Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Micawber's Punch: From Charles Dickens's own recipe

I spoke in the post about egg-hot how much I like Mr. Micawber, the suicidal bon vivant from David Copperfield. Micawber is dirt poor, in and out of debtor's prison, but lives in expectation that "something will turn up."

He is subject to dismal periods of misery, and is something of a windbag, but he's still the life of every party, always able to make a bad situation better, whether it's by making friends in prison or turning a badly burned dinner into a "devil" (ie, spicing up the burned roast and making it edible). His suggestion of doing this when David's hopeless young wife screws up the dinner gives a good sample of how Micawber talks: "If you will allow me to take the liberty of remarking that there are few comestibles better, in their way, than a Devil, and that I believe, with a little division of labour, we could accomplish a good one if the young person in attendance could produce a gridiron, I would put it to you, that this little misfortune may be easily repaired.”

Micawber is also an expert punch maker, as was Dickens himself. Punch was generally out of fashion in the Victorian era, but Dickens was often a traditionalist when it came to drinking, and often made a show out of making punch at parties. At the same party above, Micawber demonstrates, just after letting it be known that his own water supply has just been cut off:

To divert his thoughts from this melancholy subject, I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Micawber seems to be making punch from Dickens's own recipe, which he detailed in an 1847 letter:

Peel into a very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner's peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double-handfull [sic] of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy — if it not be a large claret-glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. [L]et it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to Time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again. At this crisis (having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon) you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one quarter of an hour.  Keep it until it comes to table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours, take half the lemon-peel out, or it will acquire a bitter taste.  The same punch allowed to cool by degrees, and then iced, is delicious. It requires less sugar when made for this purpose. If you wish to produce it bright, strain it into bottles through silk. These proportions and directions will, of course, apply to any quantity.

Most notable here, of course, is the part where you SET THE DRINK ON FIRE.  And did we ever!

Mr. Micawber's Punch:
1 pint of rum
1 wine-glass of brandy
1 cup of sugar
1 liter/quart of boiling water
3 lemons.

I was joined for this one by Michael Glover Smith, with whom I recently wrote a book, Flickering Empire, which is all about the silent film biz in Chicago; the first known film version of A Christmas Carol was made here (the book will be out this year from KWS press).  The two of us split the labor in peeling the lemons; a bowl of fresh lemon peel and sugar smells quite tasty. 

Into this bowl of lemon peel and sugar, one pours the brandy and rum. Dickens favored very fancy cognac for the brandy, but I can't imagine that young David Copperfield would have had that in stock. We used low-end brandy and Bacardi Gold rum, which didn't break the bank but still tasted good.

 Now comes the reall cool part - setting it on fire! 

The Missus made us take the bowl outside for this part. The recommended way to set a bowl of booze on fire is to scoop up a spoonful and set THAT on fire, then pour the flaming spoonful into the bowl. This didn't work for me - like mixing eggs into drinks without creating a tankard full of scrambled eggs, it's the kind of thing one has to practice a bit. Eventually, I set fire to some wax paper and just lowered it into the whole bowl. After a couple of tries, we had a flaming bowl that was, in a word, awesome. We probably could have done it indoors, really, though you can do this at your own risk (edit to add: just lighting some in a spoon then pouring it into the bowl worked like a charm indoors when we tried it again the next week).

It should be noted that no one I talked to thought this would burn - the rum and brandy were both 80 proof, and apparently you should have a higher alcohol content to set booze on fire. The lemon peel and sugar probably helped. In any case, the photo is living proof that the stuff WILL burn using 80 proof liquors. 
Leave it burning for 3-4 minutes (during which time I assure you the novelty does not wear off), then extinguish the fire simply by putting the lid onto the bowl (or crock, in our case), and take the whole thing back inside and brag to the Missus that you did, in fact, manage not to kill yourself or start another Great Chicago Fire. 

Add a quart or so of boiling water, and squeeze in juice from the lemons (I used large lemons, and, hence only used the juice of about half of them), allow it to simmer for a bit, then enjoy! 

This is a really delicious drink - it tastes like a lemony black tea. It has a bit of a kick to it, but one that sneaks up on you. After a few sips I was a bit concerned that maybe setting fire to it had burned away all the alcohol, and realized I'd have to figure out whether or not it had the old fashioned way - by drinking a few glasses and seeing if I felt the effects. I did, by the way.  It would be a fine drink for a party - fun to make, fun to drink! 

Mike remarked that one could taste every part of it - you could taste the sugar, the rum, the brandy and the lemon all distinctly. When I think of punch, I think strictly of Hawaiian punch and other such red drinks that taste delicious, but like nothing that occurs in nature. This was a whole new kind of punch for me, and a tasty one. We will be making this one again soon! Here we are, looking appropriately old-fashioned and enjoying the punch:

It is, in fact, also very good iced. There was some left over that I saved for the next day and poured over ice. It does get a little bit sweeter, making it seem like a very hard lemonade. I think the iced version would make a fine summer drink, but the hot version is perfect for winter.

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