It was a special treat she'd devised for two older cousins and me, and we made a contest of seeing who could make the best nog. The process was simple in those days before we worried about potential contamination from raw eggs. After all, it was a small farm-country town and we practically knew the hens on a first-name basis.
The method: Crack the egg (a particularly good way of teaching kids to handle this basic kitchen chore some adults still can't master) into a glass, beat it up a bit, add the sugar and beat some more till the sweetener dissolves, then add a few drops of vanilla, fill the glass with milk, and beat it some more until it got evenly gold and frothy. Simple, direct and delicious.
Nowadays, the commonplace way to have eggnog is to buy a waxed carton of it at the market. Maybe you'll doctor it up a bit with a sprinkling of nutmeg or cinnamon, perhaps pop in a candy cane stirrer or mint leaf if it's Christmas time. But, on the whole, it's a pretty unexciting proces.
That's where you get into the spirits, or vice versa. A touch of brandy, rum or cognac goes a long way to ratcheting up eggnog to a different level. The key is restraint. More isn't necessarily better. Keep the alcohol additive light, adding a bit at a time until you can just taste it through the thickness of the eggnog. Remember, you can always add more; you can't take it out.
Of course, it's not mandatory to add alcohol to your nog. You can give it a boost with freshly grated nutmeg or cinnamon plus a little extra vanilla extract (although that does contains a touch of alcohol). Some people even add a grind of white peppercorns.
The healthy way, if you'd prefer to make your own nog as we did but are leery of potential problems from uncooked eggs, there are several cautious routes to take.
First, of course, is to use an egg substitute. I don't vouch for the overall quality of the eggnog, but it's better than skipping the drink entirely. Second, exercise rigorous caution when selecting your eggs. Be sure they are clean grade A or AA with no visible cracks or indentations in the shells, and that they are properly refrigerated. Also, be sure to avoid contact between the insides of the eggs and the shells.
As for ready-to-drink eggnog, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it must contain at least 1% by weight egg-yolk solids and must be pasteurized. It may also be homogenized.
Eggnog comes to us, as so many of our Christmas season traditions do, from England, where it sometimes is called "egg flip." Food historians generally agree that "nog'' is an old dialect word from East Anglia that described a kind of strong ale and "noggin'' was the vessel it was drunk from. Today's eggnog can be traced to something the English called "posset" -- eggs, milk and ale or wine. Somewhere along the way, nog and posset blended into eggnog.
Eggnog in various forms was popular here from the earliest days of the nation, and even these days December 24 is National Egg Nog Day.
George Washington was known for his powerful recipe that included rum, sherry and rye whiskey. Of course, he owned a distillery at Mount Vernon that turned out one of the young country's top ryes, so its inclusion is not surprising.
Eggnog, like so many dishes and drinks, tends to pick up regional characteristics. In the American South, bourbon often is the alcohol additive. In Puerto Rico, where it is called "coquito," rum is the spirit of choice and coconut juice or milk also is used. In Mexico, "rompope" has a lot of cinnamon plus rum or a grain alcohol and is sipped as a liqueur.
A version known as "Tom and Jerry" was first popularized in early-19th Century England, thanks to Pierce Egan, a well-known writer on sports and popular culture. In his book "Life of London: or Days and Nights of Jerry Hawthorne and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom," he whipped up a variation of eggnog with a healthy dose of brandy atop the usual recipe and named it for his protagonists.
Although that was nearly two centuries ago, his drink keeps popping up even in today's better bartender guides. But, the iconic American journalist and novelist Damon Runyan (1884-1946) had the best take on the drink in his short story "Dancing Dan's Christmas," writing "This hot Tom and Jerry is an oldtime drink that is used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is once so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerry, although of course this is by no means true."
Here are three egg nog recipes that may interest you.
ALTON BROWN'S EGGNOG
This recipe from the Food Network TV personality was first presented on his "Good Eats" show in 2005. Serves 4-5.
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
1 pint whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 ounces bourbon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 egg whites
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg yolks until they lighten in color. Gradually add the 1/3 cup sugar and continue to beat until completely dissolved. Add milk, cream, bourbon and nutmeg and stir to combine. Put egg whites in mixer bowl and beat to soft peaks. With the mixer still running gradually add the 1 tablespoon of sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Whisk the egg whites into the mixture. Chill and serve.
This recipe for the Puerto Rican version of eggnog serves 16.
2 cups water
8 three-inch cinnamon sticks
6 large egg yolks
3 12-oz. cans evaporated milk
2 cans coconut milk
3 14-oz. cans sweetened condensed milk
3 cups white rum
In a two-quart saucepan, heat water and cinnamon sticks to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook until liquid is reduced to one cup. Remove cinnamon sticks and set liquid aside to cool to room temperature. In a three-quart saucepan with a wire whisk, beat egg yolks and evaporated milk until well-mixed. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and coats a spoon -- about 10 munutes (do not boil). Set aside to cool slightly. When cinnamon flavored liquid has cooled, stir in coconut milk, until well mixed. In serving bowl, combine coconut mixture, yolk mixture, sweetened condensed milk and rum. Chill well and serve.
EGGNOG COUPE DE MILIEU
This recipe, which serves 6-8, comes from the book "In the Land of Cocktails," by New Orleans food and drink mavens Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan.
2 medium eggs
1 cup heavy cream
1/8 cup sugar
Pinch of ground cinnamon
3/8 cup Southern Comfort
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated nutmeg for garnish
Bring about an inch of water to a simmer in the bottom half of a double boiler. While the water heats, in the top half of the boiler combine the eggs, heavy cream, sugar and cinnamon. Place the top half over the simmering water and whisk until thick and frothy, about 6 to 8 minutes. Pour the mixture through a mesh strainer into a bowl. Refrigerate until chilled like custard, about two hours. When cold, whisk in the Southern Comfort and vanilla. Divide among chilled shot glasses and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.