With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruelest month. That honor belongs to January. After a month of presents, family merriment, chocolate advent calendars and that great pine tree smell, we’re supposed to calmly accept the bleak grayness of winter for three more months?
This is where brandy comes in handy.
Getting a bit tipsy has long been a preferred cure for dreary days. For Edgar Allan Poe, a student at the University of Virginia in the 1820s, drinking apple toddies and eggnog was the extracurricular activity of choice (definitely better than marching band). According to his biographer James Albert Harrison, “a sensitive youth, … surrounded by the social circle that thought convivial drinking and card-playing ‘at Homes’ indispensable to remaining at all in polite society, would easily fall in with the habits of his ‘set,’ and perhaps cultivate them with passion or excess.” In other words, Poe was a lush, but it wasn’t his fault. He just went to a party school.
Poe’s taste for brandy, in particular, became legendary after he left Virginia and entered West Point in 1830. His roommate there, Thomas W. Gibson, recalled that Poe was “seldom without a bottle of Benny Haven’s best brandy. … He had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.”
The reputation followed Poe for the rest of his life, and it was long assumed that his taste for drink was what killed him. Modern doctors believe he actually died of rabies; according to Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, Poe “may have had problems with alcohol as a younger man … but by the time he died at 40 he almost always avoided it.” Still, until just two years ago, a masked man would stop by Poe’s grave on the writer’s birthday, leaving a bottle of cognac on his tombstone for a toast in the afterlife.
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For eggnog fanatics like me, the fact you can find cartons of the stuff only around December is an outrage. Apparently, that’s because the warmer it is, the less eggnog people buy. But there’s a simple way to get around this minor hurdle: make your own. As a bonus, this also means you can make your personal holiday celebration last well into the new year.
Published last year, the Poe family eggnog recipe was supposedly passed down, from generation to generation, from 1790 until today. It calls for a mix of brandy and Jamaican rum, counting on the copious amounts of liquor to “cook” the egg.
I kept the same liquors that Poe favored, but preferred to make a custard base with the eggs, to get rid of that yolky taste that can turn off nog agnostics.
7 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
5 cups whole milk, divided
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 cups brandy
1/4 cup rum
1. In a medium bowl, combine egg yolks and sugar, whisking until thick and pale. Set aside.
2. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. In a small saucepan, warm 3 cups milk over low heat. Whisk 1 cup warm milk into yolk mixture. Add this back to the milk in the pan, stirring over low heat until combined and thickened. Remove from heat and quickly stir in cream.
3. Place saucepan in prepared ice bath. Stir occasionally until chilled, then add brandy, rum, and remaining 2 cups milk.
4. Pour eggnog into glasses. In a medium bowl with a handheld mixer, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Spoon egg whites over eggnog, and top with grated nutmeg.