[Ed note: After Camper English delivered his milk punch story, editor-in-chief Dan Souza began developing his own recipes for the home cook. The following is from his perspective.]
I could happily keep testing milk punch recipes forever. I don’t often say that about a recipe I’ve been toiling over for weeks, but milk punch is just different. Camper’s exhaustive survey of professional bartenders’ riffs on the milk punch form should give a pretty good hint at how many variables there are to play with. But beyond providing an excuse to geek out on casein proteins, pH, and filtration, milk punch is just fun and tasty. The transformation from cloudy, inky punch to the crystal-clear blush of a pink wine is very satisfying. And that’s all before you even get drunk on the stuff.
I started by using a very basic punch recipe, with brandy, lemon juice, and sugar. I figured I would iron out all the procedural details, so I could move on to flavor variations.
My first big question: Is it actually important that you add the punch to the milk and not the milk to the punch? I wrote in my notes that this rule smacked of old-timey milk punch lore that was probably ripe for debunking.
I was wrong.
Just a couple of tests proved that order of operations is very important. Adding milk to the punch invariably resulted in a twisted mass of curds suspended irregularly within the punch. This happens because the milk comes in contact with the highly acidic punch and coagulates on impact. The result is that only a portion of the punch actually gets clarified, giving you a colorful (in a bad way!), cloudy drink. Adding the punch to milk might not seem all that different at first glance, but it’s all about rate of acidification. As the (acidic) punch streams into the milk, it slowly (relative to the milk-into-punch method) drops the pH of the milk. Once all the punch is in the milk, the pH is low enough (lower than 4.6, the pH at which casein proteins precipitate, or fall out of solution) for it to curdle. At that point the milk and punch are evenly mixed, so when the milk curdles it’s able to trap impurities from the entire mass.
I was also incredibly curious about the hot milk–cold milk rift in milk punch practice, so that’s where I focused next. With three different base punches I tested 40-degree-F whole milk versus 180-degree-F whole milk (adding the punch to the milk in each case, of course). The biggest difference I noticed was the size of the curds that formed. When I used hot milk, the curdling reaction happened more quickly, and I ended up with larger curds. When I used cold milk, the curds were far smaller and more evenly distributed throughout. Just as with order of operations, the larger, faster-forming curds often didn’t clarify the drink quite as thoroughly as the smaller, slower-forming curds. I say “often” because there were plenty of times that hot milk worked just fine. But I consistently got the best results using cold milk. Added bonus? No need to heat up the milk.
So at this point I knew I would be adding punch to cold milk. Great! The next logical question is what type of milk is best? I limited my testing here to pasteurized, homogenized dairy from cows and focused primarily on fat content. I had a hunch that using a lower-fat milk, which is proportionally higher in protein (the stuff that does the clarifying) would make for a better clarification.
I was wrong. Again.
My tests with skim milk looked promising at first—the milk mass curdled nicely and fell to the bottom of the glass much faster than with whole milk—but the resulting milk punch was always cloudy. Half-and-half reacted completely differently. Thanks to its abundant fat content, the curds never actually sank to the bottom, but rather stayed suspended at the top. Half-and-half often produced a relatively clear punch but not every time. Call it the goldilocks effect, but middle-of-the-road whole milk emerged as the best clarifier in my tests.
Finally I took a look at filtration. As with every recipe I test, I wanted to start simple and only introduce special equipment or techniques as needed. Luckily for me (and, well, everyone who likes convenience and drinking), a coffee filter set in a fine-mesh strainer does the job admirably. The real key to getting superclear milk punch is pouring the curdled punch into the strainer slowly, and after it drains completely, filtering it through once again. The coffee filter does a lot of the heavy lifting, but the nest of curds sitting on the bottom of the filter sops up the really fine stuff.
At this point in the process, I was ready to play around with actual recipes. And so I started at the beginning—the very beginning. I made a batch of the earliest known milk punch recipe, which is credited to Mary Rockett in David Wondrich’s lovely book Punch. It’s a simple mixture of brandy, water, lemon juice, lemon peel, and sugar that, once clarified, looks like chardonnay and drinks like a refreshing limoncello cocktail. It calls for a 4:1 ratio of punch to milk for the clarification, which turned out to be a great ratio for all my recipes. My adaptations to Rockett’s original recipe are few: I use cold milk in place of hot, add orange peel and orange juice to the lemon for a more complex citrus flavor, and scale it down to make one quart. You can get my recipe here.
While I was reading Wondrich’s book, I was pulled in by a couple of other old punch recipes that he had uncovered—but ones that weren’t traditionally clarified with milk. One was Ruby Punch, a recipe Wondrich found in Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tenders Guide from 1862 that features a seriously tasty combination of black tea, ruby port, lemon, and a funky rum-esque liquor called Batavia Arrack. The other was Billy Dawson’s Punch, which in classic English punch form, combines both brandy and rum with, oddly enough, some dark beer like porter or stout and richly flavored Demerara sugar. They are both delicious on their own, but I really loved how they changed with milk clarification.
The Ruby Punch, originally rich in tannins and color from both strong tea and port, turns silky smooth and fruity after clarification, and its color change is dramatic—from inky plum to a light rosé wine. Come to think of it, if you like rosé, I think you’ll love this one. Billy Dawson’s concoction is a more spirit-forward, less fruity affair that would feel right at home in a snifter sitting on a mahogany desk surrounded by leather-bound books (I think you know what I’m talking about). My milk-clarified version is full-bodied, amber-hued, and smooth. You still taste the brandy and the molasses-like demerara, but there are no rough edges to keep it from going down easy.