IMAGINE IT’S 1683, and you live in England. You might be in the throes of the Age of Enlightenment, but the state of medicine is still downright medieval, so when you or your loved ones are afflicted with sleeplessness, or indigestion, or hangovers, or even low libido, you could make a trip to the barber-surgeon, or you could mix up a home remedy.
In this old English era, when periwigs are just coming into fashion and alcohol is the medicine of the day, you definitely have a family recipe for something called a posset.
So you wake up early, duck your head into the chicken coop and collect some eggs, and then you go out to the stable and coax a pail of milk from the family cow. You skim off the cream. Normally, you’d save this to thicken the porridge, but today, it has a more important use.
After laboriously kindling a fire, you heat the eggs and cream together, gently. Then you stir it constantly, so it doesn’t scald, and you begin to prepare the other ingredients.
First, you need alcohol — there’s always plenty of ale around, of course, and several bottles of fortified wine; either will do (or even hard liquor, if you can get it). The recipe you’ve learned includes spices, which are expensive, but needs must, and family lore says the handy posset preserved your father’s father’s father’s relatives from the plague back in what will one day be called “the Dark Ages.”
So you pull out the spice chest, locked against theft (spices are as precious as gems) and grind carefully measured grams of exotic cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, along with some more homely anise and a bit of ginger root. You’ve heard some people even make their possets with ambergris or powdered gold (for some fun historical recipes, take just a brief break from our imaginary non-online-world exercise to check this out.
Mix all that together with a sweetener (honey is popular, but now that sugar is available, that works, too), and then take the simmering milk-and-egg mixture off the stove and pour it over, and stir. If all goes well, the alcohol will make the cream curdle.
The end result is very similar to eggnog, except a bit chunkier with the curdled cream — not an appetizing prospect normally, but exactly what is called for in a posset.
You might raise an eyebrow at something prescribed as a virtual cure-all: for sore eyes, for infections, and as a preserver of youth and beauty. But these old days, people say the same thing about bleeding, and possets are far more palatable. Just be careful: If your possets are too efficacious (i.e., they work sometimes), you might be tempted to sell them as a side business, which could land you on trial for witchcraft. Still, possets are mentioned several times in the plays of Shakespeare, so at least you know it’s the cultured thing to do.
Nowadays, a Google search for possets pulls up recipes for eggy, spicy, custardlike desserts, often with a little booze in the ingredients. These could work and, if you must be historically accurate, grind a few of your pearls into the mix, and tell yourself it will keep you young forever.