Monday, December 16, 2013

Posadas Navideñas Recipe from ¡Viva Tequila!

Lucinda Hutson, our go-to party expert, has Feliz Navidad down pat. Kick off Las Posadas, the nine-day Mexican celebration leading up to Christmas, with this anecdote from ¡Viva Tequila! and a recipe for a traditional Mexican Christmas punch, the perfect libation for your holiday fiesta. Pro tip from Lucinda: use a real sugar cane as a stir stick, and wreathe the base of the jar with fresh fruits, greenery, Christmas lights, and ornaments. 

Feliz Navidad, Prospero año y felicidad!

Posadas Navideñas

In villages throughout Mexico, locals partake of celebrations called posadas during the nine days before Christmas. They reenact Mary and Joseph’s pilgrim­age, seeking shelter in Bethlehem. Candlelight processions go door to door, singing and praying, and are turned away until they reach the “inn,” a home predestined for the fiesta. There, the pilgrims gather around an ornate nativity scene. Like most Mexican religious observances, the sacred nature of the posadas soon gives way to merriment—tasty food, piñatas, and steaming cups of ponche for the travelers, sipped from earthenware mugs called jarritos and often spiked with tequila or mezcal.

Many North Americans—especially in the Southwest—also embrace the posada tradition. Luminarias (small paper bags, partially filled with sand, holding a glowing candle) light the way to the door. Whether part of the procession of a posada or simply served in a small gathering, ponche is part of a tradition that most Mexican families look forward to during the holidays. Sharing this drink is a way to assure a “Feliz Navidad, Prospero Año y Felicidad.”
On Christmas morning, I simmer a big pot of ponche on my stove. Wafts of enticing and comforting aromas fill my house, bringing back memories of my beloved Mexico. Sometimes this punch is hard to duplicate in the United States because of the unavailability of the exotic fruits. However, Latin American markets and pulgas (flea markets) north of the border stock ponche ingredients during the Christmas season just for this revered tradition.

I love visiting these venues at this time of the year, joining others who come to hand-select fruits and spices, long stalks of sugarcane, crimson jamaica flowers, and cones of brown piloncillo sugar for this annual ritual. I often ask them to share their ponche recipes with me, though it’s usually 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, wide-eyed and terrified! The other women around us broke out in merry laughter. I had told her I was going to put owls in my punch! She must have thought I’d been sipping tequila before even making the punch...or was planning to conjure up a dark brujas (witches) brew. 

I meant to say tejocotes, the name for the small, hard, black-speckled orangish fruits that are a favorite seasonal ingredient for ponche. These fruits come from various species of Mexican hawthorn trees and taste rather like crabapples, although tejocotes are usually about half the size, with several big, hard seeds. Tart and mealy until cooked, tejocotes produce a pectin that naturally thickens the ponche and are a highly sought-after and 
expensive ingredient during the holidays. 

Though traditional ponche calls for many ingredients, it’s easy to make. I have allowed for a choice of substitutions in my version. You’ll find that tropical fruit nectars add flavor when the more unusual fresh fruits are not available. Dried apricots, prunes, cherries, and apples may be substituted as needed, and a handful of fresh cranberries adds pleasing tartness (see note following recipe).

Ponche Navideño
Traditional Christmas Punch

Serve Mexico’s beloved Christmas punch from clay jarritos or small mugs and spike with your favorite tequila or mezcal—or a splash of both! Provide a spoon for eating the stewed fruit. It’s delicious for a holiday gathering that might include Mexican Wedding Cookies, crispy buñuelos, polvorones (cinnamon-sprinkled sugar cookies), or pan dulce pastries from your favorite Mexican bakery.

  • 1 sugarcane stalk, about 3 feet long, cut into segments with a sharp knife (discard tough or stringy segments; see note)
  • 3 quarts water
  • 2 8-ounce cones of piloncillo or equivalent brown sugar
  • 6 sticks Mexican canela (cinnamon), 3 inches long
  • 2 teaspoons whole allspice berries
  • 1 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 2 teaspoons anise seeds
  • 6 stalks lemongrass, rough outer leaves removed, cut into 3-inch pieces, slightly mashed, optional
  • 10 large tamarindo pods, brittle shell peeled away and fibrous veins removed
  • ½–¾ pound tejocote (see Note)
  • 2 crisp red apples, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1–2 membrillos (quince), or 2 crisp Asian pears, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 pound guayaba (guavas) or assorted dried fruits (see Note)
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 12 plump prunes
  • ¾ cup dried jamaica flowers 
  • 4 fresh allspice or bay leaves, optional
  • Split vanilla pod or splash of Mexican vanilla, optional
  • 3 oranges, sliced
  • 1–2 quarts fruit nectar (such as guava, tamarindo, or unfiltered apple juice)
  • Agave syrup to taste 
  • 1 bottle or more tequila reposado or añejo and/or mezcal
With a sharp, sturdy knife (and caution!), trim away the tough peel of the sugarcane segments; cut each segment into lengthwise pieces about the size of celery sticks and set aside (approx. 25 pieces).

Bring water to boil in a large, heavy stockpot. Add piloncillo, cinnamon sticks, and spices; lower heat slightly. Stir occasionally until piloncillo has melted, about 10 minutes.

Add sugarcane, lemongrass, tamarindo, tejocote, remaining fresh or dried fruits, and 1½ quarts fruit nectar and simmer for nearly an hour, until aromatic and slightly thickened, adding oranges toward the end of cooking. Add more nectar or water as needed.

Turn off heat and preferably let ponche sit for several hours (or overnight). Reheat at a gentle simmer. Ladle piping hot punch into mugs, along with some of the fruit and a piece of sugarcane, and let guests add tequila or mezcal to taste. Guests can chew on the sugarcane segments, discarding the fibrous remains along with seeds, spices, and jamaica flowers in small bowls on the table. Serves approx. 25.

Note: Mexicans usually drop tejocotes whole into the punch and spit out the seeds. Substitute other tart fruits like crabapples when tejocotes aren’t available. You may also find canned tejocotes en miel or almíbar (syrup), but use fresh whenever possible. Often, frozen whole guavas are available during this season.

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 tamarindo (tamarind pods), the tart, sticky pulp of which adds rich flavor and color to the punch.

How about some nontraditional ingredients? Add fresh or dried cranberries, dried cherries or apricots, kumquats, or crabapples. Sometimes I’ll add some crushed, dried red cayenne to liven it up!

Teaser holiday recipes:

Drunken Sugarplum Chutney (page 218) is chocked full of citrus and spice, winter fruit, and drumroll please?….spiked with tequila. Lucinda recommends serving with the ¡Ay Caramba Cheeseball! (page 212), but if you’re feeling particularly festive, forego the food and tack on another libation; shake chutney with ice, MORE tequila, and Cointreau for a fancy holiday cocktail (page 168). 

Get a copy of ¡Viva Tequila! today!

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