Here’s a holiday drink that’s loaded with tradition — and most respectable tradition at that: It comes from Martha Washington’s personal cookbook. But it’s not eggnog. In fact, it contains no egg, and it’s served cold, with a sporty flavoring of rosemary and lemon zest. Martha’s recipe calls it “posset,” but it also resembles an old English dessert/drink with the particularly silly name of “syllabub” — which itself has a family resemblance to a dessert with the particularly foolish name of “fool.”
Posset’s ancestry is somewhat obscure. The name itself is a mystery. When it was first written down in the 15th century, it was more likely to be spelled “poshet” or even “poshoote.” The descriptions of the time show that it was a soothing drink for people in sickbed, consisting of milk curdled by the addition of ale and flavored with spices, which were thought to be medicinal. By Shakespeare’s day, it had become something people drank for pleasure — Lady Macbeth helps her husband murder his rival Duncan by drugging his chamberlains’ possets. In the 17th century, possets were generally made with cream and raisiny Mediterranean sweet wines such as sherry or Malmsey. (Sometimes they were thickened with egg yolks in a manner similar to modern eggnog, complete with a touch of nutmeg or cinnamon.)
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Flavored with German wine
Martha Washington’s recipe is unusual in that it’s flavored primarily with German wine. This gives it a lighter, more floral character than eggnog has, without so much of the musty dried-fruit aspect that can grow kind of tiresome during the holiday season. In fact, though the recipe also contains sherry, I prefer to cut the amount down to half a cup to give Riesling a chance.
And the degree of sweetness is up to you. Her recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of sugar, which is a whole lot for flavoring seven cups of liquid. Go ahead and use that much if you want, but remember the condition of the Father of Our Country’s teeth. I prefer one cup.
Finally, Martha’s version is a whipped (or as she wrote it, “whipt”) posset. It doesn’t whip up anywhere nearly as high as whipped cream, but it does thicken appetizingly, and the foam gradually rises to the top as a kind of frosting on the drink. In this it resembles syllabub, which was also a mixture of cream and wine (though not whipt as much) that separated into alternately rich and winey layers. Note that a certain degree of curdling is caused by the acidity of the wine, giving posset its affinity to the aforementioned English dessert fruit fool.
Prep time: About 10 minutes
Total time: About 10 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 quart (2 pints) whipping cream, well chilled
2 cups German Riesling such as Rheinhessen, or a California or other New World Riesling, if preferred
1 cup cream sherry
1 cup sugar
Several sprigs of fresh rosemary
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the cream, Riesling, sherry and sugar. Whip at low to medium speed for about 5 minutes, then 5 minutes more at medium to medium-high speed (so long as it doesn’t spit posset out of the bowl).
2. Grate the zest of half of the lemon and stir into the mixture. Cut the remaining half of the lemon peel into twists.
3. Squeeze a sprig of rosemary between your fingers, drop it in the bowl, stir and let sit for a minute or two. Taste to see whether you like the amount of rosemary flavor; if you’d like more, stir the mixture again and leave the sprig in a bit longer.
4. Spoon the posset into wine glasses, using a large-mouthed funnel to keep the presentation neat, and garnish each with a rosemary sprig and a twist of lemon.
Main photo: A spot of whipt posset. Credit: Charles Perry