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Punch - the original party drink

During the holidays, trendy punches can bring festivity and frugality to the table

Beth Goulart
To keep your punch retro and keep it chilled, use a bundt pan or a gelatin mold to create an ice ring with fruit embedded.

When my grandmother died, I claimed her punch bowl in the reflexive way I say 'yes, please' to pie on Thanksgiving. I'd admired its pumpkin shape and pretty red teardrop design my whole life. From its position atop the silver chest in my grandparents' dining room, it had presided over countless family Christmases and birthdays. We never drank from it, but I imagined that tiny-waisted ladies wearing wide poodle skirts had. In its hollow chamber, I heard the echoes of fabulous parties past.

If the word 'punch' conjures unappetizing memories of a syrupy puddle of rainbow sherbet oozing into an off-color pool of lemon-lime soda, you're not alone. For many people, punch already seemed anachronistic at the prom and hasn't been seen since. But the holiday season is a great time to dust off your own grandmother's bowl (or adopt an orphaned one from a thrift shop) to give punch another chance. It is economical, festive and a conversation-starter at parties, where people naturally gather around the bowl. And better yet, it's in vogue again.

"Punch is hugely trending right now," local mixologist David Alan, author of the Tipsy Texan blog, told me in an e-mail. "I just got back from NYC and whole bars are being dedicated to punch."

There's even a new book on the subject. In "Punch," published this month (Perigee Trade, $23.95), drinks historian David Wondrich proffers an engaging and thorough history of the beverage long-ago nicknamed "the flowing bowl."

It turns out that our preference for cocktails and wine tastings might have been a mere blip in the long history of human imbibing. But punch is a classic, the cable-knit cardigan neatly folded at the bottom of a stack of this season's cowl-neck sweaters. It's what we return to when trends pass and we remember something that's been there all along.

The British, and in particular British sailors, quaffed punch from the early 1600s, perhaps even giving it its name, an abbreviated form of "puncheon," the type of cask used on ships for transporting rum. Our forefathers drank it from Chinese bowls in colonial American taverns. Another theory about the word's derivation comes from the Hindustani word, "pnch," meaning five, in reference to a classic punch's five ingredients: rum, sugar, lemons, water and spice.

Punch has come a long way from only five ingredients. Today, it refers to pretty much any beverage made in sufficient quantity to fill a punch bowl. But there are a few classic styles. Perhaps the most notorious is Fish House punch, a potent mix of liquors and juice named for an 18th-century Philadelphia gentlemen's club. Punches with milk as a primary ingredient were a precursor to eggnog and offer an egg-less, nostalgic alternative to it. Nonalcoholic punches made from black tea and fruit juices were popular during the 1940s at gatherings like the socials held at my husband's grandmother's college dormitory, Love Hall. And of course there's the fruity, fizzy style of punch that requires at least one 2-liter bottle of soda \u2013 and can be quite refreshing if the sweet is offset with sour juice.

I finally filled my grandmother's punch bowl several years after inheriting it. The first time, for a summertime dinner party, my husband and I served watermelon sangria. Later, for a jewelry trunk show, we used a recipe for fruit punch I found in an old edition of "The Joy of Cooking." In both cases, we saved money by serving punch instead of wine or cocktails. Even better, our guests loved the change — something new, yet actually very old.

At a handful of parties, now, my grandmother's punch bowl has quenched thirst and started conversations in my own home. Most recently, my husband and I filled it along with three others, two borrowed and one picked up at Goodwill, for a punch-and-cookies social. Our dining room is smaller than my grandparents' was, so when it's not in use, the punch bowl lives high on a shelf in a cupboard that also houses table runners and serving platters.

Sometimes when I reach in for a plate, I think I hear new echoes reverberating inside the bowl.

Depending on the size of your punch bowl and the recipe you choose, you might need to store excess punch in a pitcher in the refrigerator, refreshing the bowl as it empties. Serving estimates below assume around two 4-ounce servings per person.

Love Hall Tea

2 cups corn syrup

1/2 cup sugar

5 quarts water

1 2/3 cup strong black tea

2/3 cup orange juice

2/3 cup lemon juice

2 tsps. vanilla extract

2 tsps. almond extract

Bring corn syrup, sugar and water to a boil. After sugar and syrup have dissolved, cool the mixture to room temperature. Add tea, juices and extracts. Chill, then serve over ice. Serves 50.

Frosty on a Blender

2 cups sugar

2 cups spiced rum

1 cup brandy

4 Tbsp. vanilla extract

1 gallon whole milk

pumpkin pie spice, for garnish

In a large plastic or other freezer-proof container, stir together sugar, rum, brandy and vanilla, dissolving most of the sugar. Add milk, then freeze for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Just before serving, remove from freezer and use a wooden spoon to break up any frozen chunks. (If a creamier consistency is desired, you can also run it briefly through a blender.) Serve with a sprinkling of pumpkin pie spice. Serves 40.

Cranberry Sparkler

2 2-liter bottles ginger ale

3/4 cup lemon juice

2 quarts cranberry juice cocktail

1 quart orange juice

orange and lemon slices, for garnish

Pour all ingredients into a punch bowl over ice — cubes or a ring (see sidebar). Serves 60.

Fish House Punch

11/3 cup lemon juice

3 cups sugar

21/2 quarts water

2 cups cognac

1 cup white rum

1 cup peach brandy

Combine all ingredients in a bowl with ice cubes or ring. Serves 35.

— Recipes by Beth Goulart

Making an ice ring

For a final bit of retro flair, make an ice ring to float in your punch bowl: Choose a gelatin mold or bundt pan that will fit in the bowl. Fill it with water, then float a few frozen cranberries, frozen cherries, or fresh orange or lemon slices in the water. Freeze overnight. To unmold, hold the pan upside down under warm running water.