There was this party, back in the day, where everyone's favorite scallywag, statesman, and pre-mixology mixologist, Benjamin Franklin, was working the bar and telling dirty jokes. His buddy James Bowdoin parked by the punch bowl all night to shoot the shit. The dude got, according to Franklin, as "drunk as a wheel-barrow." When the hangover wore off, Bowdoin hit up Franklin for that awesome punch recipe, and Franklin happily obliged.
Okay, I'm assuming that's how things unfolded. But Franklin did compile a list of 200-plus synonyms for "inebriated" for his Pennsylvania Gazette, "drunk as a wheel-barrow" among them. And the Massachusetts Historical Society's archives do contain a 1763 letter from Franklin to Bowdoin, in which he relays a recipe for milk punch his friend had requested. With holiday-party season looming, I decided to give it a go.
The MHS helpfully offers a modern translation of the recipe. Scaled down to a fourth of the original's heft — seriously, Franklin, you want us to zest 44 freakin' lemons? — the adaptation still makes more than enough to keep your guests swimming in frothy punch for hours.
But having no room in my fridge for a huge bowl of the stuff, and no roommates to foist it upon, I chopped the recipe further, to a sixth of its size. After steeping the brandy, which took on the clean, piercing smell of lemon after a few hours, I got to work boiling milk. While the MHS adaptation called for a pillowcase or a jelly bag, I repeatedly strained the punch through cheesecloth — not the most appetizing or glamorous task. Nonetheless, I soldiered on to appease the tipsy ghost of Ben Franklin, whom I imagined standing at my side, nodding in approval.
The first sip rendered a smooth, silky citrus flavor, with a bracing touch from the brandy. I tasted nutmeg right away, understated and weirdly at home without any other baking spices involved. Pretty soon I could feel the brandy's warmth down to my toes, and I was pouring myself another cup. Benjamin Franklin, I thought. You saucy minx.
INGREDIENTS: 6 cups of brandy 11 lemons 2 cups lemon juice 4 cups spring water 1 freshly grated nutmeg 1 1/8 cup sugar 3 cups whole milk
INSTRUCTIONS: Zest the lemons, and squeeze 2 cups of lemon juice. Steep the lemon zest in the brandy for 24 hours. The next day, strain out the lemon zest, and add 4 cups of spring water, 1 freshly grated nutmeg, 2 cups of lemon juice, and 1 1/8 cups of sugar to the brandy. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring 3 cups of whole milk to a boil. As soon as the milk boils, add it to the brandy mix and stir. The heat, lemon juice, and alcohol will begin to curdle the milk. Let the punch stand for 2 hours. Strain the punch through a jelly bag (or pillowcase) until clear. Serve cold, and garnish with a sprinkle of nutmeg.
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