When it comes to holiday drinking, eggnog is only the beginning. Many cultures and cuisines proudly claim a Christmas punch and this week we're bringing you The Global Punch Bowl with five festive punches, each with a story of their own.
Some years back my mom, who I call Mami, threw a Christmas party at her home in Clarkston, Georgia. She made a pernil (traditional pork shoulder), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), and a rum cake — the standard 'Rican holiday fare.
But she asked me to make the coquito.
What Is Coquito?
Coquito is Puerto Rican coconutty eggnog. We claim it as our own, but it's beloved by Dominicans and Cubans alike. It's frothy and rich like a traditional eggnog, but it's lighter with coconut cream and vanilla, cinnamon instead of nutmeg, and rum instead of bourbon or brandy.
This cocktail is as varied as there are days in the year. So varied that, in New York City, there's a competition (now in its 15th year) to find the ultimate Coquito Master. Across New York's five boroughs, dozens of competitors ranging in age from young bucks to viejitos (wise elders) compete for the title, turning this traditional cocktail on its head by adding things like chocolate, strawberries, and pistachio.
Black Market Coquito & Where to Find it
But in less formal settings — private homes, office kitchens, delis, and bodegas —folks across the city run a modest underground coquito market. Just like Mexican cooks selling tamales out of black plastic bags and horchata from large coolers, Puerto Ricans make and sell coquito (in addition to pasteles and flans). Typically sold throughout the holidays in repurposed rum bottles or milk jugs, coquito bootleggers sell their wares across the country, particularly in cities with large Puerto Rican communities such as Orlando, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. The going price is about $25 a bottle (for a wine bottle or 750 milliliters).
If you're in the market, the best way to find some coquito is to ask someone, but if you don't know someone personally, you can find folks on Craigslist.
During the holidays coquito is perhaps more essential to the average Puerto Rican than a Christmas tree.
This underground coquito enterprise exists because during the holidays coquito is perhaps more essential to the average Puerto Rican than a Christmas tree. And like many Puerto Rican dishes, it also reflects that hybridity of the island's cuisine — native coconut and fresh lime blended with colonial rum to create a distinctly 1950s-seeming creamy American boozy holiday drink.
The Tradition of Coquito in My Family
It was certainly essential in my home. Mami isn't much of a drinker, but she loves coquito. When they were still married, my dad was the coquito master. But after he and my mom split, I got his recipe. I have my adjustments (I'm moderately lactose-intolerant, so I use more coconut milk than dairy), but I otherwise stick to his recipe. And I always serve it on the rocks in a small glass with a dash of ground cinnamon.
So at that Christmas party some years ago at Mami's house, I made my (some would say famous) coquito. Egg yolks, coconut cream, coconut milk, and lime zest. Just like my dad, I infuse boiling water with cinnamon sticks, then use the warm water to rinse out the milk cans, transferring the cinnamon sticks to the bottles at the end then chilling in the fridge.
Once cooled, my mother pulled the glass pitcher out of the refrigerator, smiling. "Feliz Navidad" (or some such festive tune) was playing in the background, and a crowd gathered, eyes shining in anticipation of starting the festivities off right. Mami turned, and in a moment of (not usual) clumsiness, the pitcher slipped out of her hand. It shattered, spraying glass and flooding the kitchen floor with coconutty creaminess. My mother looked up, her face frozen in a shocked "O."
Good daughter that I am, I quickly started cleaning, assuring Mami it was fine, no big deal; I'd go to the store to get more ingredients and remake it. The onlookers weren't quite so kind. Their once-happy, expectant faces had transformed into stern grimaces.
"Ay bueno, vamonos (we're leaving)!" one of them said, jokingly. But really only half joking. Mami stood with tears in her eyes, feelings as if she'd ruined Christmas. Of course she hadn't, and it was ridiculous to even suggest. Still, I rapidly made another batch (you'll see from the recipe it's quite simple) and stuck it in the freezer to flash cool. Meanwhile, someone led a parranda (Puerto Rican for Christmas caroling) through the house, playing instruments like guiros and tambores and nibbling on roast pork.
Like so many other holiday traditions, coquito is a beverage that is the centerpiece of parties and meals, a flavor that marks the beginning of an extended period of family and friend gatherings, of sharing time together, and of celebrating whatever is meaningful to you about the holidays. For many Puerto Ricans, when coquito appears, the holidays begin.
Puerto Rican Coconut Rum Punch (Coquito)
1 1/4 cups water
3 cinnamon sticks
8 large egg yolks
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (15-ounce) can cream of coconut, such as Coco Lopez
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1 liter white rum
Place the water and cinnamon sticks in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat as needed and simmer while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
Place the egg yolks in a large blender and blend on high until they thicken into a cream, about 3 minutes.
Add the coconut milk and blend for 1 minute. Add the condensed milk and cream of coconut and blend until thickened, about 3 minutes.
Remove the cinnamon sticks from the water and set aside. Pour the cinnamon water into the blender. Add the zest, vanilla, and salt, and pulse once to incorporate. Pour into bottles or a pitcher.
Pour in the rum to desired taste and add the reserved cinnamon sticks. Refrigerate until chilled before serving. Stir well with a spoon to incorporate before serving.