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Alton Brown on the History of Eggnog

Our resident food expert spills the history of his favorite creamy holiday libation.

• Eggnog is technically stirred custard—a mixture of dairy and eggs. It’s almost identical to ice cream, except that in most cases it contains too much alcohol to freeze.

• Although it can be cooked to kill off any possible salmonella and to thicken the mix, such thermal activity also deactivates the egg enzymes that give “real” eggnog its je ne sais quoi.

• As far back as the late 17th century, the term “nog” referred to a style of strong beer brewed in East Anglia, while a “noggin” was a small cup or mug that could be used for imbibing nog.

• Most culinary anthropologists believe modern eggnog descended from a thick, boozy, late-medieval concoction called posset that was composed of hot milk and hooch enhanced with whatever spice the lord of the castle had on hand.

• Egg-based drinks found new popularity in the American colonies, where nearly everyone had access to cows, chickens, and rum.

Nutritious and relatively stable, eggnog was our first health drink. If you ask me, sipping it is our patriotic duty.

• Although bourbon is the modern nog spirit, rum was the liquor of choice in colonial days.

• Today’s serious nogsters are into aging. After nog spends six months to a year in the fridge, a curious chemical collusion takes place as egg proteins, alcohol, and milk sugars slowly join forces. The resulting elixir tastes not of eggs, milk, sugar, or booze but simply of eggnog.

• Don’t worry too much about safety. As long as your brew contains at least 20 percent alcohol and is stored below 40°F for at least a month, any microbial nasties that might haunt your innards should be nice and dead.

Alton Brown’s Nog of Ages

Recipe courtesy Alton Brown, 2012

12 large chicken eggs (see note)
1 pound sugar
1 pint half n half (see the other note)
1 pint whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup jamaican rum
1 cup cognac
1 cup bourbon
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (plus more for serving)
1/4 tsp kosher salt

• Separate the eggs and store the whites for another purpose

• Beat the yolks with the sugar and nutmeg in a large mixing bowl until the mixture lightens in color and falls off the whisk in a solid “ribbon.”

• Combine dairy, booze, and salt in a second bowl or pitcher and then slowly beat into the egg mixture.

• Move to a large glass jar (or a couple of smaller ones) and store in the fridge for a minimum of 2 weeks. A month would be better, and two better still. In fact, there’s nothing that says you couldn’t age it a year but I’ve just never been able to wait that long.

• Serve in mugs or cups topped with a little extra nutmeg grated right on top.

Note on eggs: Although my research tells me it’s very likely the alcohol will kill off any microbial baddies present from the eggs, if you have any doubts at all or if you’re going to be serving the elderly or someone with an immune disorder, buy yourself some peace of mind and simply use pasteurized shell eggs. They’re available these days at most mega-marts.

Note on dairy: I’m super picky about the texture of my eggnog and find that the combination listed gets me what I’m looking for. That said, if you don’t want to bother (or if you’re not as picky) just go with a quart of half and half and call it a day.

And one more note: Yeah, it’s a lot of booze but the longer the nog ages, the more mellow it will get.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Now go download our new iPad app! Or get a free issue of mental_floss magazine via mail. Want more Alton? Check out his recipes at mentalfloss.com/alton.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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History
Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia
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Animals
New Plankton Species Named After Sir David Attenborough Series Blue Planet
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia

At least 19 creatures, both living and extinct, have been named after iconic British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Now, for the first time, one of his documentary series will receive the same honor. As the BBC reports, a newly discovered phytoplankton shares its name with the award-winning BBC series Blue Planet.

The second half of the species' name, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, is Latin for "blue planet," likely making it the first creature to derive its name from a television program. The single-cell organisms are just thousandths of a millimeter wide, thinner than a human hair, but their massive blooms on the ocean's surface can be seen from space. Called coccolithophores, the plankton serve as a food source for various marine life and are a vital marker scientists use to gauge the effects of climate change on the sea. The plankton's discovery, by researchers at University College London (UCL) and institutions in Spain and Japan, is detailed in a paper [PDF] published in the Journal of Nannoplankton Research.

"They are an essential element in the whole cycle of oxygen production and carbon dioxide and all the rest of it, and you mess about with this sort of thing, and the echoes and the reverberations and the consequences extend throughout the atmosphere," Attenborough said while accepting the honor at UCL.

The Blue Planet premiered in 2001 with eight episodes, each dedicated to a different part of the world's oceans. The series' success inspired a sequel series, Blue Planet II, that debuted on the BBC last year.

[h/t BBC]

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