Eggnog is a funny thing. We crave it for one month a year, then never think about it again.
And when we do crave it, we love to pretend that this sinfully rich drinkable dessert (basically, it's melted ice cream in a glass) is a perfectly reasonable and festive little pre-dinner aperitif. The more honest among us glug it down without pretense. After all, life is short; we should eat dessert first.
Technically, eggnog is cooked custard cream. The French — in a nod to the English passion for it — call it creme anglaise. The English themselves call it custard. By any name, it is the base of most ice creams.
In fact, if you felt lazy, you could just pull that pint of premium vanilla ice cream out of the freezer, let it defrost in the refrigerator, add some booze and a sprinkle of nutmeg, and pass it off as your very own custom-made eggnog. Even easier, you can buy eggnog by the carton at the supermarket. But I promise that the version you make from scratch at home will be the best you've ever had.
A great eggnog requires few ingredients — milk and/or cream, sugar, vanilla, eggs, nutmeg and (if you like) bourbon, brandy or rum. Many recipes say the eggs should be raw, but I don't recommend it. Not only is it safer to cook the eggs, it also ensures the eggnog develops a thick, rich texture.
You start by beating together the eggs and sugar. Hot milk then is added, but only a bit. This step is called tempering. By mixing a little hot milk into the eggs, you raise their temperature enough to be able to cook them without scrambling them. If you added all of the hot milk at once, you'd end up with unappealing chunks of cooked egg in your nog.
Once everything is combined, turn off the phone, tune out the kids and concentrate on stirring the custard while it heats until it reaches the proper thickness. There's a chance that the mixture can curdle if you become distracted during this process and allow the custard to get too hot.
Ideally, you're using a wooden spoon. Your goal is to be able to coat the spoon, run your finger through the custard on the spoon's backside and leave a path that doesn't quickly disappear. That's when you'll know it's done. At that point the custard has reached 160 F, the temp at which the eggs are considered safe. As extra insurance against curdling, I have added cornstarch to the custard; this will stabilize the mixture. But if you prefer, you can leave the cornstarch out.
And by the way, if you do rush and scramble your eggs, just throw the custard into a blender. This will help smooth out the texture, though the finished product won't be as smooth as a never-scrambled version.
If you want your eggnog to have a lighter texture, you can whip the heavy cream before it is added (I explain how below). If you're looking to make a seriously extravagant eggnog, you might add some finely chopped white chocolate to the hot custard. You're welcome to use dark chocolate instead, but the finished drink doesn't look as classically eggnog-y. Either way, don't forget to coat the rim of the glass with crushed peppermint. It's the perfect counterpoint to the drink itself.
And if, heaven forbid, you're overtaken by the spirit of Scrooge and decide to make your eggnog less rich, just use fewer yolks (a modest complement of six will thicken it all up quite nicely), replace the cream with more whole milk, or — sacrilege! — swap in lower-fat milk for all of the prescribed dairy.
Finally, if you somehow drink too much nog — low-fat or full-fat — and end up falling asleep before the main course, what the heck. Your dreams will surely be sweet.
EGGNOG TRIPLE PLAY
Start to finish: 25 minutes, plus chilling
4 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
12 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup bourbon, brandy or rum
Freshly grated nutmeg, to garnish
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the milk and vanilla bean. Bring just to a boil, then let stand off the heat for 10 minutes. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk and discard the pod.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch until light and lemon colored, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on, slowly add about half the milk in a stream. Add the egg mixture to the remaining milk in the saucepan. Set the pan over moderately low heat. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, heat until the mixture coats a spoon when you run your finger through it and registers 160 F, 15 to 20 minutes.
Quickly strain the custard through a mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Stir in the cream and bourbon, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled.
To serve, ladle into cups and top each portion with freshly grated nutmeg.
Nutrition information per serving: 400 calories; 240 calories from fat (60 per cent of total calories); 26 g fat (15 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 335 mg cholesterol; 19 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 17 g sugar; 11 g protein; 140 mg sodium.
— LIGHT AND AIRY VARIATION
Do not add the cream before chilling the eggnog. After the eggnog has chilled, in a large bowl use an electric mixer to beat the cream until it forms soft peaks. Stir a quarter of the eggnog into the whipped cream, then fold the cream mixture back into the eggnog, gently but thoroughly. Ladle into cups and top each portion with freshly grated nutmeg.
— WHITE CHOCOLATE-PEPPERMINT VARIATION
Add 8 ounces of finely chopped white chocolate to the hot strained custard. Let the eggnog stand for 5 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Add the cream and bourbon, then chill as directed.
In a saucepan, combine 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water and cook over low heat, stirring, until the sugar is melted. Transfer to a small shallow bowl and let cool. In a food processor, pulse 12 candy canes until they are finely crushed. Transfer a heaping tablespoon of the crushed candy canes to a small plate.
Working with 1 serving glass at a time, dip the rim of each glass in the sugar syrup, letting the excess drip off, then into the crushed candy canes, making sure the edge of the rim is coated well. Discard the peppermint on the plate each time and add a fresh tablespoon (the candy gets wet after dipping and will not stick properly to the next glass). Let the crushed candy canes dry on the side of the glass for 5 minutes before adding the eggnog.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."