The holiday cocktail
Middle Eastern Spiced Eggnog with Locally Crafted Spirits
I never liked eggnog, or so I thought. Year after year I politely declined the holiday concoction, happy not to have to endure its bland taste, egg-y texture and heavy cardboard aftertaste. You could not have convinced me there would be a day I would crave it, or look to it to rev up my holiday spirit.
Shortly after moving to Marin a few years ago, my partner asked me to make eggnog for the holidays. He claimed that eggnog would actually bring us more holiday cheer. Not wanting to be the one who “ruined Christmas,” I started to at least explore the idea.
After researching the history of eggnog, mulling over what I liked and disliked about it and spending a great deal of time with my friend Google, I broke my task into five components: dairy, eggs, booze, spice and a tad of technique.
Cream, milk and eggs are the heart of great eggnog, giving it a silky and earthy base. World-class dairy products and farm-fresh eggs are easily accessible in our area, so I had those elements in the bag from the start.
Next I moved on to the booze. The addition of alcohol is vital for several reasons: One, it keeps bacteria (potentially lingering in raw eggs) from growing; two, it contributes the “spirit” to the drink; and three, well-crafted spirits have layers of flavors that add to the taste of the cocktail. A skillfully handcrafted spirit can lift the overall quality and experience of any drink.
Skimping on booze is a mistake when making eggnog. Especially when the Bay Area offers some of the world’s best locally crafted, small-batch spirits. Artisanal distillers in our area are producing traditional yet innovative bourbon, dark rum, brandy and cognac (in this case “California cognac”). It’s a bit of craft spirit playground here. And, yes, I use all three in this eggnog. ’Tis the season…
Petaluma’s Stillwater Spirits Bourbon Whiskey is economical and elegant. Its rich vanilla and toasted caramel aromatics and delicate, sweet-on-the-palate flavor make it a great choice for eggnog.
Sonoma County Distilling Company (Rohnert Park) West of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey No. 2 is smooth and well balanced, with scent of cinnamon roll on the nose. Its vanilla and caramel notes add sweetness, yet it offers a bold, warmly spiced ending. It has unique depth from direct-fired copper pot distillation that layers into the eggnog nicely.
Locally crafted rums are rare in the Bay Area. St. George Spirits California Reserve Agricole Rum was an easy choice. This aged rum is exquisitely crafted by the award-winning innovative distillery located in Alameda. California-grown sugar cane contributes lots of vegetal, wild grassy notes that complement pasture-raised milk and cream in eggnog. The earthiness of the sugar cane adds a honeyed taste that is sweet, but not sugary. This rum is potent and powerful.
I went straight for Mendocino County’s award-winning brandy maker, Germain-Robin, for the cognac. Their Craft Method cognac-style brandy is not only sensual and complex, but the price is perplexingly moderate, considering its quality and pedigree. Using the highest-quality wine grapes, Germain-Robin handcrafts in the French style (their small antique pot still was imported from the Cognac region of France) to produce a young brandy that is not too sweet and yet devoid of that all-too-common aggressive brandy “bite.” The spirit has warmth and a light fruitiness that stands up to the eggnog, lending a fine finish after each sip.
When it comes to spicing eggnog, most people tend to throw a little nutmeg or cinnamon on top and call it a day. I wanted to step up my eggnog game, knowing the right spices would draw out the warmer, deeper, layered essences from the spirits. At the time of my partner’s request, we had just returned from Istanbul, and I had a cabinet filled with Middle Eastern spices. I dabbled with green and black cardamom, black pepper, Ceylon cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and even some urfa biber chilies for a spicy and more creative version. I settled on four spices, and hand-ground them to extract the most flavor.
In terms of technique, many eggnog recipes call for letting the cream and egg yolk mixture sit before adding the egg whites or the booze. Since I loathe recipes with too many steps, separated by long wait times, I implemented my all at once method and it proved reliable. The most important technique was beating the egg whites until semi-firm peaks form, then folding them into the wet ingredients. The beaten egg whites can hold their fluffiness in the nog’s ready-to-drink form for weeks.
Aging, the crucial final step, allows the spices and booze to infuse into the creamy dairy and egg base and bind it all together, creating the depth of flavor that makes this holiday drink special.
The negativity I long and, probably unfairly, held for eggnog is now a memory. Using top-notch ingredients and a simplified technique, I now find a great deal of holiday cheer at the bottom of my eggnog glass, and keeping a jug of it around during the holidays means I can add it to everything. Eggnog lattes, eggnog French toast and eggnog cinnamon rolls are holiday morning standards in our house. Find my recipe for fluffy, decadent gigantic cinnamon rolls frosted with eggnog-flavored icing at EdibleMarinAndWineCountry.ediblefeast.com/recipes.