Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dipping into the punch bowl

(This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Weekend section of the August 27 & 28, 2005 print edition of The Washington Examiner, page 4; reposted here mostly to maintain a record and fill space.)

If wedding bells are in the air, at some point you will need to discuss the wedding reception. As a wedding is one of the most festive moments in one’s life, the drinks that will fuel the party can be very important. Indeed, in a sense the alcohol offered can help determine the tone of the occasion. A wonderful tradition, either as the primary libation or as general crowd pleaser, is the proverbial bowl of punch.

Dating back to at least the mid-17th century, punch has a long and varied history. Hailing loosely from South Asia where it was probably concocted by European Colonials and adventurers, punch was the first mixed alcoholic drink to attain international popularity. The name “punch” is said to come from the Hindi word “Panch” or “five,” in reference to the five classical ingredients (spirit, sugar, tea or water, spice and citrus fruit juice). Obviously, things have changed, and today punches can contain more than a dozen ingredients.

Here are some basics to help ensure that the flowing punch bowl you choose to have at your wedding exudes the desired look, tastes good and refreshing, and carries enough vim to your guests to be regarded not just as “punch” but as “punch!”

First, strive for the best ingredients your budget will comfortably allow. Don’t go hog-wild on the wines or spirits, however, as the subtler and more delicate charms of some the most expensive brands would be entirely lost in the mix. In the case of fruit juices, strive to use only fresh fruits, freshly squeezed — there are only a few exceptions, such as pineapple, mango, papaya or cranberry, where commercial juice brands are generally perfectly acceptable for mixed-drink applications.

Second, don’t overdo it on the variety or quantity of booze being poured into the punch bowl. Make certain that the chosen liquors will all go together harmoniously and that the alcoholic strength of the punch will be appropriate to the mix and the occasion. Think of your punch as simply a cocktail with various fruit juices and/or liqueurs that is being made in large quantities — like the cosmopolitan, the margarita, the whisky sour, the daiquiri, the sidecar, the fuzzy naval, the mojito, the mint julep, etc. The recipes will obviously need adjustment for punch application, but the basic idea is the same. Always strive for balance.

Third, for the festivities to stay warm, the punch must stay cold. All ingredients should be pre-chilled. The warmer the punch, the faster the ice will melt and the sooner the mix will taste diluted. Ideally, you should also pre-chill the serving bowl. Use a large, solid block of ice in the punch bowl rather than ice cubes. The ice block will help keep the punch icy cold with a minimum of dilution. Indeed, use the largest block of ice the punch bowl will accommodate. Also, make sure to use only clean ice that is free of any foreign odors or flavors.

If you have trouble obtaining a suitably large and clean block of ice, make one. Thoroughly wash clean a juice or milk carton or cake ring mold, add water and place in the freezer. When ready to serve the punch, simply peel away the sides of the juice or milk carton from the ice block, or slip the block from the mold.

Fourth, a flat punch is a drab punch, so add your carbonated elements, if any, absolutely last, just before service. Obviously, this should also be pre-chilled. If this is the primary ingredient and there is little to make in advance, make sure everything is damned cold before mixing for service.

When the punch is ready to be served, pour the mixture over ice in the punch bowl, and then add the soda and/or Champagne — all of which has been pre-chilled. Stir briefly with the label before and occasionally during the serving, as this will help maintain uniform consistency.

When the punch bowl is nearly empty, have a replacement ready prepared exactly as before, with everything pre-chilled. Otherwise guests will think the party’s over when the bowl runs dry. Generally, each quart of punch will serve four guests, at two 4-ounce cups per guest.

Finally, while presentation isn’t everything, it is truly important to a wedding, so give this some thought. Choose a punch bowl that is practical but appropriate and handsome — crystal, glass, ceramic, whatever fits with the overall schema of your wedding reception. The same is true of the cups or glasses out of which your guests will drink the punch.

Punches invite experimentation, but here is one particularly easy classic to get the ball rolling.

Champagne Punch:

For each bottle of brut Champagne you wish to use add 1 1/2 ounces of brandy, 1 1/2 ounces of Cointreau or Triple Sec, 1 bottle of club soda, the rind of 1 thinly cut orange and just a smidgen, if any, of bar sugar (according to taste). Pour all this into a prechilled punch bowl containing a large block of ice. If you wish, decorate with sliced fresh pineapple and orange and plenty of fresh mint. Many feel that crushed fresh strawberries will “add a gala touch.” As you please.

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