This time of year, I really want to like eggnog. The idea of coming in from the cold and enjoying a creamy cup of spiked eggnog by the fire seems to me the platonic ideal of winter. But when I try to realize that fantasy, I am usually just disappointed. It does evoke the holidays, but not in a good way. Plus, we don’t have a fireplace. Then there is the Tom and Jerry, the eggnog-like hot drink native to the Upper Midwest that features prominently in the Damon Runyon story, Dancing Dan’s Christmas (the link here is to the 1949 radio version, which I highly recommend you listen to as soon as possible). But Tom and Jerrys are not easy to find around New York City. There is a bar by the same name on Elizabeth Street, but they only serve their namesake once a year – that day being Christmas, of course – owing to the fact that they are too labor-intensive to make. So what’s a person who wants a festive holiday drink to do?
A few years ago, I was milling around the annual office holiday party thinking it might be a good time to leave when I ran into Orlando. Psst, You want some coquito?, he whispered, and motioned for me to come with him to the back of the kitchen. Intrigued at the transgressive feel to the whole thing, I followed. He opened up the giant catering-kitchen fridge, pulled out a green, glass bottle that once contained ginger ale and poured me a generous cup over ice. Coquito is a winter holiday beverage hailing from Puerto Rico, tasting of coconut and nutmeg held up sturdily by rum. It’s served cold, but warms you up in no time. Here, I had been searching all around the snowy north for my holiday beverage when it had been lounging in the Caribbean all along. I spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen with Orlando, while he told me stories of Puerto Rico and East Harlem. Aside from being a first-class storyteller, Orlando is an incredible cook. His pernil is legendary and will be written about one day, by me, I promise.
Like matzo balls, pie dough or chili, there are a variety of opinions on how to make the perfect coquito and recipes can often be a closely-guarded family secret. In 2001, Debbie Quinones started the International Coquito Federation, when the family friend who always had supplied her with the annual holiday cheer passed away. Worried that this culinary tradition might be disappearing, and looking for a successor, she decided to hold a “coquito tasting” in her apartment, inviting people to bring their best bottles to share and be judged. It didn’t take long for this friendly competition to evolve into a city-wide event, dubbed The Coquito Masters, complete with qualifying competitions in each borough leading to a final tournament held at El Museo del Barrio or the Bronx Museum each December. Not long after I was initiated, I came across the Manhattan qualifying event at the Caribbean Cultural Center in my neighborhood. Folks from all over the borough had come with gallons of their family recipe, poured out in tiny paper cups. To participate, you took a card, made your way through about a dozen tables, sampling each variation on the Puerto-Rican beverage – some staunchly traditional, some barely recognizable (save for the rum) and voted on your favorite. A true democracy in action. The winner would move onto the final event, maybe even earning the title of “The Best Coquito in New York” for that year.
As far as I know, Orlando has never entered his recipe in the Coquito Masters, but I can tell you his is some of the best I’ve tasted. After a few years of asking, he relented and gave me his recipe which makes 4-5 32 oz. bottles, enough to get you through to New Years Eve. It’s not exactly a health food, but a little goes a long way. And what the hell, it’s the holidays!
Essentially, you just mix all the ingredients together in a blender, bottle them and chill. Because the cream of coconut can be thick, it’s good practice to submerge the closed cans in hot water to disolve the coco before opening them. You can bottle the coquito with the rum, but it gives you more flexibility if you bottle it without and can add the rum when you pour it. Mix it up this week and I guarantee you won’t have any left by Three Kings Day!