If there is anything that can drive away the chills and ills of a dark January day, it is a posset. Why is that, you may ask, or even, what is that? Shakespeare wrote of possets most famously in the scene where Lady Macbeth gave the king’s guards drugged possets to make sure they were asleep for Macbeth to kill the king. Samuel Pepys mentioned eating or drinking a sack-posset at least ten times between 1660 and 1668 in his diary. Often his posset was part of a late night supper or a remedy for an illness or a hangover.
So what exactly is a posset? At its simplest, it is a warm drink/dessert traditionally made of cream, eggs, and alcohol, often flavored with nutmeg. Think warm egg-nog. Twenty-first century possets are often flavored with anything from lemon to chocolate, but we’ll stick to the possets of the 18th century and before. To be sure there are many drinks made with milk or cream and eggs, so what makes a posset different from a syllabub or a cawdel or even gruel (see earlier post). Actually not a lot. All are variations of custards, with a few differences in thickness, richness, and temperature.
My own interest in possets stems from its similarity to eggnog. I have always loved homemade eggnog (much more than the thick, overly sweet kind you find in the store.) My fondness for eggnog might have started when I was a baby, and the doctor told Mom to put egg yolks in my milk since I didn’t much like eating. In any case, I grew up on homemade eggnog, made with milk, raw eggs, a bit of sugar, nutmeg, and rum flavoring. (Never any real alcohol.) I also gave my kids eggnog. Then health officials began talking about how bad it was to eat (or in my case, drink) raw eggs, and my beloved eggnog was purged from my diet.
But possets, using more or less the same ingredients, are cooked, so the problem of raw eggs is eliminated. The alcohol curdles the dish, while the egg or egg yolks thicken it. Taken warm, a posset is thin enough to drink. It thickens as it cools, which is why several sources refer to ‘eating’ the posset rather than drinking it. Posset pots were specially made with a spout so the liquid settling to the bottom could be drunk, while the more solid, custardy part could be eaten with a spoon.
I used a recipe from Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery that called for a quart of cream, a half pound of sugar, a half pint of sack (similar to sherry), 7 whole eggs and 7 additional yolks, nutmeg and musk (from the scent glands of a male deer, many species of which are endangered) or ambergreece (produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and illegal in the United States). Since not all posset recipes called for the musk and ambergreece (ambergris), and since obtaining such ingredients would be not only illegal but quite difficult, I decided to leave them out of my own version. The recipe calls for warming the sack, then stirring in the eggs, sugar, and nutmeg. Finally the cream is poured into the mixture and cooked on low until it is thickened. Some recipes suggest strewing cinnamon on top before serving.
Fourteen eggs to make myself a drink or dessert seemed excessive, so I reduced the recipe, and used the following.
Posset #1 1 c. cream ¼ c. sherry ¼ c. sugar 3 whole eggs ½ t. Nutmeg A sprinkle of cinnamon. Mix the sherry, sugar, eggs and nutmeg. Beat well until the mixture is smooth and frothy. Heat slowly until it thickens. Add the cream and continue heating, stirring constantly. When the mixture is thick enough coat a spoon, pour into a cup. Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve.
At this point the mixture is still liquid. The result is very sweet and very rich. This recipe makes at least two servings. I put half of the mixture in the refrigerator. By the next day, it had thickened to a very rich, sweet custard that I ate with a spoon. Both the warm drink and the cooled custard had a slightly curdled texture. It was delicious either warm or cold, but so rich, I couldn’t imagine having it often.
So how to enjoy a more modern (moderate) posset today? I decided to use my own eggnog recipe, but cook it like a custard to solve the stricture against raw eggs.
Posset #2 1 c. milk (I used skim) 2 T. sugar 1 whole egg ½ t. Nutmeg 2 T. sherry. Mix all ingredients in a small saucepan. Whip until smooth and frothy. Cook on low heat until the mixture thickens. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Drink warm or cooled. Like the possets of previous centuries, the result has a slightly curdled texture and a delicious flavor.
As a mid-winter treat, this really hits the spot. Enjoy.
Sources: —–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)