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CHRISTMAS, UNWRAPPED / HOLIDAY SPIRIT

Eggnog as you've never had it

Start with a stellar recipe, then mix things up with new flavors, finessed to the fullest.

December 19, 2007|Noelle Carter | Times Staff Writer

You're handed a glass of a familiar holiday drink, and a deliciously unfamiliar aroma greets you: toasted coconut with hints of Tahitian vanilla, cinnamon and Jamaican allspice. You raise the glass to your lips and are surprised by the satiny texture -- nearly thick enough for a spoon but souffle-like. The flavor is rich and harmonious -- warm, caramel notes of dark Jamaican rum playfully flirting with the slight sweetness of coconut milk. It's the perfect tropical eggnog for a brisk holiday evening.

Eggnog? Yes, it is that time of the year, and eggnog is the official drink of the season. You know the usual incarnations: Thick or thin, packaged or homemade, it can be a dreamy, nutmeg-scented indulgence or a mere vehicle for alcohol. This year -- with inventive improvisations on a breakthrough modern recipe -- it's time for truly memorable eggnogs. We're talking pink nog-tini -- made with gin and maraschino liqueur -- or butterscotch eggnog, made with rye whiskey and brown sugar. Like other recent re-imaginings of classic cocktails, the reinvention of eggnog brings fresh ingredients and creative flavor combinations into play. There's also a (do-ahead) secret: thoughtful preparation.

Begin with the revelatory eggnog recipe in Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky's excellent book "The Elements of Taste." At first glance, it's nothing special, with all the usual ingredients: eggs, sugar, seasonings, heavy cream, milk and spirits. But each ingredient is finessed to its fullest potential. Cream is whipped to stiff peaks, then chilled. Egg whites are beaten to stiff peaks; the yolks are whisked with spirits over a hot water bath before also being chilled. Finally, the ingredients are gently folded together to give the resulting drink rich, full-bodied character with a light, almost whimsical feel. Kunz and Kaminsky call for Cognac (rather than just a standard brandy) and spice the drink with ground star anise, giving this eggnog a whole new, almost exotic, identity.

Using this method and experimenting with the spirit bases and flavorings make dreaming up eggnog variations a new holiday sport. For rum-coco nog, begin with rum, a traditional base for eggnog, but substitute coconut milk for regular milk, and spice with cinnamon and allspice. For a subtle, sophisticated drink that plays on the nut-fruit flavors of holiday baking, use a base of amaretto and apricot liqueurs and garnish with orange zest. Substituting rye whiskey for the Cognac and using brown sugar for the sweetener yields a decidedly adult eggnog with butterscotch overtones, and if you can get your hands on some chestnut honey, use it to make a rich, almost smoky eggnog with Scotch.

Go ahead, push the envelope. Try a tequila-based eggnog with an orange liqueur -- you'll get a fresh, citrus-cream eggnog that reminds you why you love orange gelato. And don't be afraid to make the beautiful pink nog-tini with gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and grenadine. It's wildly different but perfectly suited for the holidays with the faint aroma of pine and hints of juniper and cherry.

If you're normally not a fan of eggnog, consider that up to now maybe you just haven't had the right one. If you love the stuff, your seasonal adventure's just beginning. Cheers!

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noelle.carter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Eggnog variations

Amaretto-apricot eggnog

Reduce the sugar to 2 tablespoons, to be cooked with the yolks (no sugar for the egg whites). Substitute three- fourths cup amaretto liqueur and one-fourth cup apricot liqueur for the Cognac. Omit the spices. Garnish: grated orange zest.

Nut brittle nog

Whisk one-fourth cup smooth peanut butter into the milk before incorporating. Substitute one-half cup vodka and one-half cup hazelnut liqueur for the Cognac. Spice with 1 teaspoon vanilla, one-half teaspoon almond extract, one-fourth teaspoon cinnamon and one-eighth teaspoon ground nutmeg. Garnish: a bit of ground nutmeg.

Wry vanilla eggnog

Substitute dark brown sugar for the sugar; don't add sugar to the egg whites (use only the one-half cup for the yolks). Substitute rye whiskey for the Cognac. Spice with 1 scraped vanilla pod. Garnish: nutmeg.

Scotch 'n' honey nog

Substitute 2 tablespoons chestnut honey for the total sugar (add to the egg yolks) and a Scotch for the Cognac. Omit the spices. Garnish: a swirl of chestnut honey.

Rum-coco nog

Don't add sugar to the egg whites (use only the one-half cup for the yolks). Substitute dark rum for the Cognac and 2 cups coconut milk for the milk. Spice with one-fourth teaspoon vanilla, one-half teaspoon ground cinnamon and a pinch of ground allspice. Garnish: toasted coconut.

Pink nog-tini

Don't add sugar to the egg whites (use only the one-half cup for the yolks). Substitute three-fourths cup gin (preferably Plymouth), one- fourth cup sweet vermouth, one- eighth cup maraschino liqueur and one-eighth cup grenadine for the Cognac, and one-half teaspoon almond extract for the spices. Garnish: a maraschino cherry sliver.

Naranja nog

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