Charles Dickens’s Punch

“‘But punch, my dear Copperfield,’ said Mr. Micawber, tasting it, ‘like time and tide, waits for no man.'” -Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850.

Author Charles Dickens was well known for his love of punch; both he and the characters in his novels frequently mixed up a bowl. Punch in the 18th and 19th centuries was very different from the watery fruit juice punches sometimes served today. It was always alcoholic – sometimes very much so – and often served warm. Since it was usually made in large quantities, it was a social drink meant to be shared with others. Dickens was known for turning his punch-making into a performance, doing the whole process along with a running commentary in front of his guests. This recipe comes from a letter he sent in 1847 to the sister of a friend. Since it involves dramatically lighting the punch on fire and letting it burn for several minutes, this would have been the perfect performance piece to impress his friends.

Mr. Micawber, 1873, by Edward Sherard Kennedy. Charles Dickens Museum, London. http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mr-micawber-191235 Mr. Micawber is a character in David Copperfield, who famously makes punch on several occasions throughout the novel.

Original recipe from Dickens:

“TO MAKE THREE PINTS OF PUNCH

Peel into a very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double-handfull of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy — if it not be a large claret-glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. [L]et it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to Time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again. At this crisis (having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon) you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours, take half the lemon-peel out, or it will acquire a bitter taste. The same punch allowed to cool by degrees, and then iced, is delicious. It requires less sugar when made for this purpose. If you wish to produce it bright, strain it into bottles through silk. These proportions and directions will, of course, apply to any quantity.”

SOURCE : Letter from Charles Dickens to “Mrs. F.” (Amelia Austin Filloneau), January 18, 1847.

Recipe with modern measurements:

  • 3 lemons
  • 6 oz demerara sugar
  • 16 oz rum (I used a mix of El Dorado 15 and Smith & Cross)
  • 10 oz cognac (I used Pierre Ferrand Ambre)
  • 40 oz boiling water
  1. Pare the peel of the lemons very thinly and place them in your least favorite heatproof pot (I used my mother’s – the scorch marks eventually scrubbed off).
  2. Add the sugar, rum, and brandy. I followed drink historian David Wondrich’s suggestion to use 16 ounces of rum and 10 ounces of brandy, although Dickens’s original instructions state to use 20 ounces of rum and 6 ounces of brandy.
  3. Scoop out a spoonful of the alcohol with a metal spoon, and carefully light it on fire (we discovered that Dickens’s instructions to use a warm spoon are accurate – the alcohol will light better if it is warm. It might also help to gently heat the rest of the alcohol in the pot first).
  4. Gently pour the flaming contents of the spoon back into the pot. Once the rest of the pot is on fire, let it burn for about three to four minutes (Dickens says to stir it occasionally during this time, but I left it alone – I didn’t have a metal spoon long enough to safely reach through the flames).
  5. After three or four minutes, extinguish the flames by covering the pot with a lid.
  6. Squeeze in the juice of the three lemons and add the boiling water.
  7. Stir well, then cover up the pot and let it sit for five minutes.
  8. At this point, taste to see if the punch needs more sugar.
  9. Turn the heat on low and warm the punch for about 15 minutes.
  10. Strain out the lemon peel and serve.

Tasting notes:

The most difficult part of this recipe, for me, was setting the punch on fire. Alcohol lights better when it’s warm, and all my punch ingredients had been sitting in a cold room just before I used them. It would probably have helped to gently warm the punch on the stove first; but if you try this, make sure to turn off the stove before lighting anything on fire, as a safety precaution. Definitely follow Dickens’s instructions to light the alcohol in a spoon first rather than trying to light it directly in the pot; the flames went higher than the edge of the pot once they got started, and it would not be good to have your hand in there.

Charles Dickens knew his stuff; this punch is delicious. I made it on Christmas Eve, and so was able to drink it during my annual watching of A Christmas Carol (another Dickens story in which punch is mentioned several times). The punch is good both warm and cold. Especially when it’s cold, the flavor reminds me of an Arnold Palmer – it tastes like lemon and tea, even though there’s no tea in it. It was also delicious mixed 50-50 with hot apple cider, if you want to dilute the alcohol a bit.

Since I’m always down for setting tasty things on fire (see Christmas Pudding), this recipe may well become a favorite.

References:

Dickens, C. (1850). David Copperfield. London: Chapman & Hall. https://archive.org/details/personalhistoryo00dickiala/page/n381/mode/2up?view=theater

Wondrich, D. (2010). Punch: The delights (and dangers) of the flowing bowl. New York: Penguin.

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