Back during my days at Gourmet magazine, my many duties included teaching cooking classes. I used to tell my students — especially the cooking-impaired ones — that if they made sure to greet dinner party guests with a special homemade drink, they would always win, no matter what else happened that evening.
Let them buy take-out food, rearrange it artfully on platters, then claim it as their own. Nobody would think twice as long as they were handed a special drink on their way in the door. Festive drinks scream, "Party!"
The holiday season boasts any number of festive libations. My favorite is eggnog. After all, if you're trying to crystallize holiday excess in liquid form, how better than to combine sweet cream with strong rum or brandy?
But what if — just this once — you don't want to overdo it? How do you cut down the fat and calories in eggnog without losing the drink's signature richness? More precisely, is there a way to keep it creamy without cream? I tried making eggnog using nonfat milk, both regular and condensed. I even tried thickening the mixture with cornstarch. My daughter Ruthie, a connoisseur of cocktails, rejected both of these strategies.
Non-fat milk made the drink too watery. Cornstarch successfully thickened the drink, but in a way that reminded my expert of a loose pudding, not eggnog.
Ruthie suggested losing the non-fat milk in favor of 2 percent milk, which is still much lighter than cream. That did the trick. Then I added Chai spices, which contributed their own luxurious and exotic notes that work so nicely with the more traditional nutmeg.
My second concoction, Christmas sangria, required much less experimentation, if only because traditional sangria — a mix of wine and fruit — is a fairly healthy punch to begin with. Essentially, all I did was swap out the drink's usual summertime fruits for their wintertime counterparts — pomegranates, clementines and apples, along with some fresh fruit juice.
Reformatted in this fashion, a warm weather stalwart suddenly looks and tastes just right for the holidays.
Start to finish: 2 hours 35 minutes (20 minutes active)
2 cups 2 percent milk, divided
3 1/2-inch stick cinnamon, smashed using the side of a knife
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
10 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
4 cardamom pods, crushed (or 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
Brandy or rum, for flavoring (optional)
Grated nutmeg, to garnish
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 1/2 cups of the milk with the cinnamon, vanilla bean, cloves, peppercorns, ginger, cardamom pods and a hefty pinch of salt. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then turn off the heat and let it stand for 15 minutes.
Strain the mixture through a sieve, discarding all of the solids except for the vanilla bean. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk; discard the vanilla pod.
Wipe out the saucepan and return the milk to the pan over medium heat.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl beat the eggs with the sugar for 2 minutes, or until they are light and lemon colored. Add the heated milk in a stream, whisking gently. Return the egg-milk mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it thickens and coats the back of the spoon, about 4 to 6 minutes. Do not let the mixture come to a simmer or the eggs will scramble.
Quickly add the remaining 1/2 cup of milk to the pan to stop the cooking. Transfer the mixture to a pitcher and chill for at least 2 hours or until very cold.
To serve, divide the eggnog among 4 chilled glasses, stir in a dash of brandy or rum, if desired, and top with a sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg.
Nutrition information per serving: 140 calories; 40 calories from fat (29 percent of total calories); 4.5 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 16 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 16 g sugar; 7 g protein; 210 mg sodium.
Start to finish: 8 hours 30 minutes (30 minutes active)
750-milliliter bottle fruity red wine, such as Beaujolais
1/2 cup fresh clementine or orange juice
1/2 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice
1/2 cup Grand Marnier liqueur
1 firm pear with the skin, cored and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
2 clementines or 1 orange, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
Seeds from 1 pomegranate
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
In a large bowl combine all ingredients and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Chill, tightly covered, at least 8 hours before serving.
Nutrition information per serving: 180 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 24 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 19 g sugar; 1 g protein; 5 mg sodium.