Around this time of year I start to get excited and organized (some would say crazy) about holiday food. I take food traditions seriously, as I have mentioned a couple of times. As a kid we had our own food traditions but those have tended to slip away as we kids turned into teenagers and twenty-somethings. In my late twenties, I felt the strangely urgent need to return to having holiday food traditions and rituals. And, as a food experimenter, I have rarely been content to do the same thing twice. I like to have a Christmas cookie party but I try new recipes every year. I like to have a big night of watching A Christmas Story but I vary the snacks and the drinks. I like to make and give food gifts to friends and neighbors but I make something different every time. Despite this varying, somewhere along the way egg nog and fruitcake became necessaries for me.
Let’s start with the nog. This obsession actually began some time ago as I read and re-read Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. During haying season, Almanzo’s mother makes egg nog everyday for the men to have in the field.
“In the middle of the morning, Mother blew the dinner horn. Almanzo knew what that meant. He stuck his pitchfork in the ground, and went running and skipping down across the meadows to the house. Mother met him on the back porch with the milk-pail, brimming full of cool egg-nog. The egg-nog was made of milk and cream, with plenty of eggs and sugar. Its foamy top was freckled with spices, and pieces of ice floated in it. The sides of the pail were misty with cold. Almanzo trudged slowly toward the hayfield with the heavy pail and a dipper. He thought to himself that the pail was too full, he might spill some of the egg–nog…He should do something to save it. So he set down the pail, he dipped the dipper full, and he drank. The cold egg-nog slid smoothly down his throat, and it made him cool inside… Father always maintained that a man would do more work in his twelve hours, if he had a rest and all the egg-nog he could drink morning and afternoon.”
I was blown away by this as a kid. You could make egg nog?! It was not just a Christmas-only and from-the-carton experience? Almanzo’s family made and drank egg nog in the summer? (by the by, this makes a ton of sense – summer is when hens are laying the most eggs; it was only until fairly recently with the advent of artificial light to encourage hens to lay through winter that eggs were plentiful year round). I’ve carried this thrill with me through my life and started making homemade nog a few years ago.
Egg nog is fairly basic. Eggs, separated into yolks for the nog and whites to whip and fold in, cream, whole milk, sweetening, and any kind of seasoning or booze you prefer. Adding booze prolongs the life of the nog significantly. For the first time this year I’m making small batches regularly for us to enjoy as a family as well as making one super-boozy batch to age for a month and give away as Christmas gifts. Here is the basic recipe I use for small batches:
- 3 egg yolks*
- 1/2 c cream
- 1/2 c milk
- 3 egg whites, beaten until softly peaked and garnished on top (Travis does not like this, but James and I do)*
- 1/8 c to 1/4 c maple syrup, depending on how sweet you like it — you can also use 1/4 to 1/2 c of cane sugar instead
- freshly ground nutmeg, or any other seasoning such as a pinch of clove or cinnamon
- booze if you would like: rum and brandy are the traditional choices, but bourbon and whiskey are frequently used as well
*Health Note! This treat does contain raw egg. For Pete’s sake use your common sense and buy the freshest, safest eggs you can find (think farmers’ market if possible). I like to make what I call “Misty Brook Maple Nog” which uses raw milk, raw cream, and fresh eggs from my new favorite Misty Brook Farm Shop about 25 minutes away. Find a farmer you trust!
On to the log. Fruitcake is a new obsession for me, born mostly out of curiosity. There are jokes about ancient fruitcake and untouched slabs at Christmas parties. And at supermarkets the plastic wrapped boxes showcasing glossy candied fruited cakes do no resemble food in any way yet they must get purchased by some mystery consumer. How on earth did this dessert ever become popular? I didn’t get it. So a few years ago I tried it. Of course, I substituted dried fruits for candied fruits, and omitted anything fluorescent in color (e.g. no cherries at all, maraschino or otherwise). As instructed in the recipe, I poured brandy directly over the hot-from-the-oven cake, and whoosh! I got a huge brandy-steam insta-drunk. I don’t recommend doing that. But aside from becoming unintentionally intoxicated, I had a blast unwrapping the plastic wrap and dousing the cheesecloth-encased cake in additional glugs of alcohol the weeks before the big day. And come Christmas, we opened up the cake, and it was delicious! Delicious I tell you! We even brought some to my Mom and her boyfriend’s Christmas party and it was devoured. I’ve developed an intense need to understand how this lovely and decadent seasonal cake morphed into the horror that supermarket fruitcakes are today. I have no answers…. yet….
For now, I’ll be making my fruitcake next weekend, and I’ll still debating ingredients. Fruitcakes tend to break down into two general categories: golden fruitcake, with corn syrup (bleh), apricots, golden raisins, etc., and dark fruitcake, with molasses and brown sugar, raisins, figs, dates, etc. I’ve seen sherry called for in the golden cake, and spiced rum or brandy for the dark. Typically I tend towards the darker style with molasses but it never hurts to vary the routine. The certainties are that I will NOT be using corn syrup, I will be using pecans, I will be boozing it up with something (probably whatever’s leftover from the nog, I’m a thrifty cook rather than a recipe-following cook), and if there is anything candied it will be citrus and/or ginger, nothing else.
So here is my Nog and Log Challenge to you. Go make some nog, go make a fruit log, and share your stories and photos with me! Dare to try something new this season, I think you’ll like it. As for me, I will be reporting back on all results in Nog and Log, Part II sometime shortly after Christmas.