In rare books cooking, it is not difficult to find truly vile recipes: aspic, cakes with ambergris, beef tea pudding. Every once in a while, however, it’s possible to find something that reads as viscerally disgusting on the page, but actually turns out delicious in practice (think depression-era tomato soup cake). I have recreated one such recipe, and it has put me in the unfortunate position of needing to advocate for something rather gross-sounding:
You should curdle milk in your cocktails to make them taste better.
I promise this is good. All of the visual evidence from this blog post will tell you otherwise, but you need to take my word for it. Curdling milk in your cocktails and then straining out the curds makes a smooth, delicious drink that is (frankly) dangerous if you don’t watch yourself. The resulting drink—called “milk punch” or sometimes “clarified milk punch”—has been around since the 18th century, with Ben Franklin even having a recipe.
I have used this method (called milk-washing) to make milk punch several times previously, and this time, I decided to try the recipe from The lady’s assistant for regulating and supplying the table from 1787. The recipe follows:
Transcription: Pare fifteen Seville oranges very thin, infuse the parings twelve hours in ten quarts of brandy; have ready boiled and cold, fifteen quarts of water, put to this seven pounds and a half of loaf-sugar, mix the water and brandy together; add the juice of the orange, and of twelve lemons; strain it, put to it one pint of new milk; barrel it, stop it close, let it stand a month or six weeks. It will keep for years, the older the better.
The lady’s assistant for regulating and supplying the table. View full page.
There are a few things I decided to change about this recipe. The first is reducing the recipe to 1/10th of its original volume. The second is that I didn’t have time to keep milk punch sitting for a month. Not to mention, I had no desire to keep curdled milk at room temperature for a month. The average lifespan is much longer now that it was in 1787, and I firmly believe modern refrigeration is one of the reasons for that.
Reducing the recipe by 9/10ths left me with the following proportions:
- 1 ½ oranges, pared
- 32 oz of brandy
- 48 oz water
- ¾ lb sugar
- Juice of 1.5 lemons
- Splash of Orange Juice
- 2 oz milk
These proportions made me nervous, because 2oz of milk and less than two lemons worth of acid didn’t seem like enough to curdle 80 oz of liquid (plus sugar). I’m still not entirely sure what the recipe was going for, especially since there is no instruction to actually strain the curds out. Perhaps the full month of aging allowed the small proportion of milk and lemon to do its work? I was too scared to actually test any of this, so I opted to use a more modern method for milk washing, which basically involves using a lot of milk and citrus to allow the curdling process to happen overnight.
I also made a few other minor changes to the proportions and ingredients, so my final recipe was as follows:
- 1 orange and 1 lemon, pared
- 10 oz brandy
- 22 oz aged rum
- 48 oz water
- ¾ lb sugar
- 6 oz lemon juice
- Splash orange juice
- 1 cup milk
In the first step, I pared the lemon and orange (taking care to leave out as much pith as possible) and let the rind infuse in the rum and brandy overnight.
The next morning, I removed the peels from the brandy/rum mixture. I then added the alcohol, water, sugar, and lemon to a pitcher and measured out the milk in a liquid measuring cup.
Cook’s Illustrated has a great test-kitchen style blogpost that lays out all of the different factors in making milk punch. In it, they show that there is a marked difference between pouring the milk into the punch and pouring the punch into the milk. Based on their advice, I decided to pour the milk into a large saucepan, and followed it with the alcohol-sugar-lemon mixture. The results were (unsurprisingly, given the acid and milk combo) quite disgusting.
After just a few minutes, the curds started clumping together into cloud-like groupings, and the clear parts of the punch became more visible. By the next morning, the curds had fully settled to the bottom, giving a clearer (pun very much intended) idea of what the final, strained product might look like.
After One Hour
The Next Morning
The following morning, I lined my pour over coffee maker with a paper coffee filter and strained out all of the curds. This process took a few hours and several coffee filters, but the result was a beautiful, clear liquid that almost looked like white wine when poured into a glass.
The following day, I enlisted some of my good friends in the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship to try the punch I made. Here are some of their testimonials:
I’d never heard of or tried milk punch before. I expected a prominent milk flavor, but was delighted by how light, crisp, and citrusy the flavor actually was. It seemed refreshing for any season, but particularly nice for a boozy outdoor brunch in the fall air. Needless to say, I took home a mason jar of it to revisit later.Camille Thomas, Scholarly Communications Librarian
The milk punch had a wonderfully bright and almost lemonade balance between sweetness and tartness. The milk processing cut down the sharp alcohol sting and left a very smooth texture that let the flavors shine through. It was so smooth, in fact, that I could definitely see it being dangerous if one didn’t keep track of how potent it was!Matthew Hunter, Digital Scholarship Librarian
So there you have it! While there is a lot of historical food and drink I would steer clear of on principle, a cocktail that has been mellowed out with curdled milk is actually not one of them. There are plenty of more modern recipes that introduce a little more complexity (such as adding port, batavia arrack, or even hot sauce). If you try the recipe from the Lady’s Assistant, I personally would recommend reducing the sugar content in the overall recipe. Regardless, clarified milk punch is a great way of mellowing out the harsher elements of your liquors, and it’s a great way to make big-batch cocktails for hosting.