The BMW of eggnogs

I have a friend who is the kind of person who is asked to do things like drive a BMW around for a month and write up a few blogs about his experience driving a BMW around. While I’m quite happy not driving a BMW or any other automobile around, I must admit that I would like to be the kind of person about whom someone thinks: “Hey, you know what would be interesting? To have Molly Watson drive a BMW around for a month and write about it.”

So far, however, that it not the case. Instead, I am the kind of person who gets asked to taste eggnog and maybe write that up. It’s better than not being asked to do anything, but it lacks both the glamor and the potential for lifestyle reflection that the BMW experience seems to offer up on a platter.

Alas, I like eggnog. I like eggnog even though when I was a kid my mom always watered it down with skim milk, a practice that now strikes me as vaguely criminal. Though to her credit, she also used to sprinkle the surface with nutmeg, and this was before coffee shops had all kinds of brown ground spices sitting around for sprinkling-on-drinks purposes; nutmeg on eggnog was pretty darn festive. Dust on sweet eggy milk! Merry Christmas!

So I grabbed my purse and, lacking a BMW to test drive, walked down to the Whole Foods near my house to meet up with their public relations person and several other writers (I’m guessing they didn’t arrive in BMWs either, but I’ll confess that I didn’t investigate) to taste through the various eggnogs the store sells this time of year.

One thing about PR people who work in food, as a group they are a one-two punch of generosity. PR folks in general want to make writers and editors and really everyone happy and often go about trying to do that by giving them things; food people tend to be an effusive, hospitable lot; put the two together and you had to sort of know going in that more than just nog would be on offer.

Several cheeses, an orange cake, a turtle tart, some brilliant cranberry membrillo, a few crackers, and several bottles of wine were also on the table. And a ham. You know, as one does.

The ham (Wellshire, $3.99 per pound) sat next to me. Honey-glazed and spiral-cut, it was a ham straight off my grandmother’s annual Christmas make-your-own-sandwich buffet. I have foggy memories of a traditional roast and a set table and the general re-creation of Thanksgiving that was Christmas dinner in the big house on Wooddale Avenue, but then my grandparents got divorced and Gram moved into a townhouse in Bloomington and “didn’t want to go to all that fuss.” As a kid I thought it was brilliant. No more long dinner to slog through before present-opening. Sign me up for ham sandwiches!

So I ate a piece of ham and it was good. Since it was right next to me I managed to snag what I’m sure many would have seen as the slightly overdone piece on the cut-side of the ham. The crispy bits and browned surface were, to this edge-loving girl, perfection. Nice and salty. Left the kind of heightened savory state in my mouth that only eggnog can conquer.

To the nogs!

We started with two non-dairy nogs. We all agreed that the almond milk one had an unpleasant processed flavor and a weird aftertaste that was not at all eggnog-ish. Everyone else liked the coconut milk one. I thought it tasted like eggnog-flavored coconut milk, which it was and which immediately conjured up an image of a big vat of “eggnog flavor” sitting on the shelf at the coconut milk factory and I just wasn’t there. If, however, I didn’t drink dairy and really needed that special Christmas taste that only eggnog can deliver, it would appeal. It didn’t taste bad, I just didn’t like the picture of that flavor vat in my head.

Non-dairy unpleasantness out of the way, we moved on to the real task at hand: which commercially made eggnog sold at the Potrero Hill Whole Foods in San Francisco is the best? Surely many cuticles have been gnawed down to shreds as people wait anxiously for this information.

It must be said, in the spirit of full journalistic disclosure, that I went in with a favorite. I figured I would politely sip whatever eggnogs were poured and then have my deeply held belief that Straus makes the best one confirmed by a jury of my peers.

Pride goeth before the fall!

The best, as unanimously agreed upon my all those present, was Organic Valley. Nutmeg and vanilla in the mix made the difference, as well as the thick and smooth mouth-feel (Such a gross term! Yet so evocative! We food people adore it!) provided by the gellan gum included in the list of ingredients. Straus, by adding neither vanilla nor gellan gum, kept to a more traditional and natural path that, while utterly delicious, simply wasn’t the best on offer.

The good news? We can all save money: a quart of the Organic Valley is $4.99 while a quart of Straus is $6.49.

The bad news? We’ll have to up our intake of gellan gum.

Gellan gum is made by fermenting an aquatic plant. It’s a gelling agent used as a vegan alternative to gelatin and as an additive that keeps the particles suspended in soy milk and the cocoa hanging around evenly in chocolate milk. I’ve never seen it called for in any of the many recipes for homemade eggnog I’ve surveyed over the years.

I’m not positive, of course, but I don’t remember there being any gellan gum in the eggnog Christina Lopez’s stepmom made and paid us $5 an hour to ladle out at her Christmas open house when we were in eighth grade (money we wisely spent on Duran Duran EPs). Whipped cream and whipped egg whites and a custard base and a bottle of brandy were involved, and we had to pour and ladle and stir and then not stir them in a particular order, which is why we were getting the big bucks.

Gellan gum is probably just fine to eat. I know next to nothing other than what the google machine just told me about it, but I tend to eschew the processed and I’m suspicious when foods with more highly processed ingredients are tastier than their non- or minimally processed counterparts. Do they really taste better or were they simply scientifically formulated to make me like them better? What is the difference between those two things? Santa, I’d like an answer.

After all, I’ve spent years waiting for Christmas to roll around so I can buy Straus eggnog. Such an improvement, I always thought, over the thicker, sweeter versions of my childhood (the taste of which is spot-on captured by Clover, $3.99/quart, and which made me think perhaps Mommy Dearest wasn’t so crazy with her skim milk addition to cut that brew a bit). I bet if I’d tasted the Organic Valley on it’s own, far from a sample of Straus, I would have thought “This is really good, it’s almost as good as Straus,” and then looked at the label, seen something I didn’t know what it was, and happily bought Straus the next time I was at the store.

But the side-by-side revealed the lack of vanilla and a slightly thinner, less gellan gum-enhanced texture in Straus. So I’m going to gently suggest two things: First, that Straus throw a few vanilla beans in their eggnog next year and maybe a little more cream to thicken things up (although I think the vanilla was really the key to Organic Valley surging ahead with the crowd of six tasters); second, that the fine folks at Organic Valley make theirs without the gellan gum. Now that would be an eggnog tasting!

Come on guys, you have months to fiddle around with the exact recipe in time to make Christmas 2014 the best ever.