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Raise a glass of cheer

December 09, 2008|By PERVAIZ SHALLWANI

There was a time -- we are talking in terms of centuries here -- when Christmas and New Year's would have been considered most unmerry if not for a boozy glass of richly delicious eggnog.

But somewhere along the timeline of holidays past Americans grew fearful of raw eggs and terrified of anything with fat.

And so today grocers stock their cooler cases with all manner of ultra-pasteurized eggnog adulterations, from low- and no-fat versions to soy concoctions for which the "egg" in the nog is more allusion than reality.

It's no wonder eggnog at the holidays now is more cliché than must-have beverage.

"Eggnog has gotten a bad rap because people have only had the cooked method and it's a little sweet and thick and they then douse it with all this rum, which takes away from it's essence," says Food Network recipe developer Sarah Copeland.

"There is no comparison between a commercial eggnog and a fresh one," she says. "You can't judge eggnog until you have had a fresh eggnog."

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Ready to make merry with the real thing? Here's what you need to know.

The eggs

Eggnog essentially is a liquid custard, and the main component of custard is eggs. In real eggnog, the yolks and the whites play different -- but equally important -- roles.

The yolks lend the drink its thick, creamy texture. The whites, which are whipped then gently folded into the drink shortly before serving, give the punch its frothiness.

With the eggs playing such a starring role, you want the best quality possible, says Copeland. In this case, that means spending the extra few dollars to get organic eggs from free-range birds.

Thanks in part to the quality of the food the chickens eat, these eggs often have richer, more yellow yolks and creamier whites. And you'll want them as farm-fresh as possible, so check the dates on the packages.

The raw question

For excellent eggnog, cooked eggs -- no matter how gently -- simply don't fly. This includes the cartons of liquid egg and pasteurized eggs. Cooking creates eggnog that is too thick, while pasteurized eggs tend to lack flavor.

Real eggnog calls for raw eggs. There is an urban legend that adding alcohol kills off any potential bacteria, but this isn't true. Well, it's possible, but it would take an awful lot of alcohol.

For this reason, the USDA recommends people with weaker immune systems, including the very young and very old, avoid raw eggs, which can contain salmonella.

Which doesn't mean you necessarily are living on the wild side by imbibing. According to the American Egg Board, on average nationally only 1 of every 20,000 eggs might contain salmonella. That's a lot of eggnog.

The dairy

The dairy gives eggnog body, so it's important to strike a good balance between milk and cream, says beverage writer and mixologist David Wondrich. Get the ratio wrong and you end up with a drink that's either watery or cloying. Neither is good.

We found a 3-to-1 ratio of whole milk to heavy cream created an eggnog with a velvety texture without being too fatty.

And you need to embrace the fact that this is not the place to cut fat for the holidays. While you could use skim milk or soy milk, "it would taste kind of light and thin and you're not living up to the full potential of eggnog," says Wondrich. "It's not a crime against humanity, but it's too bad."

The spices

Eggnog is about celebrating the flavor of fresh eggs, so it's important that any other flavors accentuate that, rather than compete with it. And with traditional eggnog spices, the most common of which is nutmeg, it's easy to overdo it.

"I like to be fairly restrained in the spices because if you use too much, that's all you taste," says Wondrich.

Traditionally, eggnog has been finished with a bit of freshly grated nutmeg, but over time unnecessary spices, including cinnamon and cloves, have been added, he says.

We found sticking with tradition best. A faint touch of nutmeg swirled in at the end added flavor without being overbearing.

As for fresh versus already ground, Wondrich is adamant about grating your own. "Use fresh nutmeg because the jars of grated nutmeg taste like powdered cardboard," he says. "They have no flavor. The aroma is gone."

The hard stuff

Alcohol isn't essential, but it is traditional. When spiking eggnog, Wondrich advises keeping things brown.

"The white liquors are made for refreshment not for mellowness or richness," he says. "You want something that is pretty plush on its own."

Rum, brandy and bourbon are traditional, but splurging for cognac will give the eggnog a smoother and richer flavor.

Hard alcohol can make for a hard night, so mixologists over the years have found that replacing some of the liquor with Madeira, port or sherry cuts down on the alcohol content while adding to the flavor.

When selecting the alcohol for eggnog, go for the middle ground. Cheap stuff tastes that way; high-end booze is best appreciated on its own.

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