First, I know it’s the end of January. I know there are 10 more months before you will likely try this recipe out, but I couldn’t let another day pass without sharing it with you because it gives me such warm, fuzzy feelings and memories of being back in Mexico with our family. And with the cold weather we’re having in Chicago right now, I need all the warm and fuzzy I can get! Typically, this is a holiday punch, but in my house we’ve been drinking it all winter long.
This recipe for ponche Navideño comes from José’s abuelita Elda, who passed away in 2006. While I never met her, I’ve always felt like I had due to the abundance of stories I’ve heard about her and her cooking. This past Christmas, my suegra taught me how to make her mom’s ponche recipe and someday I’ll teach my own children this holiday family favorite. I also learned that most families have their own recipe, so keep in mind this recipe isn’t the only way to make it. In fact, for a long time, nobody in our family knew that the secret ingredient in abuelita’s ponche Navideño was Bonafina (a store-bought orange drink similar to Sunny Delight or Tampico Citrus Punch).
One thing I think everyone will agree upon, though, is there are some ingredients consistent in just about every recipe out there: Mexican guavas (guayabas), sugar cane (caña), Mexican hawthorn (tejocotes), cinnamon (canela), dried plums (ciruelas deshidratadas) and oranges (naranjas). How you put it all together is really up to you.
You might be wondering what some of the ingredients are and where to find them. Specifically tejocotes.
Tejocotes, also known as Mexican hawthorn in English, are part of the crab-apple family and have a tart taste with a hint of apricot flavor and a dense, pithy consistency when raw.
It’s a staple of Christmas posadas and is typically used in punches, jams and jellies. Yet fresh tejocote fruit is currently banned from being imported to the U.S. due to the high risk that it can carry a species of exotic fruit fly that could decimate some types of produce in the U.S. Because of the ban, many who try to bring them across the border have had their tejocotes confiscated by customs.
The good news: the Mexican government in February 2009 petitioned the USDA to allow irradiated tejocote imports. The Mexican guava was approved in 2008 under the same circumstances. As the U.S. mulls the decision to allow irradiated tejocotes into the country (pun intended), you’re not completely out of luck. If you live in California, you might be able to find them at some markets or even buy tejocote trees from a grower. Most Mexican supermarkets elsewhere should sell a ponche Navideño mix in a glass jar (made by Goya) and many have begun selling frozen tejocotes. I noticed this year that all of my regular shopping spots in Pilsen carried either the jarred or frozen options. Obviously, they’re not quite the same as if they were fresh, but they’ll do if you have no other way of obtaining the ingredients.
I’ve heard you can substitute fresh kumquats but I’ve never tried it. If you want to learn more about tejocotes, I recommend this December 2009 story from the LA Times.
Mexican guavas are the other ingredient you may not be able to find so easily. They have a yellowish skin that sometimes gets pink or purply-red spots when ripe, has creamy white flesh and a very pungent, tropical fruit smell. Though irradiated Mexican guavas have been USDA-approved since 2008, I have trouble finding them except at specialty produce stores or Mexican supermarkets. The more common pink-fleshed guava should not be substituted as it has a different flavor.
Though some of the ingredients may be difficult to find, I promise it is worth the effort. I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I do, and I hope you’ll share your memories or tips on how your family makes ponche Navideño.
- 5 to 6 cups water
- 5 to 7 cinnamon sticks
- 8 guayabas Mexicanas (Mexican guavas with yellow skin and creamy white flesh)
- 4 generous slices of orange plus 2 whole oranges
- 1/2 gallon Bonafina; U.S. substitute: Original Sunny D or Tampico Citrus Punch
- 1-2 Sugar canes, cut into small sticks until you have 12-18 pieces (think carrot stick size)
- 3/4 to 1 cup dried plums (prunes; ciruelas deshidratadas)
Bring water and cinnamon sticks to a boil in a large pot over medium flame to infuse water with the cinnamon. Cut the top of the cores out of the tejocotes and halve the guavas. You can remove the seeds from the center of the guava if you like, but I leave them in for extra flavor while cooking. You can easily scoop out the seeds after cooking and before consumption.
Add the tejocotes, guavas and orange slices to the cinnamon-infused water. Reduce heat and add the Bonafina or orange drink substitute. Halve the remaining two oranges, squeeze juice into the pot and then put the rinds into the pot as well.
Cut the sugar cane into smaller sticks (see photo below). These are tough to cut; use a sharp knife, a sturdy cutting board and a lot of care to prevent any accidents. Add cane sticks to the juice and turn the heat back up to medium-high. Bring to a boil and allow it to boil for about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and allow punch to stew for 30 minutes. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for about another 40-60 minutes.
Add dried plums during last 15 minutes of simmering so they don’t rehydrate too quickly from the high heat and start to fall apart. When it’s done simmering, you can either serve immediately, or place a kitchen towel over the top of the pot and let it cool and infuse more overnight. Discard the orange halves but keep the orange slices. If you let it sit overnight, just reheat and serve. After that (if there’s any left), store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Ladle punch into mugs and spoon some fruit and sugar cane into each mug as well. You can also garnish with a cinnamon stick for a little extra flavor. To juice the sugar cane sticks, bite gently and suck the liquid out. Some of the punch flavor will have infused and the sugary liquid that will come out will have a citrusy spice flavor to it.
Yields about a dozen servings.
- What’s in your ponche Navideño?
Note: if you make this recipe using a ponche Navideño mix from a jar, I suggest you pour out most if not all of the syrup in the jar before adding the tejocotes, guayabas and caña to the pot. You may also want to add a few tablespoons of granulated cane sugar to help sweeten it. I also find that I prefer a couple extra cinnamon sticks for a more spiced flavor.