Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Eggnog enlightenment

At this time of year, even the most health-conscious may find it hard to resist a favorite holiday treat. For Diane M. Henderiks of Ocean Township, a registered dietician, fitness expert, and culinary educator, eggnog — the classic concoction of cream, eggs, sugar and various flavorings — is such an indulgence. “I love it,” she admits — even though she’s quick to note that traditional versions of the holiday drink pack about 200 calories in just four ounces, along with a hefty dose of saturated fat.

A spokesperson for Farmland Dairies in Wallington, Henderiks turned to the company’s fortified skim milk to craft a lighter version of the classic beverage, which can be made with or without alcohol.

“The flavor is practically identical. It’s the consistency that’s different. I don’t like the thickness of traditional eggnog,” she said. Those who do favor a thicker drink can mix her version with regular eggnog to cut its fat and calorie content, she added. According to historians, eggnog probably evolved from posset, a hot drink of sweetened and spiced milk curdled with ale or wine that was popular in medieval Britain. Its name may have come from nog, an old English dialect word for a strong ale, or noggin, a small mug or cup or small portion of drink.

In 17th century England, only those wealthy enough to keep cows or afford milk, which was considered a luxury, would offer guests dairy products at festive gatherings. Hence, milk- and cream-based beverages, especially when served on a grand scale, were a status symbol.

Brought over to the American colonies, the tradition of serving eggnog at holiday time flourished in dairy farming communities and the towns nearby. Trade with the Caribbean helped make rum the eggnog spirit of choice over European brandies and other liquors.

Meanwhile, other cultures had their own alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions of sweetened egg- and cream-based mixtures. In Puerto Rico, coquito combines coconut cream with eggs, evaporated milk, white rum, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Made of milk, eggs, and rum, the rompope of Mexico is a spicy almond-flavored drink with Spanish roots.When mixing up a spirited eggnog, many of the brandies are interchangeable, “as long as you use a good one,” said Ray Foley, publisher of Bartender magazine in Liberty Corner. Bourbon will lend “a more dominant taste” than rum, he added. “To get funky, you could use some of those flavored rums — coconut rum, an orange rum, or a raspberry rum.”

Raspberry, cinnamon, vanilla, or pear vodka also would lend a contemporary kick. “I think nutmeg means a lot in this drink,” said Foley. “If you want to be a purist, use fresh nutmeg.”

Regardless of whether or how the eggnog is spiked, “you want to serve it chilled over ice,” said Henderiks. If serving eggnog in a punch bowl buffet-style, keep it cool by placing the bowl in an ice bath. In addition, she suggested, freeze some additional eggnog mixture, generously sprinkled with nutmeg, in a bundt pan, remove it from the pan, and float it in the punch bowl to keep the rest of the eggnog properly chilled.

Besides serving as a party drink, eggnog can be used to flavor coffee, make pancake batter and rice pudding, and coat bread for French toast, said Henderiks. Nonalcoholic eggnog frozen into popsicles also makes a refreshing dessert. To ensure the proper consistency, Henderiks suggested using small molds.

During the holidays and throughout the year, Henderiks advocates a sensible approach to eating. “Deprivation leads to over-indulgence,” she said. “You should really pick and choose the indulgences you want to try. Taste them all, but don’t go overboard.” The first bite — or in eggnog’s case, sip — tastes as good as the last one. “The trick,” she said, “is figuring out when to stop.”