Holiday drinks are as much a part of the celebratory season as Christmas trees, blinking lights and presents. At my house, Mexican Christmas punch, ponche navideño, is part of my festive repertoire.
Ponche (pronounced "pon-chay") is a hot sweet and sour punch served with or without alcohol during the holiday season in many Mexican and Latin American homes. It is also customary during Las Posadas — a nine-night (Dec. 16–24) festive re-enactment of Mary and Joseph seeking refuge, and an event that also involves the sharing of food and drink.
Much to my dismay, ponche was not a part of my family's holiday festivities when I was growing up. It's not because we weren't Catholic but more likely because the ingredients to make ponche were hard to find in the rural Western Nebraska town where I was raised four decades ago. There were fewer Mexican and Mexican American families living in the area then, and no mercados with such specialty items.
Instead, I was introduced to this calientito (warm, spiced drink) in my 20s, when I lived in Austin, Texas, and attended many a holiday gathering with friends where the merriment of Christmas and New Year included foods like tamales, pozole, bunuelos and ponche.
Ponche navideño is made of fresh and dried fruit and spices. It's like a hot sangria — almost anything goes with ingredients. However, a few things are essential to most: tejocotes, guava, jamaica and tamarindo. The rest vary by cook's choice, family tradition and availability, with substitutions like apricots, kumquats, pears, quince, lemon and raisins for the fruit, and brown sugar, light molasses, honey or agave for the sweetener.
Give it a try, if you want a warm drink to raise this holiday season. Here is some information about some of the harder to find ingredients:
To make this punch in Humboldt, go to one of the Latino markets in town. El Buen Gusto Market in Eureka (802 Broadway) and Fortuna (1640 Main St.), and La Chaparrita Market in Fortuna (461 S. Fortuna Blvd.) have some or all of the ingredients in stock this time of year.
Tejocotes, also known also as Hawthorn apples, are native to Mexico and resemble a crabapple. They have large pits. Despite their bright orange color and fruity aroma, they are mild in flavor and their texture is between that of an apple and an unripe apricot. They are the star ingredient, according to most, for ponche navideño. For this recipe, opt for fresh over frozen and frozen over jarred versions. If you can't find any, substitute with apricots or kumquats. An interesting note about tejocotes is they were banned from import into the U.S. for a long time and from 2002 to 2006, they were the fruit most seized by the USDA — most likely for authentic ponche.
Tamarindo are the edible pods of tamarind trees. They have a hard, brittle bark exterior that once removed reveals the sticky pulp that's both sweet and tart. The fruit is commonly used in Mexican, Caribbean, Asian and Middle Eastern dishes and drinks.
Guayaba, or guava in English, are small, round, yellowish green tropical fruit grown in Mexico. They are pleasantly sweet with edible seeds (mostly) and some have described the taste as a cross between strawberries and pears.
Piloncillo is a molasses flavored sugar cone. The liquid molasses, spun from raw sugar, is reheated and crystallized into small cones. If you cannot locate it, use a light molasses, raw sugar or brown sugar.
Canela (Ceylon cinnamon) is referred to as "true cinnamon" and is the cinnamon of choice in Mexican cuisine. It has a more delicate flavor that's floral and a softer, fragrant bark than the cassia version.
Makes about 6 quarts (12 servings)
Although this is called a punch, eating the cooked fruit is also a treat. Serve it with a spoon. Caution: Sometimes guava have hard seeds, so be careful while eating. You can opt to use guava juice instead or cook them separately, press and strain. Make this recipe your own by using other fruits and spices, too.
3 oranges (1 orange with four slits cut into their skins; 2 oranges, sliced in rounds or half rounds)
7 quarts water, divided
2 cinnamon sticks
5 tamarindo pods, remove the bark and strings
1 pound fresh tejocotes, whole
¾ cup (about 1 ounce) flor de jamaica (dried hibiscus flowers)
1 cone (7.5 ounce) piloncillo or 1 cup brown sugar/light molasses
1 pound sugar cane, peeled and cut into 3-inch long pieces (optional)
1 large apple, cored and sliced into thick 2-inch chunks
12 guavas, ends removed and cut in half
¼ pound dried prunes (about 15), pitted
1 lime, juiced
2 cups pineapple, cut into large chunks (optional)
Stud one orange with the cloves. Then, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the cinnamon sticks and the orange studded cloves, cover and reduce to simmer. Next, add the piloncillo and sugar cane, if using. Simmer until the piloncillo dissolves, usually about 10 to 15 minutes.
While the large pot of liquid simmers, in a separate medium saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add the tamarindo and tejocotes, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes until the fruit softens. Remove the tejocotes and tamarind with a slotted spoon, and set aside in separate bowls to cool. Add the jamaica to the hot water, cover and steep 20 minutes.
Next, remove the seeds from the tamarindo pods with your fingers; add the pulp to the large pot of simmering cinnamon, cloves and orange; then stir. Next, peel the tejocotes, remove the hard ends, cut each in half and deseed. Set fruit aside.
After the jamaica has steeped, strain off the liquid and add it to the large pot.
Add the remaining ingredients: the cooked tejocotes, apples, guavas, prunes, lime juice, orange slices and pineapple, if using. Simmer until fruit is softened (about 20 minutes). Adjust sweetness to taste, adding brown sugar if desired.
Ladle the hot punch into cups with some of the fruit and serve with a spoon. For the adults, you can add some rum, wine, brandy or tequila to taste. Cool and refrigerate leftovers. As with many things, this punch gets better after sitting a day in the refrigerator.
Andrea Juarez (she/her) is an award-winning freelance writer, a hobbyist food anthropologist, adjunct professor and hiker. She moved to Humboldt County in 2013 from Colorado and gladly exchanged city life for the quiet of the coast.