There's something about punch that transports us back to the days of Dickens, and this warm milk punch dates back even further. Served at The Varnish in Los Angeles, the recipe was adapted from "the oldest extant recipe for milk punch," says general bar manager Max Seaman. Seaman spied the recipe—a 1711 concoction by Mary Rockett—in David Wondrich's book, Punch.
"The story goes," Seaman explained, "Punch was the mixed drink of choice in the 18th century, and 17th. People drank so much of it that the sour nature started causing problems. Adding milk was probably an attempt to 'smooth' out the citrus." Seaman's punch, which appeared on the Varnish menu last winter, is a "significantly modified" version of Rockett's original. "We call for two parts demerara rum and one part cognac rather than all brandy," he said. "We make an oleo-saccharum rather than infusing the liquor with lemon peel; we modify the ratio of sweet and sour and we increase the amount of milk, rather than also adding a lot of water."
The oleo-saccharum is made by muddling lemon peel and superfine sugar, then refrigerating overnight, to allow the sugar to draw out the essential oils in the citrus.The result is a sweet, almost floral syrup that adds a beautiful brightness to the punch.
Seaman said the hot punch probably helped British quaffers through the long, cold winter nights. The Varnish's version, with its heady cognac, creamy milk and citrusy brightness, helped us cozy up to winter, too. It's a delicious, lighter-tasting alternative to a classic eggnog that doesn't taste as boozy as a hot toddy. Try it with nutmeg or cinnamon grated on top, and you've got a great fireplace companion.
This recipe is a time-consuming one, but the payoff is well worth it. We spent several hours, all told, scalding the milk, juicing lemons, mixing it all together and straining, straining, straining. Seaman recommends straining it through a cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer, and we found that straining it three times through a chinois got the smoothest results.
A bottle of this also makes a great gift for drink-lovers, or a wonderful party punch to warm up your guests, as they come in out of the cold. Just don't leave it on the stove too long; overzealous heating will boil off the booze. It can also be served at room temperature or even chilled, and tastes just as good each way.