly all-American, but because it is so 18th century. Washington's recipe, written in his own hand, calls for blending raw egg yolks with milk, sugar and a copious amount of liquor, and then topping off the mixture with whipped egg whites. He also says to set it aside for a few days in a cool place, during which he likes to "taste frequently."
A two-day-old drink made with raw eggs and plenty of liquor may have been appealing at the dawn of the Republic, but it's not the first combination most of us turn to when trimming the tree in 2012. How to modernize this storied holiday treat? The first step is to nullify its yuck factor by cooking the raw eggs into a custard. Eggnog goes down easier when it reminds you of liquefied ice cream rather than Sylvester Stallone's training breakfast in "Rocky."
Cooking also will kill any dangerous egg-borne bacteria. (Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not neutralize the salmonella threat.) This is especially important if you will be serving your eggnog to pregnant women, older adults or anyone with a compromised immune system. Making eggnog custard doesn't take a lot of skill, but it does take some patience. To prevent curdling, cook the mixture low and slow, whisking constantly and removing it from the heat as soon as it hits the magic temperature of 160 degrees. Refrigerate it until it's cold and thick. When it is ready to serve, keep it at a safe temperature by placing your punch bowl over a larger bowl of ice.
Our first president had a heavy hand with the booze, adding copious amounts of brandy, rye, rum and sherry to his eggnog. The idea of this mixture is a bit stomach-churning, but the quantity -- equal amounts of milk and liquor -- is pretty much on target. Plenty of alcohol is needed to cut the richness of the eggs. I like dark rum -- a favorite in many Colonial recipes, due to its cheapness and availability. Cheap is fine today, too, since the subtlety of premium aged rum will be lost when it is mixed with the custard.
To give modern-day eggnog the frothy texture provided by whipped egg whites in olden days, float spoonfuls of whipped cream on top of the bowl. Don't forget the nutmeg, which tastes best if freshly grated. All of the eggs, sugar, alcohol and cream in eggnog come with a high-calorie price. One cup will set you back upward of 400 calories. I've seen recipes for "light" eggnog, but I'd rather have a half-cup of the real stuff than a pitcher of a watered-down version.
Keep leftover eggnog in an airtight container in the refrigerator overnight, and when you wake up the next morning (hangover-free because you drank just a half-cup the night before), dip thick slices of challah or brioche into the eggnog for holiday-flavored French toast.
NOT GEORGE WASHINGTON'S EGGNOG
6 large eggs
13/4 cups confectioners' sugar
2 cups whole milk, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups heavy cream, divided
2 cups dark rum or brandy
Nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
1. Combine eggs and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Whisk until smooth. Whisk in 1 cup milk. Turn heat to medium low and cook, whisking constantly, until temperature reads 160 on an instant-read thermometer, 15 to 20 minutes. The mixture will thicken so it coats the back of a spoon. Do not overcook.
2. Pour through a fine strainer and into a bowl. Whisk in vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, at least 6 hours and up to 1 day.
3. To serve, pour mixture into a punch bowl set over a larger bowl of ice and whisk in 1 cup cream, remaining 1 cup milk and rum. Whip remaining 1 cup cream until it holds soft peaks and spoon mixture on top of punch bowl. Grate nutmeg over bowl. Ladle into cups and serve.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.