The recipe at Elisa Milan’s Baltimore restaurant is the same one she learned from her grandmother: coconut cream, milk, vanilla extract, cinnamon and rum, slowly mixed together over the stove and left to cool.
The result is a creamy, cold drink known as coquito, or Puerto Rican eggnog. Traditionally served from November through January, it’s a holiday hit with her customers.
“Keeping it traditional creates a desire, and people cannot wait until November 1,” said Milan, owner of The Empanada Lady, which serves Puerto Rican cuisine in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood. “People are in my inbox in October like, ‘Is it time?’ As soon as I announce that it’s available, I have preorders now going all the way to New Year’s.”
She understands the appeal. For Milan, serving — and enjoying — coquito offers a connection to her roots.
“The drink is our holiday drink or our time to rejoice,” said Milan, who is Black Puerto Rican and whose family hails from the island’s west coast city, Mayagüez. Milan grew up in West Baltimore and lives in Cockeysville.
“The holidays are a time for family members and friends to just be together and show love, and we spend that time drinking Coquito.”
The origins of coquito, which translates to “little coconut” in English, come from a hybrid of cultures and point to Puerto Rico’s period of colonization. The Spanish colonizers introduced possets, a hot beverage made with warm milk curdled with brandy, wine or sherry. Local rum was added to the recipe, in addition to coconuts, imported by enslaved Africans who were brought to Puerto Rico to labor in the sugar industry. After the Spanish-American War, the United States colonized the island and introduced such ingredients as evaporated and canned condensed milk.
Across the Caribbean, there are variations on the holiday cocktail. The Dominican Republic’s Ponche de Ron is served with nutmeg while Trinidad and Tobago’s Ponche de Creme includes eggs and lime.
The Empanada Lady offers two main flavors of coquito: traditional Bacardí rum and Crown Royal vanilla. Sizes range from an eight-ounce glass ($13) to a 25-ounce bottle ($22-28), or one gallon ($130) that could serve a party of about 18 people. Alcohol-free flavors are also available, or customers can mix in different alcohols like vodka or brandy.
Three years ago, Milan opened her restaurant at Motor House, a nonprofit arts hub that couples as a food venue, events space and exhibit showcase. This October, The Empanada Lady began partnering with DoorDash for food deliveries.
“Elisa brings an energy of fun and family to Motor House,” said Camille Kashaka, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Every element of the work she does is founded in joy. Food brings joy. She makes Motor House a fun place to be.”
Sheri Andrews, a longtime Empanada Lady customer, enjoys stopping by Motor House and grabbing a glass of coquito with her husband. Andrews has already preordered two bottles of Coquito for family parties.
“In any culture of color, it’s how you cook the food,” said Andrews. “We cook food with love, and you could just tell that and Elisa’s personality exudes her cooking.”
Milan’s other menu items include shrimp, apple and pork empanadas, red beans, rice and sweet plantains. She said she opened The Empanada Lady to increase awareness of authentic Puerto Rican food to Baltimore.
“I wouldn’t compete with soul food or other food that’s just commonly known here,” said Milan. “Seeing that people really did not know about the food or about the culture, just kind of being in a very black and white space. I decided that it was my place to bring exposure to the area.”
The recipes are passed down from the matriarchs in her family. Milan’s grandmother has encouraged her to serve different Coquito flavors, like Nutella and strawberry. Milan seasons her empanada fillings with her mother’s homemade recipe for sofrito, a tomato-based paste combined with onions, peppers, garlic, and fresh herbs.
Growing up, “the kitchen was just a love zone; we congregated there,” said Milan. “More than eating the food, making the food was a place where we bonded, where we connected. And being in that space as a young girl to an adult, I’m always getting stories. There’s always gems.”
The kitchen is where Milan’s grandmother taught her the recipe and process for making coquito. It takes 45 minutes to an hour and is traditionally made in large batches. The ingredients are slowly added to a pot and cooked hot on the stove. After being mixed, the Coquito is left to cool before adding the liquor. Then, the cocktail is frozen to give it a slushy and thick consistency.
Milan has contemplated selling Coquito year round, because even when the holiday season ends, the demand is still high. She feels strongly about keeping Puerto Rican traditions in her business, despite bringing family recipes into a commercial arena. Recently she was reminded of her grandmother’s recipe lesson and learning that the drink’s name also traces its origin to the Coqui frog, which has a distinct mating call.
“I only recently went to the rainforest in Puerto Rico this year and got to hear the frogs in person myself making those noises and those type of experiences that I’m having now started as stories in the kitchen,” said Milan. “If [the Coqui] is ever removed from the island, they no longer make the sound. I think that’s relevant because speaking about the foundation of the culture and keeping it in season and being very traditional to the spices and the sofrito, I have to stay grounded in that.”
Coquito is on sale at The Empanada Lady until New Year’s Day. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 am to 2:00 pm and 7:00 to 10:00 pm, 120 W. North Ave., 443-377-1133
Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.