By Lucinda Hutson
It just didn’t seem like Christmas. For reasons unfathomable to my youngest sister and me, a dark cloud hung over our family and the mood was not merry. Always fearless behind the wheel, my sister “borrowed” grandma’s white Cadillac DeVille and we headed across the border from El Paso. Juárez was a much kinder place in 1970. We joined the revelry of the fiesta de Navidad, or Christmas party, at our housekeeper Hermila Contreras’s home (along with at least 40 members of her family, including lots of tots scurrying underfoot chased by a yapping Chihuahua).
Hermila’s mother, Benina, was a wonderful cook, and we eagerly filled our bowls with steaming pozole laden with hominy and chunks of chicken in a chili-spiced broth. Benina also made sopes—little fried masa cakes with pinched edges to hold a variety of savory fillings—mounded with frijoles refritos con queso, pork carnitas doused in red chili salsa or, my favorite, papas con rajas: mashed potatoes flavored with strips of roasted green chili.
But it was the comforting scent of something sweet and spicy wafting from a big clay olla (pot) on the stove that delighted me. Within, a stew of exotic fruits, cinnamon, citrus and spice simmered into a fragrant ponche (punch). Tío Mauro Manuel ladled it into mugs, along with a hefty splash of tequila reposado for the adults, while the children sipped it unspiked and sucked on the sugarcane stir sticks. Some of us escaped the joyful frenzy of the small casita and sat outside on the patio in our coats, warm mugs in hand, under stars sparkling in the sky. It was a Christmas Eve I’ll never forget.
A few years later, while living alone in a fishing village on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, I re-created the punch. This Spanish archipelago shares customs with Spain, and as in Mexico, ponche is a seasonal tradition. Having joined neighbors on Christmas Eve for pit-roasted cabrito (kid goat) seasoned with garlic and rosemary, papas arrugadas (salt-crusted new potatoes that wrinkle when their cooking water evaporates) dunked in salsa romesco (a garlicky red pepper and almond sauce) and, of course, the requisite local vino tinto, I wanted to share something special with them in return. I found most of the ingredients at the local market to make a big pot of ponche.
The tradition of serving Ponche Navideño is one that Spanish-speaking families (and others who have tasted it) eagerly anticipate annually. First introduced by the Spaniards to their colonies centuries ago, ponche remains a favorite custom in many countries. It’s not just for Christmas, though. Ponche is a favorite street-vendor libation served on chilly nights in many Mexican and Spanish towns throughout the fall and winter and popular during the nighttime fiestas that follow the season’s solemn daytime religious ceremonies. It’s also beloved on Día de los Reyes (King’s Day, January 6), when children receive their gifts.
You’ll find ingredients for ponche in local Hispanic grocery stores, many supermarkets and pulgas (flea markets) in the winter. I remember joining others at Fiesta who had come to hand select exotic fruits and spices, long stalks of sugarcane, crimson jamaica (hibiscus) flowers and cones of brown piloncillo sugar for this yearly ritual. I asked them to share their ponche recipes with me, though it was simply una cuchara, un poquito or una copita of ingredients (“a spoonful of this,” “a little of that” or “a little cupful”).
Once, in my best Spanish, I told a viejita (old Mexican woman) as she frugally picked a handful of fruit for her Christmas punch, “Voy a hechar tecolotes en mi ponche.” The little woman jumped back in horror. Other women around us broke out in merry laughter. I had told her I was going to put owls in my punch! I meant to say tejocotes, the name for the small, hard, black-speckled orange-ish fruits with several big, hard seeds—a highly sought-after seasonal ingredient for ponche (and at eight dollars a pound, quite a splurge!). They come from various species of Mexican hawthorn trees and taste rather like crab apples, although tejocotes are usually about half the size. Tart and mealy until cooked, they produce pectin, which naturally thickens the ponche.
Though my ponche recipe calls for many ingredients, it’s easy to make, and I’ve offered a choice of substitutions. Here’s to hoping this festive ponche will become one of your family’s cherished traditions, as it is for mine, to pass on for generations.
TRADITIONAL MEXICAN PONCHE
Serves about 25
Serve ponche from mugs and spike with your favorite tequila or mezcal—or a splash of both! (Brandy and rum are other options.)
1 sugarcane stalk about 3 ft. long, cut into segments
3 qt. water
2 8-oz. cones of piloncillo, or 1 lb. brown sugar
6 3-in. sticks Mexican canela (cinnamon)
2 t. whole allspice berries
1 t. whole cloves
2 t. anise seeds
4 fresh allspice or bay leaves (optional)
Split vanilla pod or splash of Mexican vanilla (optional)
6 stalks lemongrass, rough outer leaves removed and discarded,
cut into 3-in. pieces and slightly mashed (optional)
10 large tamarind pods, brittle shell peeled away and fibrous
veins removed and discarded
½–¾ lb. tejocotes (see notes)
2 crisp red apples, cut into bite-size chunks
1 or 2 membrillos (quinces) or 2 crisp Asian pears, cut into bite-size
1 lb. guayabas (guavas) or assorted dried fruits (see notes)
1 c. golden raisins
12 plump prunes
¾ c. dried jamaica flowers (tropical hibiscus)
2 qt. fruit nectar (such as guava, tamarind or unfiltered apple juice)
3 oranges, sliced
Agave syrup, to taste
1 bottle or more tequila reposado or añejo and/or mezcal
With a sharp knife, trim away the tough peel of the sugarcane segments. Cut each segment into pieces about the size of celery sticks, yielding about 25 pieces total, and set aside. (See notes.)
Bring the water to boil in a large stockpot. Add the piloncillo, cinnamon sticks and spices and lower the heat slightly. Stir occasionally until the piloncillo has melted—about 10 minutes. Add the sugarcane, lemongrass, tamarind, tejocote and remaining fresh or dried fruits and flowers (except the oranges) and 1½ quarts of the fruit nectar. Simmer for about 1 hour, until aromatic and slightly thickened—adding the oranges toward the end of cooking. Add more nectar or water as needed.
Turn off the heat and, preferably, let ponche sit, covered, for several hours (or overnight). Reheat at a gentle simmer then ladle, piping hot, into mugs, along with some of the fruit and a piece of sugarcane. Let guests add agave syrup, tequila or mezcal to taste.
Notes: Mexicans usually drop tejocotes whole into the punch and spit out the seeds. Substitute other tart fruits like crab apples when tejocotes aren’t available. If you are lucky, you’ll find sugarcane already cut into sections. You’ll also find canned sugarcane segments and lemongrass in Asian markets, as well as tamarind—the tart, sticky pulp which adds rich flavor and color to the punch. Or how about some nontraditional ingredients? Add fresh or dried cranberries, dried cherries or apricots or kumquats. Sometimes I’ll add some crushed dried red cayenne or fresh habaneros to liven it up!
Punch recipe and some text courtesy of University of Texas Press, publisher of my book, ¡VIVA TEQUILA! Cocktails, Cooking, and Other Agave Adventures, due in the spring of 2013.