By David Wondrich
Published in the December 2012 issue
In A Christmas Carol, when Ebenezer Scrooge is presented with the Ghost of Christmas Present, he finds the "jolly Giant" sitting in state on an enormous heap of roast meats and other traditional English Christmas delicacies and flanked by "seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam."
Charles Dickens knew all about delicious steam.
He was a committed English traditionalist in his drinking. He didn't drink the international celebrity's customary champagne, champagne, and more champagne or the trendy drinks of his day - gin cocktails, claret cups, brandy smashes, or the like. Rather, his greatest affinity was for a drink that was fading faster and faster into the past by the time he came into fame. From 1700 to 1830, give or take a couple years on each end, the preeminent English social drink was the bowl of punch, a large-bore mixture of spirits (usually rum and cognac), citrus juice, sugar, water, and spice that was guaranteed to unite any gathering in jollity and boozy good cheer. But with the industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization of day-to-day life that the Victorian years brought, the convivial ritual of clustering around the flowing bowl became as quaint and outmoded as the tricorn hat.
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Dickens, however, not only bucked the trend but made a whole performance out of bucking it. When he was among friends, it was his custom to brew up a bowl of punch, complete with a running disquisition on the techniques he was using and the ingredients he was deploying, thus adding instruction to delight (as one of his characters might say). Fortunately, in 1847, he wrote the whole procedure out for a friend's wife. It's not hard to follow, and there's no better way to get a holiday party started than by getting everybody involved in draining a bowl of punch. All it takes is a little preparation in advance, a willingness to hold forth a bit in front of your guests, and a high enough ceiling that you won't burn your house down. Dickens was never afraid to employ cheap sensationalism if it would help him get over, and there's nothing more sensational for selling a drink than setting it on fire. Here's our interpretation.
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Charles Dickens's Punch Ritual
For 12 to 16 people
Step 1: Three hours before your party, peel 3 lemons with a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler, trying to end up with three long spirals of peel. Put them in a 3- or 4-quart fireproof bowl with 3/4 cup demerara sugar or other raw sugar. Muddle the peels and the sugar together and let sit.
Talking Points: One of the secrets of punch making is to use the fragrant, sweet oil that resides in lemon peels as the sugar extract. The resulting sugar-oil mix ("oleo-saccharum") adds body to the punch.
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Step 2: Also before your party, squeeze enough lemons to make 3/4 cup strained juice. Put this in a cup and refrigerate it. Measure into one container 1 cup VSOP-grade cognac and in another container combine 1 1/4 cups mellow amber rum, such as Mount Gay Eclipse or Angostura 1919, and 1 1/4 cups funky, strong (more than 55 percent alcohol) Jamaican rum, such as Smith & Cross.
Talking Points: The cognac is for body and smoothness, the strong rum for bouquet and (frankly) flammability, and the other rum for taming the strong one.
Step 3: Set 1 quart water to boil and put the bowl containing the lemon peels and sugar on a wooden cutting board or other heat-resistant surface in a spot where everyone can gather around. When the water boils, turn it off, gather your guests around the bowl, and pour in the cognac and rum, noting what you're adding and why.
Step 4: With a long-handled barspoon, remove a spoonful of the rum-cognac mixture and set it on fire. Return it to the bowl, using it to ignite the rest.
Stir with a ladle or long-handled spoon, attempting to dissolve the sugar. Let burn for 2 or 3 minutes, occasionally lifting one of the lemon peels up so people can admire the flames running down it.
Talking Points: You're setting the punch alight not because it looks cool but to burn off some of the more volatile elements of the alcohol. That's the story, anyway.
Step 5: Extinguish the flames by covering the bowl with a tray, and add the reserved lemon juice and the boiling water. (For cold punch, add 3 cups cold water, stir, and slide in a 1-quart block of ice, easily made by freezing a quart bowl of water for 24 hours.)
Step 6: Grate fresh nutmeg over the top and ladle out in 3-oz servings.