Back during my days at Gourmet magazine, my many duties included teaching cooking classes. I used to tell my students -- especially the cooking-impaired ones -- that if they made sure to greet dinner party guests with a special homemade drink, they would always win, no matter what else happened that evening.
Let them buy takeout food, rearrange it artfully on platters, then claim it as their own. Nobody would think twice as long as they were handed a special drink on their way in the door. Festive drinks scream, "Party!"
The holiday season boasts any number of festive libations. My favorite is eggnog. After all, if you're trying to crystallize holiday excess in liquid form, how better than to combine sweet cream with strong rum or brandy.
But what if -- just this once -- you don't want to overdo it? How do you cut down the fat and calories in eggnog without losing the drink's signature richness? More precisely, is there a way to keep it creamy without cream? I tried making eggnog using nonfat milk, both regular and condensed. I even tried thickening the mixture with cornstarch. My daughter Ruthie, a connoisseur of cocktails, rejected both of these strategies.
Nonfat milk made the drink too watery. Cornstarch successfully thickened the drink, but in a way that reminded my expert of a loose pudding, not eggnog.
Ruthie suggested losing the nonfat milk in favor of 2 percent milk, which is still much lighter than cream. That did the trick. Then I added Chai spices, which contributed their own luxurious and exotic notes that work so nicely with the more traditional nutmeg.
My second concoction, Christmas sangria, required much less experimentation, if only because traditional sangria -- a mix of wine and fruit -- is a fairly healthy punch to begin with. Essentially, all I did was swap out the drink's usual summertime fruits for their wintertime counterparts -- pomegranates, clementines and apples, along with some fresh fruit juice.
Reformatted in this fashion, a warm weather stalwart suddenly looks and tastes just right for the holidays.
• Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."