Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hot Brandy and Rum Punch with Dickens Christmas Stories

We've had snow, my street has looked even more picturesque than usual (although not my view especially, which is of a car park) so when I ventured out into town it was in high hopes of getting the full festive hit. I didn't.

It's the 10th of December, still a couple of weeks to go before Christmas, but there was a flat feeling about the place, the Christmas decorations that are left for sale look a bit bedraggled, and there's a general impression that people are waiting for sales to start. Bargain hunting doesn't bother me, but the sense of the excitement being over before Christmas has really begun does.

So I came home, made a lot of gingerbread and lebkuchen dough, and started thinking about hot punch and Christmas spirit. I read somewhere that making a punch like this used to be quite a communal affair, with everyone involved giving their opinion about what to add and in what quantity - which is a lovely image. By the time Dickens was mixing punch as his party piece in the 1850's it was already something of a throwback. Because of Dickens, and his references to theses kind of punches I'd thought of them as quintessentially Victorian, but they weren't, they're a much more 17th and 18th century custom that had started to go out of fashion. Like Dickens I feel they need reviving.


The recipe he described at length in a letter to a friend has a lot of flourishes and involves fire, but I found a much simpler version in Jerry Thomas (How to Mix Drinks was first published in 1862, so it's roughly contemporary). This recipe is for a party of 15 and calls for a quart of Jamaica Rum, a quart of cognac brandy, one pound of white loaf sugar, four lemons, three quarts of boiling water, and one teaspoon of nutmeg. You rub the sugar over the lemons until it has absorbed all the yellow parts of the skin, then put the sugar in a punch bowl, pour over the boiling water, stir well and add the rest of the ingredients, and mix thoroughly.

I'm one person, and I've never actually seen a sugar loaf (though plenty of hills named after them) so some adjustments were neccesary. My main criteria were that it shouldn't taste like a hot toddy, or be to sweet. A spoon of white sugar in a mug with a good grating of nutmeg, the zest of half a lemon, and a serving spoon (early 19th century for both size and ambience) each of Rum and brandy were the starting point. The Rum came dominated at this point (like very watered down honey) so some lemon juice to balance it, soft brown sugar to add a bit more depth and character to the sweetness, a touch more brandy to up the kick of the thing, and more nutmeg because I really like it later and it tasted about right. A piece of star anise added a final note and made it just about perfect.

Adjustments and personal flourishes, including over spices, seem very much in the spirit of the thing, and I really love the idea of making this with lots of input and debate from all the drinkers. The end result wasn't particularly strong, just fragment, rich, and warming. I'm definitely dedicating it to Dickens, and I'm thinking especially of his collobaritive collections of Christmas stories to further the sense of goodwill and fellowship.

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