Food shows are a funny business. And I do mean that literally. They’re a strange scene, to be sure. A mish mash of people in never ending lines, hoping to get a morsel of grilled sausage, a spoonful of BBQ sauce or a cube of cheese. Or perhaps a glass of punch, which was what I was serving up at a seminar I presented at the recent Metro Cooking Show in Washington D.C. (sponsored by Shakestir). And of course there’s the ubiquitous ‘celebrity chefs’ for which thousands – and I do mean thousands – of Middle Americans queue up to catch a quick glimpse and, you never know, an autograph.
My seminar was titled ‘The Re-Birth of Punch’, which to some of you might seem like an already over-exposed topic that has been chronicled in countless print articles and on dozens of blogs in recent years. We even now have a wonderful tome paying homage to this once ritualistic beverage, Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, and I’m certainly never going to profess to know even an iota as much about the subject than its author and friend David – ‘The Historical Oracle’ – Wondrich.
What I will say, however, is that I’m completely enamored with punch, as it works on so many levels. First of all it is a simple way to serve a group of people instead of having to make 4, 6 or 8 different and individual cocktails. Secondly, a well-adorned punch is a spectacular sight and lastly, it’s a convivial beverage that harks back to a bygone era when the act of drinking was often done around the flowing bowl.
The problem with punch in the modern era is that it has become a sad metaphor for most Americans where a melange of whatever is at hand is thrown into a bathtub or trashcan (rarely a punch bowl, ironically enough) and dished up at your frat party, office party, cousin’s wedding, or wherever, without any thought for balance or flavor. When made well, like they are at Clover Club or Death & Co in New York or Rickhouse in San Francisco (to name but a few), punch sits proudly atop the cocktail pantheon, even pre-dating the word ‘cocktail’ (which didn’t turn up in print until 1798) by almost 200 years.
There are several stories as to the punch’s origins which I’m not going to bother with here. As I mentioned go out and buy Wondrich’s book, like, right now. It’s a marvelous read from the greatest spirits writer out there today. I will focus on a couple of key points, however, that will help get your punch started properly, as it is the building blocks of the punch that are the key to its success. The first thing you need to do is make an oleo saccharum. A what?
Translated literally, it means ‘oil sugar’ as what you’re trying to achieve is extract as much of the essential oils from the peels of citrus fruits as possible using raw sugar. This can be done in several ways although I’ve had the best results by using a micro-plane and grating the zests of one lemon, one lime, one grapefruit and one orange into a quart of white sugar. Shake this up and allow it to infuse for about 12 hours and it will keep in the fridge for months. This is the base of our punch, and this olio saccharum can also be spiced up and adapted to the seasons by perhaps adding some ground cinnamon, nutmeg, all spice or powdered ginger in the cooler months or maybe some lavender or lemon thyme in the Spring. The next step is to dissolve the sugar with an equal amount of citrus and surely I don’t need to mention the importance (again) of only ever using freshly squeezed citrus.
From there, your punch recipe is your proverbial oyster. The recipe below (and pictured) was one created and served by my dear friend and best man Simon Ford at my wedding and remains to this day the best punch I’ve ever had. It’s perfectly balanced and while simple in terms of ingredients, it retains a great degree of complexity. It’s what I call a ‘no brainer’ as I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t completely love it.
HORSE & CARRIAGE PUNCH
6 oz. Beefeater 24
3 oz. Combier triple sec
3 oz. St Germain
6 oz. fresh lemon juice
10 oz. cold chamomile tea
8 oz. sparkling wine
4 tbsp. citrus sugar
METHOD: Dissolve the sugar in the lemon juice in a punch bowl
Add the alcohol and continue stirring
Add the tea, transfer to a quart container and keep in the fridge until you’re ready to serve
Add 1 large enormous ice cube, the sparkling wine and the garnishes
Grate nutmeg over the top
Serve with punch glasses on the side with 1 ice cube in each and a slice of lemon
SERVES 4-6 PEOPLE
GLASS: Punch cups
GARNISH: Lemon wheels, orange slices, rose petals, pomegranate seeds
*To make the citrus sugar, grate the zests of 1 lemon, 1 lime, 1 orange and 1 grapefruit into 1 quart of white sugar. Shake until well mixed and allow to infuse for at least 4 hours but ideally 12 hours.
This article first appeared on www.shakestir.com, a new online network of bartenders. It’s a fantastic resource which I urge you all to sign up for.