Maria Magdalena Pichardo and her bottles of ponche, also known as coquito.
text and photos by Debralee Santos
If your preference in holiday beverages does not include a thick concoction poured out of a dusty, round canister from the supermarket that your uncle waves under your nose at Christmas dinner, who can blame you?
But step into the next aisle of the same supermarket, where you can stock up on cans of evaporated, condensed and coconut milk, and you might be on your way to making an altogether new holiday drink, one likely to become a favorite.
Coquito, or ponche, is a traditional holiday drink, much like eggnog, that makes its annual appearance this time of year in many Caribbean Latin kitchens, in which amateur “mixologists” with expert hands prepare mammoth batches of the creamy, white elixir for distribution as gifts and, on occasion, for sale. Many fortunate souls with a Dominican or Puerto Rican colleague in the workplace have been pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of the frothy stuff on their desks, awaiting dispensation.
And as is to be expected when there are so many variations, everyone has a recipe, their special, secret method or ingredient, that distinguishes their style of coquito as the very best. People will argue, loudly, about proper consistency, smooth finish, the right spices, the coconut quotient, and of course, the alcohol, usually rum.
Maria Magdalena Pichardo is one such expert on the topic, as she grew up, from a very early age, making ponche, as she calls it, with her extended family in Santiago, in the Dominican Republic.
The holidays have always been a favorite time of year for her, but a bit painful of late.
Magda, as she is affectionately called, has been in the city for the past three years with her husband Kelvin, and now their son Gael, just weeks from celebrating his first birthday.
While she says she’s happy, the transition to New York can be difficult, and she pines openly for her large, extended family of eight siblings and parents, to whom she was exceptionally close, and for the kinds of joyous celebrations that involved the communal, large-scale production of ponche.
“Todo el mundo se envolvía, y por eso, uno lo disfrutaba de verdad [Everyone gets involved, and so you really enjoy it],” she says in her tidy and immaculate kitchen while her son peeks out from under the kitchen table. The lights of the nearby Christmas tree cast a golden glow on her home, which is richly adorned with just-so touches of garland and ribbon.
Once prepared and chilled, the rich drink was poured into decorative bottles, corked, and embellished with ribbon and cards, and then paired with galletitas, sweet wafers, to be brought to neighbors and friends before Christmas Eve.
“Son tradiciones que son sembrados en ti, y se quedan contigo por toda la vida [These are traditions that are rooted in you, and that stay with you for the rest of your life],” she muses while Gael coos in her lap.
Determined to replicate some of that lifelong experience and ease her homesickness, she made her family’s ponche her first year in the city for friends and family, hunting down the right ingredients, and special red bottles, throughout the city and even online.
The gifts were distributed to wide acclaim, with people asking where they could order more.
“Me sorprendio, pero a la gente le encanto [I was surprised, people loved it so],” she says.
She has not stopped making it since, with orders coming in early October, and not stopping until well past the New Year.
Magdalena, and her ponche, have arrived.
Recipe for El Ponche (o Coquito) de Magdalena
Serving: 2 full 750-ml bottles (equivalent to 2 bottles of wine)
Note: you might want to prepare it in smaller batches, depending on the size of your blender.
2 cans of whole evaporated milk (preferably Carnation brand)
1 can of condensed milk
1 can of coconut milk
6 egg yolks
3 large cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg (or more, to taste)
2 cups of rum (preferably Bacardi White)
4-5 pieces of sliced fresh ginger, large pieces
Pour all milk and egg yolks into blender.
Pulse until well blended.
Pour into large pot and add cinnamon sticks and nutmeg.
Bring liquid to a simmer while constantly stirring, for about 15-20 minutes, until the consistency of the liquid has firmed up a bit and resembles the consistency of eggnog.
Let cool on stovetop. Do not cover.
Once cooled, add rum.
Add fresh ginger.
Refrigerate overnight, if possible.
The ponche is ready to serve, or be bottled – without ginger pieces.
Serve in glasses with a sprinkle of nutmeg as garnish, or in bottles as gifts.
For more information or ponche, email