“Take six quarts of brandy and the rinds of 44 lemons,” So opens Benjamin Franklin’s recipe for milk punch. Six quarts of brandy? Forty-four lemons? Dude must have liked his punch. In 1763 Ben sent the recipe from Boston to his buddy James Bowdoin, going on to say, “Herewith you have the receipt you desired.” Franklin’s recipe is an amalgamation of two other beverages: possets and syllabubs.
A posset combines hot milk with brandy, wine or ale, sugar and spices. The alcohol and heat curdle the milk. That’s right, curdle it. We’re talking about chomping on curdled milk, here. The spout extending up from the bottom of a posset cup allows one to drink the whey from the bottom and then eat the curd with a posset spoon. Possets were used in the Middle Ages as a cold and flue remedy. Lady Macbeth used poisoned possets to knock out the guards, intoning, “I have drugg'd their possets, That death and nature do contend about them, Whether they live or die.” In its modern manifestation, a posset resembles a mousse, made of lemon and milk.
A syllabub is a tradition English dessert, combining milk or cream with wine and lemon or other citrus juice. The acids in the wine and juice lightly curdle the milk. Its popularity thrived from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. In its oldest manifestation, a cow was milked directly into a pot of cider, one recipe reading, “place the bowl under the cow, and milk it full.” The result was a beverage resembling a cappuccino in form. The Everlasting Syllabub was a variation, which required the drink stand for several days to allow the cream to fully rise and thicken.
But enough about these ancient curdled curiosities, on to the milk punch. Firstly, this style of punch is not to be confused with a mere brandy or bourbon milk punch. This milk punch has many names, among them, English Milk Punch or Milk Punch No. 1. Its inventor is believed to be Aphra Behn, a seventeenth century dramatist and novelist and one of England’s first professional female writers. She was at least one of the first to write out its recipe. A similar recipe exists in a tattered manuscript of Marry Rockett’s, dated 1711.
Milk punch made its way to the states and saw its heyday in colonial times as a party drink, and became a regular indulgence on Mississippi riverboats. But by World War II its presence all but vanished except from New Orleans.
Milk Punch No.1 has two key parts. The first part is a brandy or rum, tea, sugar and citrus mixture. These elements represent the five founding ingredients of a basic punch: spirit, water, sugar, spice and fruit. The second part is hot milk and spices. When the two parts are combined and allowed to infuse, the milk curdles. Acting as a filter in and of themselves, the curds actually strain much of the color right out of the brandy or rum. The curds are then strained from the tonic and discarded.
A spritely beverage is conjured, entirely translucent and radiant with the silken essence of milk. Here, one finds a drinking experience both ponderous and enchanting. Its color is as brightly golden as is its flavor curiously smooth. The proteins in the milk render a mysterious, velvety mouthfeel, beneath layer after layer of alluring flavors ranging from refreshing fruits, to deeply rich and perplexing spices. The alcohol shines gently as a spark amid all these sweet and herbal perfumes. One recalls autumnal orchards, brisk wintery nights tainted with stars, the sweet promise of spring, and summers laden with exotic fruits and teas, all in a single sip.
Below, please find two recipes ranging from (slightly) simple to complex. Go forth, brave imbiber, and milk it full!
Marry Rockett’s Milk Punch
Yields 25 servings
2 pints V.S. or V.S.O.P. cognac
1 cup sugar
3 ounces lemon juice
2 cups whole milk
Half of 1 nutmeg nut, freshly grated
Peel lemons avoiding the pith. Infuse brandy with the rinds for 48 hours. Add sugar and lemon juice to lemon-infused cognac. Bring milk to boil. Turn heat off. Add cognac mixture and stir until milk curdles. Stir in grated nutmeg. Let sit for 1 hour. Strain through sieve, cheesecloth, and/or coffee filter or paper towels until potion is translucent to clear. Bottle and refrigerate. Serve over ice in highball glass, or sherry glasses.
Milk Punch No. 1
2 cups powdered sugar
30 coriander seeds
1 cinnamon stick
1 pint brandy
1 pint rum
1 gill arrack (optional)
1 cup strong green tea
2 cups water
4 cups milk
Steep strong green tea with ground cinnamon, cloves and coriander. Add zest of two lemons. Add juice of six lemons. Add powdered sugar. Stir until sugar has dissolved. Add brandy and rum. Stir thoroughly. Peel and slice pineapple, and pound with a rolling pin or hammer. Add it to potion. Add boiling water, stir and allow to macerate for no less than six hours. Bring milk to boil. Turn heat off. Add potion and the juice of two lemons. Stir and allow to rest for thirty minutes. Strain through sieve, cheesecloth, and/or coffee filter or paper towels until potion is translucent to clear. Refrigerate. Further filtering may be required, until potion is free of all sediment. Bottle and keep refrigerated. Serve over ice in highball, Collins or wine glass. Garnish with fruit or berries and herbs.
As this drink warms, more flavors are revealed. If you like the spices, go ahead and increase their quantities. If you like the booze, you may want to increase their part as well. Feel free to experiment with various herbs, spices, fruits and spirits. The possibilities here are as endless as your beautiful imagination.
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