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Noggin’ It Old-School

This is eggnog season, and we all know eggnog is flavored with rum, or maybe whiskey.

But not necessarily. Mediterranean sweet wines work beautifully, and they’re even more traditional.

The word “eggnog” doesn’t show up until the early 19th century. It’s a bit obscure — the Oxford English Dictionary  connects it with “nog,” which was a sort of strong ale made in East Anglia, but it might more logically be connected with “noggin,” which meant a small quantity of liquor or a mug (before it became a quaint old-fashioned slang word for the head). Or who knows, all these words might be connected.

At any rate, eggnog is just one member of an English family of hot sweet drinks of milk or cream mixed with some kind of liquor. There had been drinks called caudles and possets at least since the 17th century. Originally, possets were enriched with nuts and were partly drunk, partly eaten, from special posset cups. All these drinks were considered soothing and digestible and a proper treatment for the common cold.  In the original 1896 edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook,” Fannie Farmer still placed her eggnog recipes in the sick-room food chapter.

No kidding, it’s rich

The direct ancestor of eggnog might be the sack posset, which was made with sack instead of rum or whiskey. “Sack” was the general name for raisiny Mediterranean sweet wines such as sherry, Marsala, Malaga and others we’ve forgotten, such as Canary and Mountain. Personally, I prefer Marsala for this recipe, which comes from “Kidder’s Receipts,” a 1740 manual of dishes taught at Edward Kidder’s cooking school for those who might be required to prepare “cuisine suitable for the corporate dinners of aldermen and lawyers.”

Kidder’s original recipe calls for eryngo, an ingredient you just don’t see any more. In its day, though, eryngo was hot stuff, literally. It was considered an aphrodisiac, which is why Falstaff calls for the skies to “hail kissing-comfits and snow eryngoes” in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Eryngoes were the candied stems of a thistle-like member of the carrot family. (Kidder refers to eryngo roots; he might have been confused, or he might have been leaning a little too heavily into his own sack posset.)

Anyway, by all means add eryngoes if you have them. Maybe they turn this drink into the culinary equivalent of mistletoe. And by the way, other old sack posset recipes used milk instead of cream and cinnamon in place of nutmeg, so there are some other possibilities in old school nog.

Sack Posset

Makes 5 or 6 servings


14 eggs
1 cup sugar
5 ounces Oloroso (cream) sherry, sweet Marsala, Malaga, Malmsey Madeira or other Mediterranean sweet wine
5 cups cream
1 tablespoon nutmeg, freshly grated if possible, or 2 teaspoons cinnamon


  1. Separate 7 of the eggs and discard the whites. In a mixing bowl, beat the 7 yolks and 7 whole eggs with the sugar and sherry. Beat on high speed 30 seconds.
  2. Put the cream in a saucepan with the nutmeg or cinnamon and bring it to a full boil, 7 or 8 minutes.
  3. Slowly pour the boiling cream into the eggs, whisking constantly until thoroughly blended.
  4. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the texture is distinctly thickened, the eggs no longer smell raw and if you stir in one direction and remove the spoon, the liquid quickly stops moving, 6 or 7 minutes. The temperature will be 159 or 160 degrees F.
  5. Immediately transfer the posset back to the mixing bowl to stop cooking and serve.

Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.Photo: Sack posset. Credit: Charles Perry

Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock 'n' roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times' award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.