In Mexico, the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th (see previous post) traditionally served as a natural overture for the Christmas season (nowadays, the shopping season begins on the third week of November, but that is a different story). As a child and teenager in Mexico City, I was always ready to participate in all related errands and family activities. First, a trip to the presses in Santo Domingo with my older sister, to order our personalized Christmas cards (it was very fashionable to have your name printed on the cards, along with the holiday greeting of your choice.) Christmas ornaments, clay tableware, or replacements for broken figurines from our Nativity set were found at the Mercado de Sonora while shopping in the downtown area with my mom. Checking out the Christmas light displays along Paseo de la Reforma (AKA “Mexico’s Champs-Élysées”) was in my dad’s department. In addition, Las Posadas (literally, “The Inns”) took place every night – starting on December 16th until Christmas Eve – to recreate the journey of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph to Bethlehem, and the negative response of the inn keepers (hence the name), leading to the seemingly incongruous Nativity scene in a humble stable; this practice started in colonial times when priests prepared short plays to illustrate biblical events to the newly converted natives in Mexico – who were just learning Spanish – similar to the Medieval plays in Europe used to educate the mostly illiterate congregations of those times. A lively gathering, including piñatas, music, and of course, seasonal food, has become a big part of any Posada evening. The menu usually includes fruit, candy and a couple of Mexican antojitos (tamales, quesadillas, etc.)
The most popular hot drink to enjoy during the season, after a busy day out, or at a Posada, is indubitably ponche navideño (Christmas punch), flavoured with seasonal fruit and spices, and sweetened with piloncillo (raw brown sugar). As always, there are many versions of this recipe, according to personal taste, or availability of ingredients; I am sharing a traditional one, with some substitutions for hard to find items.
Mexican Christmas Punch – Ponche navideño
Ingredients (for 6-8 portions)
6 cups water
¼ cup dry hibiscus flowers (called jamaica in Mexico; or 1 hibiscus tea bag, or ¼ cup fresh or frozen cranberries)
2 pods tamarind (or ¼ cup fresh or frozen cranberries, or omit)
1 stick cinnamon
2 cones piloncillo (or 1 1/3 cups brown sugar; or as needed)
1 cup Mexican hawthorns (tejocotes, in Spanish, scientific name Crataegus mexicana; or ½ cup fresh or frozen cranberries)
4 guavas (or an extra apple)
1 fresh sugar cane; peeled and cut into sticks (or omit and add extra sweetener)
¼ cup raisins
Optional: Brandy, or rum, to taste
(Photo, from top: hibiscus flowers, cinnamon stick, and tamarind pods, with cloves to the right). The hibiscus and tamarind are used for their citrusy flavour and to add colour. The tamarind shells are hard and should be removed (bottom pod partially peeled). This ponche must be spiced, so cinnamon and cloves are always included, but the quantities may be modified to taste.
As I have mentioned before, piloncillo is an unrefined sugar often formed into cones; I cannot find it consistently in my area, but brown sugar works fine in this recipe. The amount needed will vary depending on personal taste, but also on the particular sweetness of the fruit being used (for example, I could not find fresh sugar cane). I am labelling the ingredients in English and Spanish in the photo below, since they may be known by different names. I could not find Mexican hawthorns (tejocotes), but fresh or frozen cranberries work really well; I think I actually prefer them, since tejocotes tend to have a mushy texture I do not particularly like. In addition, cranberries provide a nice red colour and citrusy flavour, so if hibiscus and tamarind are not available, using an extra ½ cup of cranberries instead will make up for those ingredients:
Trim edges from guavas and slice into wedges; peel apple, remove core and slice into thin wedges; reserve:
Bring water to boil in a large pot over high heat; pour two cups into a heatproof container, and add hibiscus, peeled tamarind (or extra cranberries) and cloves; reserve this infusion (photo below, left). Continue boiling the rest of the water in the pot; add cinnamon and 1 cone of piloncillo (or 2/3 cup of sugar, photo below, middle). Once the sweetener has dissolved, add hawthorns (or ½ cup cranberries, photo below, right):
After a couple of minutes, add the apples, then the guavas (photo below, left), followed by the sugar cane sticks (if using), the prunes (photo below, middle) and the raisins (photo below, right):
After ten minutes of simmering, start checking the fruit, and continue cooking until it is tender (photo below, left). Once all the fruit is cooked, add reserved infusion, pouring through a mesh (photo below, middle); discard solids collected in the mesh. Stir the ponche, and taste; adjust sweetness, by adding more piloncillo (or sugar, photo below, right), and tasting after each addition. I added 2/3 cup extra sugar (for a total of 1 1/3 cups of sugar):
Scoop a sampler of fruit in mugs, fill with the hot liquid, and let each grown up add a splash of brandy, rum or any other alcoholic spirit to their own mug, to taste. In Mexico, this last addition is called “el piquete” (the sting), and it is usually done individually so everyone may enjoy a hot beverage, including children:
When sugar cane is included, the stick is used as a tool to scoop the fruit while drinking ponche; I placed the cinnamon stick in the mug above, to illustrate the technique. Small spoons or popsicle sticks are good alternatives, as well.