Ritual reduces anxiety—or so say anthropologists. Which may be why so many people look forward to the holidays, with their intricate rites and family traditions that can so often reassure and calm.
If your ritual involves a shared bottle or punch bowl of coquito, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re Puerto Rican, or at least have family on the island. “Being handed a cup of coquito is a harbinger of the holiday season,” says chef Jose Enrique, owner of the noted San Juan restaurant that bears his name. The first coquito sightings tend to arise around Thanksgiving, he says, and they persist into January.
Coquito is Spanish for “little coconut,” and the drink
is commonly described as eggnog made with coconut milk rather than cream. A sip is not so much an adventure into the unknown as a return home—and that applies even if you’ve never had it before. There’s something comforting at first sip, thanks to its dense creaminess. And it’s meant to be made by the pitcher rather than the glass, then shared with loved ones. “It’s the spirit of it more than anything else,” Enrique says.
Von Diaz, author of this year’s Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South, was born on the island and raised in Atlanta. She grew up sipping holiday coquito—a drink even her mother, an infrequent imbiber, couldn’t resist—at a time when kids were often rewarded with a dollop of the creamy mix (before rum was added). “It’s like a piña colada without the pineapple,” Diaz says. “And the cinnamon gives it a holiday taste.”
Coquito recipes tend to be passed down through generations. As such, they vary widely, although most call for introducing the coconut to condensed or evaporated milk or a mix of both. “There are as many variations as there are days in the year,” Diaz says. For her part, Diaz broke away from her father’s dairy-heavy version but maintains another of his practices in the recipe she shares here. “My dad always put egg yolks in his coquito,” she says. “They give it body and frothiness.” As for the rum, she prefers white. “It has a cleaner taste, and mixes well with the lime.” Darker aged rums can also render the drink slightly muddy, detracting from its pearly luminosity.
Diaz has heard of other variations, too—chocolate or lemon. But no matter how wide a difference between this coquito and that, for Puerto Ricans each serves the same purpose: to bring together families and inspire memories of holidays past. “It reminds me of my grandmother,” Enrique says, “and of wintertime and spit-roasted pork.”