Eight years ago, Debbie Quinones went on a quest for the perfect coquito, an eggnog-like Puerto Rican holiday drink.
She wanted to carry on a tradition started after the maker of the best coquito in her neighborhood of Spanish Harlem died. Realizing the woman had taken her recipe with her, Quinones invited friends and family to her home to see who could whip up the best recipe.
“It became a way to celebrate the Puerto Rican culinary experience and validate it,” said Quinones, a public health professional who has also worked as a caterer. “My ultimate goal is to promote coquito around the world as a culinary gourmet item.”
On Saturday, the neighborhood contest will go citywide for the first time, drawing hundreds to choose the best coquito at a Latino arts museum.
The coquito is an especially rich, intoxicating riff on eggnog, one cookbook author has called it “Puerto Rican moonshine.”
The basic recipe includes evaporated milk, condensed milk, coconut milk or cream; rum; egg yolks and spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg. Coquito makers have been known to add fruit, ice cream or other types of alcohol.
“My grandmother used to make one with very little rum and one much stronger for the adults,” said Zilkia Janer, a professor at Hofstra University and author of “Latino Food Culture.”
Though the history of coquito remains largely unwritten, Janer speculated that it could be a variation on eggnog that was introduced after the U.S. gained control of Puerto Rico in 1898.
Feliberto Estevez, the executive chef at Gracie Mansion, is serving as an honorary judge at Saturday’s contest. He said the coquito is uniquely Puerto Rican, at least in the way it is prepared.
“It’s like making chicken soup,” said the chef. “Each community has their own version.”
So what makes a good coquito? That, too, depends on who you ask, though most agree that a balance of ingredients is essential.
Quinones said that texture and consistency were important to her.
“It has to have body. It has to have some curves,” she said.