“Punch! ’Tis my Morning’s Draught, my Table-drink, my Treat, my Regalia, my every thing.” So speaks the title character in 17th century English dramatist Aphra Behn’s play The Widow Ranter, and apparently Behn was a big fan herself. After trying her beloved milk punch, I get what all the fuss is about. This blog has been focused on desserts for the last few years, but I’m going to make an exception for this drink, which is practically a liquid dessert anyway.
There are two kinds of milk punch. Better known today is the New Orleans version, in which you mix cold milk or cream with bourbon or brandy, and sugar or simple syrup, then serve the drink over ice. The result is creamy, sort of like eggnog.
That drink is good, but I feel it’s no match for the Widow Ranter’s “Table-drink,” which is now called clarified milk punch, or English milk punch. For this beverage, liquor, lemon, and sugar are mixed with very hot milk, which curdles as a result. The mixture is then filtered to remove the curds but allow the milk whey to remain. This may not sound appealing, and when you see the pictures below, you may have serious doubts. But this punch is amazing. It’s smooth, silky, and pleasantly sweet, with citrus and spice flavorings — served cold over ice, it’s perfect on a hot summer day.
David Wondrich, author of Imbibe, traces milk punch to 17th century Scotland. The drink may have origins in a medieval Irish drink called scáiltín, a sweetened, spiced blend of whiskey, hot milk and butter. The punch also has similarities to two other historic curdled-milk beverages: syllabub, which combines milk with wine and lemon juice, and posset, made from hot milk and liquor. Like posset, milk punch may once have been a drink for invalids.
The oldest-known recipe for clarified milk punch is in a 1711 manuscript cookbook by Mary Rockett. The drink went in and out of favor over the years in Great Britain. Queen Victoria enjoyed it, and the makers of her favorite punch, Nathaniel Whisson & Co., were named “Purveyors of Milk Punch to Her Majesty.”
Clarified milk punch was popular in North America, too. Here is a recipe for it by Benjamin Franklin, given to his friend James Bowdoin in 1763:
Take 6 quarts of Brandy, and the Rinds of 44 Lemons pared very thin; Steep the Rinds in the Brandy 24 hours; then strain it off. Put to it 4 Quarts of Water, 4 large Nutmegs grated, 2 quarts of Lemon Juice, 2 pound of double refined Sugar. When the Sugar is dissolv’d, boil 3 Quarts of Milk and put to the rest hot as you take it off the Fire, and stir it about. Let it stand two Hours; then run it thro’ a Jelly-bag till it is clear; then bottle it off.
That’s a lot of milk punch! I considered making this, but we don’t entertain on such a grand scale, so instead of making one-twelfth of Franklin’s recipe, I tried a recipe from Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1851 facsimile edition), which calls for just a quart of liquor. I then quartered that recipe. Eliza Leslie’s cookbook also has a recipe for the New Orleans–style creamy punch, which was more popular in the South. She called the clarified version “Fine Milk Punch”:
Pare off the yellow rind of four large lemons, and steep it for twenty-four hours in a quart of brandy or rum. Then mix with it the juice of the lemons, a pound and a half of loaf-sugar, two grated nutmegs, and a quart of water. Add a quart of rich unskimmed milk, made boiling hot, and strain the whole through a jelly-bag. You may either use it as soon as it is cold, or make a larger quantity, (in the above proportions,) and bottle it. It will keep several months.
A “jelly-bag” is a cotton bag that you hook onto a steel frame, then use to strain foods like fruit or cheese. These are available online, but you can also use a fine sieve lined with ultra-fine cheesecloth:
Some punch makers filter the liquid repeatedly, until it’s very clear. I filtered mine twice, then let it sit in the refrigerator overnight so that more milky solids fell to the bottom of the container. I then poured off the clearer liquid on top into a new bottle. Even the cloudier, less clarified punch tastes good, however.
I used Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda black rum, but any dark rum or brandy should work fine. You must use whole milk, as the curdles are crucial for the straining process. Leslie would have used non-homogenized milk, which may filter the punch more effectively. I didn’t try it but would love to hear if any readers have success with it.
I brought some of my milk punch to a party, and everyone liked it, but the drink is not for people who hate sweet liquor. Apparently clarified milk punch is making a huge comeback at the moment, and some bartenders are making complicated versions with several liquors, different fruits, and even green tea. But I’m sticking with Eliza Leslie’s creation, an adaptation of which follows. (If you’d like to try the creamier New Orleans–style punch, there are many good recipes online, including one at Smitten Kitchen.)
Adapted from a recipe in Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1850 edition) by Eliza Leslie
1 cup dark rum or brandy
¾ cup (6 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup water
1 cup whole milk
1. Pare off the rind of the lemon. Place the rum or brandy in a large bowl, add the rind, and steep, covered, for 24 hours.
2. Add the juice of the lemon, sugar, nutmeg, and water, and stir well.
5. Throw out the curds, rinse the cheesecloth, and repeat the filtering procedure. The liquid should look roughly like this:
6. Pour the milk punch into a tall pitcher, and refrigerate overnight. Milk solids will settle to the bottom of the container. Pour the clearer liquid into another container. (A siphon would be useful here.) You may wish to re-strain the cloudy liquid that remains in the first container. Serve cold, over ice. Warning: This is pretty strong stuff. Store leftover punch in the refrigerator for up to several weeks. Makes about 3 cups.