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Modesto dairy spices things up with eggnog this holiday season

I had wanted to believe that eggnog is made at the North Pole, in a part of Santa's workshop with permits for dairy processing.

A visit to the Foster Farms Dairy plant in Modesto set me straight. The holiday beverage is produced by this and other companies alongside their milk, butter and other everyday products.

That's not to say that there isn't something a little magical about eggnog, a rich and spicy drink with origins in 19th century England.

"What makes it so special is that it's only once a year," said Rick Earp, director of food safety and quality for Foster Farms.

He and a few other managers provided a tour of the Kansas Avenue plant Friday, its final day for eggnog production this year.

Two days a week since Halloween, the plant has turned out quart and half-gallon cartons under the Crystal label for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Friday's production has a Jan. 9 expiration date, in case you need some for the NFL wild card playoffs.

For the tour, the Foster Farms folks dressed me in a smock, hair net and hard hat. I had hoped for an elf costume, but what the heck.

The company would not disclose the details of its eggnog process, lest a competitor gain an advantage from reading the newspaper, but it did go over the basic steps.

"This is the secret sauce," Earp said as employee Lance Conser opened a barrel of eggnog base. This mixture of egg yolks, sugar, spices and other ingredients is added to milk as part of the 45-minute process for each 3,000-gallon batch.

A hint of nutmeg hung in the air as the tour proceeded through the plant, an array of tanks, pipes, valves and computer screens.

The computers keep track of the ingredients, temperature and other details. Like plain old milk, eggnog is pasteurized to kill microbes and homogenized to keep the cream from separating.

Flavor varies with brand

Each eggnog brand has a distinctive flavor and texture, whether it's Sunnyside Farms at Save Mart, Lucerne at Safeway or the Crystal products at numerous stores.

Karen Pryor, a laboratory technician for Foster Farms, checks the quality with high-tech equipment and her taste buds.

"The texture could be grainy," she said. "You want it smooth."

The Crystal product comes in regular and light versions. A half-cup serving of the former is 24 percent of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat, one reason why people tend to sip rather than gulp eggnog.

Eggnog is being marketed as an ingredient for home bakers, said Carrie Cardoza Bordona, a public relations consultant to Foster Farms.

"We want to make it broader than drinking it," she said.

I got my own sample of eggnog in a plastic shot glass at the end of the tour. It tasted fine, even without a shot of brandy on that brisk December morning.

Icelandic author Nanna Rognvaldardottir traced the history of eggnog in an article on the What's Cooking America Web site.

It evolved from an old English drink called posset, made of eggs, milk, and ale or wine. Eggs and milk were hard to come by, so eggnog was drunk only by wealthy people, who mixed it with brandy, Madeira or sherry.

"Eggnog literally means eggs inside a small cup," Rognvaldardottir wrote. "It is used as a toast to one's health."

The drink became more widespread in the young United States because of the greater availability of the ingredients. Rum from the Caribbean supplanted other liquors because of their high taxes. In Southern states, bourbon was the liquor of choice.

In Puerto Rico today, you can find eggnog made with rum and coconut. In Mexico, a version called rompope features cinnamon and rum or grain alcohol.

Over on Kansas Avenue, the Foster Farms people leave the spiking to the consumer. They also hope that young people will develop a taste for the nonalcoholic version, part of the industry's promotion of all things dairy.

"My kids like the flavor," said Mark Chase, a sanitation manager for Foster Farms. "They like it because it's a holiday drink, but they also like it because it tastes like a milkshake mix."

I'm sold, too. Not because of the cream or the spices, but because it's a chance to drink down some egg yolks, just like Sylvester Stallone in "Rocky."

Yo.

And ho, ho, ho.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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