When it comes to eggnog, I have a narrow standard. There is my homemade nog, and then there is every other nog. Mine calls for a mountain of sugar, a river of raw egg yolks, a torrent of bourbon and a deluge of whipping cream.
It is not politically correct or nutritionally correct. Because it uses raw egg yolks - thereby exposing imbibers to a small risk of salmonella - many dietitians consider it forbidden fare, especially for anyone with a weak immune system. (You can, I am told, substitute pasteurized eggs.)
Yet until recently store-bought eggnog had not entered my home. I regarded this as a badge of honor. But the other day, during a little talk I had with my inner holiday demons, I told myself, in effect, to loosen up, to try something new. So I went on an eggnog odyssey, driving around town picking up a half-dozen containers of store-bought eggnog.
I brought them home, shook them well, poured them into crystal glasses and, along with my wife, had a tasting session, a nog-off in the dining room. Some of these store-boughts were surprisingly good. The High's eggnog ($2.45 a quart) was exceptionally creamy and lightly spiced. The Cloverland eggnog ($3.99 a half-gallon) was remarkably refreshing and strong on the nutmeg. I liked it, and my wife, a fan of nutmeg, loved it.
It pleased me that the two favorite nogs, High's and Cloverland, were from local operations. High's is based in Hanover. Cloverland is based in Baltimore. Love your local cows, I say.
However, acquiring these locally made nogs had presented some challenges. High's eggnog has a loyal following in the Baltimore area. The recipe is 60 years old and a secret, William Darnell, chief executive officer of High's, told me in a brief telephone interview.
Eggnog production starts three weeks before Thanksgiving and stops early in January, he said. In December, the eggnog tends to disappear from store shelves almost as fast as it is stocked.
After I phoned a couple of High's stores, the one at 3301 E. Joppa Road in Baltimore County reported it had some eggnog in its cooler, at least at that moment. By the time I got there, at midafternoon on a Monday, only two quarts of eggnog were left in the store.
High's eggnog ice cream, which many holiday hosts drop in their punch bowls along with the liquid nog, was also hard to find. I grabbed some, but only after an extensive search found half-gallons of the eggnog hiding among the chocolate chip.
As I headed back into Baltimore in rush-hour traffic, the setting sun ignited the sky in a burst of crimson glory, impressing and occasionally blinding us drivers. Thanks to the sunset, I missed spotting the light on my dashboard that was warning that I was about to run out of gas.
How long, I wondered, had it been on? Would I run out of gas on the expressway? I pulled over to the slowest lane of traffic and eased off the accelerator. I made it to my next stop, the Royal Farms store near 41st Street and Falls Road.
After gassing up at the fuel pump in front of the store, I walked inside and grabbed one of the two remaining half-gallons of Cloverland eggnog. The nog cost about four times more than a gallon of gas. But it was fuel for the yule, and that made it worth it.
My notion of loving only the locals faded when I tasted the Southern Comfort Vanilla Spice Flavored Eggnog ($2.79 a quart). The recipe for this nog, made with cinnamon and vanilla, came from New Orleans, the label on the carton stated. The dairy, HP Hood, is based in Chelsea, Mass.
Even though this recipe came from the South and was made with milk from Northern cows, this was good nog. It might have been a geographic muddle, but it was a pleasing drink that reminded me of a vanilla milkshake.
The three other nogs, Turkey Hill from Conestoga, Pa. ($1.29 a pint), Rutter's from York, Pa. ($1.49 a pint) and Food Lion Old Fashioned Eggnog from Salisbury, N.C. ($1.59), were also-rans.
Because this is a season of good cheer, I found something nice to say about each nog. The Turkey Hill had shy flavors. While this understated style put me off it would, I bet, make it good nog for beginners.
The Rutter's was the sweetest, too sweet for me. But then again, I can be a sour sort. The Food Lion nog was the least expensive, and had traveled the greatest distance, about 350 miles from the plant in Salisbury to the Food Lion store on Walther Boulevard in Perry Hall, to be here for the holidays.
I still believe there is nothing equal to my homemade nog for delivering the authentic flavor of the holidays. But I have to admit that a few of these store-bought nogs are pretty good pretenders.
Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.
World's Greatest Eggnog
Makes 8 to 10 cups
2 cups bourbon
1 1/8 cups sugar
6 egg yolks, beaten
4 cups whipping cream
Blend bourbon and sugar in mixing bowl. Let sit overnight. Beat egg yolks until they approach viscous yellow bliss. Add to bourbon mixture. Mix well. Cover and let sit in refrigerator at least 2 hours. Whip cream and add to bourbon mixture. Nog starts off very creamy and becomes soupy the longer it survives.
Per serving (based on 10 servings): 523 calories; 4 grams protein; 38 grams fat; 23 grams saturated fat; 26 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 253 milligrams cholesterol; 41 milligrams sodium