The Twelve Drinks of Christmas: Volume 2, Drink 11
I have had hot chocolate out of these glasses a hundred times. They used to sit at the back of Grandma’s cupboard just waiting for one of the kids to slip them out for a treat. I had no idea what they were for, or why they had those guys in top hats on them instead of Tom the cat and his rodent nemesis, Jerry. What can I say, we did not grow up in the Midwest where the drink and these glass were everywhere, allegedly. So, let’s take a moment and try to learn a bit as we stand and make the classic Tom & Jerry.
This drink is troublesome. Seriously. There are a bunch of steps to making the batter required to assemble these. On top of that it has a troublesome provenance. The father of the early cocktail Jerry Thomas, himself claimed to have invented it in St. Louis around 1847, in spite of the fact that it appears in print as early as the 1820’s and even then it appeared to be a well-known drink in England. At its most basic this is a more complicated riff on Eggnog and in the Upper Midwest you can even buy the batter premade, just like Eggnog or Boiled Custard here. I have been intrigued by it for years, so let’s get to work and see what all the fuss is about.
The first step is to make your batter. There are some large variations in this recipe, so I found one that seemed closest to the classic preparation that did not make gallons, though you could easily size this one up for entertaining. First step is to separate two eggs and whisk the yolks in a mixing bowl till thin. To that add 6 tablespoons of sugar, 1/2 an ounce of Jamaican Rum, I chose Smith + Cross; 2 pinches (a pinch is roughly 1/8 teaspoon) of cinnamon, 2 pinches of clove and 3 pinches of nutmeg and stir thoroughly. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to a stiff froth before using a spoon to fold the egg whites into your yolk mixture. That’s all there is to it, now you have Tom & Jerry batter. So, maybe it is not so much troublesome as just time consuming, complicated and messy.
To make the actual drink, warm up some tempered glass mugs or vintage Tom & Jerry glasses and add 1 ounce of Cognac, 1/2 an ounce of rum and 2 tablespoons of batter, stirring together as you top the mug with boiling water. Stir to a frothy head and grate a little fresh nutmeg on top for garnish.
It is rich. It is decadent. It is remarkably similar to Eggnog. In fact, if this were served to me as eggnog, I am not sure I would argue. That said, it is wonderful in its own way. Who doesn’t want a rich creamy treat to kick off the holiday celebrations? There are more modern recipes that include whipping butter and vanilla into the batter and now I am looking forward to trying that version, which sounds even more decadent.
That is a big part of the holidays, the extra effort that we all put in. Think about those evenings baking cookies or gingerbread or making marshmallows or buckeyes or even those little chocolate robed peanut butter and cracker things. There is something about Christmas that makes us take the time to go that extra step, to make the fancy meals, desserts and drinks we skip the rest of the year. That is kind of a cool way to express love, isn’t it? By working harder to give something.
Many moons ago, when I was first stepping out on my own in life, that first Christmas was tough. I had no money. Seriously, my net worth was less than 40 dollars after I set aside the money for my bills. No emergency fund, no savings and Christmas coming fast. I looked around and realized that I had my tools and some of wood and materials left over from jobs, so I decided to make gifts for everyone. Luckily, I was single at the time and only had family and a few friends to take care of, so I made a plan headed to my grandparents basement and got to building. Things went pretty smoothly, they weren’t necessarily nice gifts, but they were heartfelt.
One of the things I was most proud of was a bread slicing board for my Grandma. I had an old piece of poplar that I planed down and added guides for her to be able to easily slice her homemade sourdough into consistent pieces. It was simple, but effective. I did not know a lot about food safe finishes, so I decided to try my hand at burnishing. Now burnishing is not the easiest finish to create, or at least it wasn’t for me. You basically use a smooth tool to repeatedly rub the surface, crushing the top layers of the wood to harden it and release the oils creating a nice smooth finish. You know that gorgeous patina old stair rails get from being handled for years? That’s burnishing and it is time consuming. I spent hours with a smooth piece of pipe, rolling and rubbing, getting those oils to pop up before pushing them back in. After a few evenings of work, it was a thing of beauty. Mostly finished, I headed back to my house for the night, ready to put the finishing touches on it the next day. My Grandpa knew what I was working on and he went down overnight to check my progress. He decided to help me out by giving it a light sand before I put the next coat of whatever I was using on there. Now, burnishing is not a deep finish, it is all surface stuff. If you haven’t already guessed, he basically sanded off all the finish I had been working on for days. It was Christmas Eve, there was no time to remake it, so I did the best I could to salvage the finish. It wasn’t pretty and I wanted to be mad, but how could I be upset that he tried to help me?
I was pretty down that year. I had no money and my attempt to make up for that with effort had pretty much failed across the board. I had done my best but I came up short. Everyone opened their gifts, they smiled and said thank you and that was it. Grandma used her board for a little while, but she was already pretty good at making consistent slices, so eventually it disappeared from the counter and I figured it was gone. A couple of weeks ago I started looking for these Tom & Jerry glasses. Checking one of the cabinets, I found that old bread slicing board and you know what? It wasn’t hideous. It was kind of nice, actually and she had kept it all these years. I’d spent a couple of decades feeling bad about my weak homemade gifts, but there one of them was. Maybe I will dig it out and get back into the shop with it. I could teach my son what a pain burnishing is or maybe, I could just finally let that particular Christmas memory rest. As it turns out, the effort was good enough and it really is the thought that counts. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay festive, my friends.