Monday, April 18, 2011

Got milk punch?

Photo: JOEL VEAK

Our American forebears had the whole boozing thing on lockdown. So thanks to Ben Franklin and his buddies for inventing democracy and Boston or whatever, but this month I'm happier that the saucy old boy had a hand in popularizing milk punch, a drink that's currently seeing a resurgence in our cocktail scene. Ben passed along the recipe to his homeboy James Bowdoin back in 1763, writing from Boston, "Herewith you have the Receipt you desired." (Aphra Behn, who's sometimes cited as the first professional female writer, is actually credited with inventing the process for creating milk punch back in the late 1600s. But dudes always steal all the glory, don't they?)

Anyway, this style of punch - not be confused with a traditional brandy milk punch - is made by heating milk and combining it with an infusion of spirits and fruit. The milk curdles and is discarded, leaving behind a silky-smooth liquid that is clear but imbued with a sort of milk essence. It was a colonial-era party drink, explains Seth Hill of Journeyman (9 Sanborn Court, Somerville, 617.718.2333). "Basically, they would take raw alcohol spirits and add in herbs, spices, fruits, or whatever to steep. Then they'd often add citrus juices in order to make a big punch." Too much citrus and too heavy a pour of booze made for both heartburn and hangovers. Tums and brunch hadn't been invented yet, so adding milk relieved some of the next day's ailments.

The process Hill uses is much like the one from back in the day. After infusing spirits for anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, he does what's called breaking the punch. After the addition of the spirits and the citrus causes the heated milk to curdle, he strains out the curds. The whey - the liquid byproduct of curdling milk (the same that features in the cheese-making process) - is left in the drink. 

"It provides a sort of unique mouth feel to it," Hill says. "It makes it a little softer in the composition. The milk solids have fallen out, so you're not left with strictly dairy; you've got the sort of stuff that's left in whey, lactic sugars that provide a creamy mouth feel." 

Hill has worked with traditional recipes of fruit and spice, but he has also experimented with a variety of herbs and, well, pretty much everything but the kitchen sink, coming up with wild variations - like a milk punch based around the flavors of a pastrami and rye sandwich, and another inspired by Thai ginger, chicken, and coconut soup.

More and more bartenders are getting hip to milk punch, says Ted Gallagher of Craigie on Main (853 Main Street, Cambridge, 617.497.5511), because it's a great way to repurpose the odds and ends around the bar. "There's kind of the sustainability aspect of it." 

Gallagher learned the process from his predecessor at Craigie, Carrie Cole. "She taught me that you can basically go bananas with adding spice, adding tons of implied, intended flavor to the spirit itself. She got really creative." That's an understatement. They've done sweet, citrusy rum-style punches; bourbon with mustard seed and English breakfast tea; pisco infused with a myriad of spices, strawberry, grapefruit, and rhubarb; and rum with toasted coconut, dried cantaloupe, pink peppercorn, green peppers, and more. They even tried infusing sake with shitake mushrooms. 

"Ideally the flavors are such that they're meant to be pondered over," Gallagher says. Indeed, but it seems possible that less adventurous drinkers will ponder themselves right onto the next page of the menu when they hear about curdled milk in a cocktail. Don't be scared off though. "The end product, what's in the glass, has the impression of milkiness," Gallagher says. But impressions can be deceiving. "It's got the impression of milk without most of the body," he explains. 

Unlike Craigie, where milk punch is only served as an occasional taste, or if you ask for it by name, Journeyman spells it out on the menu. "We're pretty upfront with the way in which it's made," Hill says. The process intrigues people, and once one glass goes out to a table, its drinker usually recommends it to a friend. It's the same as in Ben Franklin's day - buddies sharing exciting new ways to get buzzed.

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