A Christmas Punch

12/22/2010 03:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" is the perfect Christmas carol -- not the whole thing, actually, just the line "And so this is Christmas." There's a resignation to the lyric that fits the occasion. One memorable Christmas, the pipe under an upstairs toilet cracked and began leaking into my in-law's family room. I spent a lot of time buying bee's wax seals and wrenching the basin from the floor with my father-in-law so we could try to fix it. I think we succeeded, or, rather, I think he succeeded while I was standing nearby. My point, however, is that "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," just doesn't have the necessary ambiguity to cover the holiday.

"And so this is Christmas . . ."

There'd better be something to drink. All around the country corks will be pulled from magnums of grocery store wine, and garage fridges being raided for cans of beer. I suggest we raise the bar. Punch is the solution, for punch has advantages:

1) It sounds innocuous. Even your teetotaling cousin won't bat an eyelash when she hears that you've made punch, because 'punch' makes her think of chaste choir practices, not flaming bowls of alcohol.

2) It can be made in quantities and kept around, which makes less of an impression than the stack of beer cans on the back porch, or the fact you seem to always be shaking a cocktail. Remember, even if it's an act of hospitality, no one gets a more inebriate reputation than the guy who is always filling up other people's glasses.

3) It is the perfect strength if made properly, it should cheer people up and lubricate the conviviality without pushing anyone over the edge -- that is to say, it is not a big bowl of cocktails.

4) It really is festive and delicious.

This year we are fortunate enough to have David Wondrich's book Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl as a guide. As usual, Wondrich is pitch perfect and erudite. He is a consummate geek about spirits -- think of him as the North Star of the cocktail firmament -- but he is inviting and fun. We're going to make a bowl of punch, after all, how heavy can it possibly get?

The book begins with a sort of exegesis, a critical exploration of what punch is, and moves on into a number of historical and tempting recipes, among which I found a recipe for punch from Charles Dickens. What could be better for Christmas Punch than a punch from Mr. Dickens?

I have adapted a recipe here, reducing it to punch for two. (There's nothing wrong with punch for two, by the way. It's a lovely way to spend an hour.) Use it as a building block; if you have 20 people, multiply my recipe by 10.

Before we dive in to the punch bowl, however, a word about punch bowls. Dickens, in the very first words of his recipe, instructs one to use a "very strong common basin" adding "Which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner's peace or pocket." Note that the recipe does not begin "wash the soap scum off of that cut glass punch bowl and carefully polish a dozen sterling silver monogrammed cups." On vessels, Wondrich writes: "I've made Punch successfully in silver bowls, ones of fine china and of expensive cut glass. I've also made it successfully in pasta pots, Le Creuset Dutch ovens, plastic bowls, melamine bowls, tin buckets, spackle buckets, salad spinners, highway-crew coolers (you know, the big round orange thing with the cup dispenser on the side and the spigot at the bottlm), milk jugs (just cut a hole between the handle and the spout to fit the ice in), five-gallon water-cooler jugs, candy dishes, candy jars, Lexans of all sizes, nameless orange plastic things from Home Depot, large earthenware flower-pots, galvanized washtubs, and a host of other miscellaneous vessels I'm not recalling." Don't be discouraged, in other words, by your lack of proper equipment. This recipe will not do well in a milk jug -- it's going to be on fire -- but anything that can take heat will do.

I wasn't kidding about flaming bowls of alcohol. It's going to be on fire, at least for a bit. I must admit a little apprehension there. I am loathe to up the holiday threat level, but I figure you're already frying turkeys, lighting candles on your Christmas tree, and having conversations better skipped. The safest, cleanest way to put out a fire in a bowl is to cover the bowl. Whatever you are using, have at hand something that will fit on top of it and close off the supply of oxygen. If you've used something that might break, I guess you should have a fire extinguisher nearby just in case you manage to splash burning rum on the curtains.

That said, to the recipe! Wondrich translates Dickens's recipe as calling for 6 ounces Demerara sugar, 3 lemons, 20 ounces of rum, 6 ounces Courvosier VSOP, and 40 Ounces of water, which yields two quarts of punch. I adapted the recipe as follows:

1/2 a lemon, peeled and juiced
1 ounce (6t) sugar
3 ounces rum
1 ounce brandy
6 ounces hot water

A note on the rum: Wondrich's list of rums that are good for punches is worth the price of admission. Rum was, over the years, mellowed into something smooth and drinkable, and lost it's sulfuric, funky, assertive flavors. (Wondrich wrote a great little summary of the "hogo" issue here.) My principle, as always, is that you should use what's available. For this punch, I used 2 ounces of Wray and Nephew overproof rum, and 1 ounce of Angostura 1919, both of which made Wondrich's list.

A note on the brandy: Wondrich called Courvosier because it was what was in Dickens's cellar. It goes almost without saying that the contents of Dickens's cellar would be knowledge that Mr. Wondrich would have at his fingertips. It also seems utterly reasonable to use any sort of brandy you like, or whatever is in the liquor cabinet. I have on hand a bottle of Remy Martin 1738 that worked really well.

Peel the lemons into a dutch oven or a good size pot -- something big and fireproof and not likely to spill -- try to get only the yellow of the peel, not the pith. Add the sugar, rum, and brandy. Give a little stir and pull some of the spirits out of the pot with a ladle. Holding the ladle a few inches away from the bowl, off to the side, basically, light the spirits on fire (this is not at all as straightforward as one might think. I had to hold some spirit over the steam from my hot water to get it to warm up enough to light it. Dickens suggests that the ladle you use be hot). Then bring the flaming ladle to the pot and pour the fire in. Let the mix burn for three or four minutes, stirring occasionally, then cover the pot. The fire will go out. Now add the juice of the lemon and hot water, stir, and let it stand for a few minutes. Skim off the lemon pips. Taste and adjust the sweetness. (The punch will grow slightly sweeter in a while, so keep that in mind.) The original instructions call for putting the punch in a jug with a piece of cloth tied over the top and setting first in the oven and then by the fire, but Dickens didn't have a crock pot. If the punch is going to stay in the crock pot for three or four hours, you should remove the half of the lemon peels, or it will get bitter. Also, you should be drinking faster. Spoon it out and enjoy!

Charles Dickens' Christmas Punch -- For Two