“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.”
Wassail? What’s wassail? For most of us ‘wassail’ is a word we know from a popular Christmas carol though there’s a good chance that most of us cannot explain what it is – and with good reason, as wassail has been mostly lost to history and time.
Come with me as we step back into a Dickens novel. Let’s walk the cobblestone streets to a boisterous tavern somewhere in 19th century England and partake in the merrymaking with a mug full of hot and aromatic wassail.
Wassail is a warming beverage steeped in ancient tradition. The Old English form was hál meant to “be healthful” or “be healthy.” It is a hot mulled cider mixed with brandy (sometimes dark spiced rum or sherry) and bobbing with baked sugared apples and oranges studded with cloves. Traditionally, wassail was mixed with tempered eggs and a piece of crispy toast floating gently on top.
It is from this celebratory wassail, with its buoyant toast, that we still raise our glasses in times of celebration to give a ‘toast.’ Think of that the next time you raise your glass!
I make wassail throughout the Christmas season. I make it first to celebrate the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the Winter. We light a candle to honor the long darkness and to celebrate the light that is to come. I make it again on Christmas day in celebration and one last time on January 6th to honor the Twelfth Night, or the Epiphany, marking the end of the twelve days of Christmas. And I just might make it a few times in between.
The history of wassail is as long as it is varied. The recipe I’m sharing today is a combination of the many I have read and tried over the years. It will give you an idea of what wassail is and how it is prepared – and from there you can personalize it to suit your taste. Wassail is meant to be boozy and aromatic. If it’s a little strong going down at first, then you’ve prepared it well.
The earliest mention of wassail is in the pagan ritual of Apple Wassailing dating back to the English Middle Ages. This drinking ritual was to ensure a good apple harvest and would have occurred on the old Twelfth Night (January 17). The villagers gathered in the cider orchards with their hot wassail in hand, encircling the largest of the apple trees and sang to ward off any evil spirits that might have otherwise threatened the harvest. Cider was poured along the roots of the tree and the toast from the wassail laid at the tree’s roots or tied to the branches in offering.
Like everything, wassail evolved over time. The ingredients varied based on region and became mostly associated with the Yuletide. Wassail bowls (sometimes holding 10 gallons of wassail!) were created and drank with great fanfare while a song about the drink would be sung. We modern day goers are quite familiar with that song, too. We learn it as children, it plays in supermarkets at Christmastime and in loop on our streaming holiday music channels. Sing it with me, I know you know the tune:
“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.”
History also shows wassail as the celebratory drink of choice to stave off the Winter chill after a long day of wassailing, or caroling, door to door.
I love to imagine those before me who made this, simmering wassail in heavy cauldron-like pots over hot embers, preparing to take a bowl to the orchards or to imbibe after a festive day of wassailing. It’s the long and storied history of this mulled cider that appeals to me the most.
Every Christmas I want to channel my inner 19th century caroler complete with petticoat, bonnet and handmuff, flitting around from house to house singing my best rendition of We Wish You a Merry Christmas demanding that someone bring me figgy pudding (…because, you know, I won’t go until I get some). Oh, wassail, how it intrigues me so.
Modern wassail recipes have evolved further to include ingredients like canned pineapple juice and cranberry juice, sometimes omitting the alcohol altogether (whaaaat?). I lean towards a more authentic recipe, using ingredients that were likely available to those before me. I always include the baked apples, even though it requires an extra step, as I feel there is honor in recreating something so ancient.
The use of eggs is purely optional. If the thought of eggs in your drink sounds foreign, think egg nog – although this drink is nothing like that. Since the eggs are separated and tempered, they exist only to create a froth (and to balance the liver while consuming alcohol along with a good dose of choline), but there is absolutely nothing eggy about this drink. I have made wassail with tempered eggs depending on who is partaking and it’s yet another way to honor its past.
Wassail yields a lot and was meant to be shared with others in good cheer, so invite over friends and family and raise your glass to toast the Winter season – and perhaps go wassailing!
I’d love to hear from you!
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Serves a punch bowl.
4 small – medium apples
Brown sugar or unrefined raw sugar
1/2 cup of water
2 oranges, cut in half
20 whole cloves
5 cups apple cider
48 ounces (4 12 ounce bottles) hard cider
1 cup brandy
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks
6 eggs, separated (optional)
Toast, (optional, to serve with)
- Preheat oven to 350 F;
- Core the apples until the seeds are removed, being careful not to go all the way through the bottom. A melon baller works well for this;
- Fill each apple with brown sugar, careful not to pack the sugar down. Keep it loose and lightly fill apples to the top. Place apples in a baking dish large enough to hold them and pour 1/2 cup of water into the bottom of the dish. Bake for 40-45 minutes. The apples should be soft and pierce easily with a fork, but not mushy and falling apart. You’ll want them to hold their shape;
- In the meantime, cut the two oranges in half. Stud each half with 5 whole cloves. Stud them in any pattern you desire and set aside;
- Pour the apple cider, hard cider and brandy into a large nonreactive pot. I use my enameled french oven. (Note: you can even serve the wassail in the french oven, straight from stove to table, its cast iron will keep the beverage hot for longer). Stir to combine;
- Turn the stove to a low-medium heat and whisk in the spices and drop in the cinnamon sticks. Give everything a stir and add the orange halves clove sides down. Simmer everything for about an hour. Careful not to let it boil though, you don’t want it to evaporate much or have the cider turn too syrupy. You do want it to be piping hot to serve.
- If using tempered eggs (Optional. Otherwise skip to method #8): Using a hand mixer, beat the egg yolks until light in color and set aside. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the yolks into whites, then temper the eggs by slowly pouring 1/2 cup of the wassail into the eggs. Not too fast, you don’t want to curdle the eggs. Set aside for a moment;
- Remove the cinnamon sticks and oranges from the wassail and strain the wassail into your punch bowl or back into the french oven. A doubled piece of cheesecloth works well to catch any bits of ground spices. Pour in the tempered eggs (optional).
- Float the baked sugared apples on top and pour in the water from the baking dish. I like to spill the apples over so the sugar sweetens up the wassail and the hollows of the apples fill with the warm beverage. Give the wassail a gentle stir to mix in the sugar. Float the oranges next, garnish with cinnamon sticks and serve by the mug or in punch-sized glasses, topping each with a small slice of toast, or additional stick of cinnamon, if desired.
- Enjoy a baked apple after it has soaked up the aromatic boozy wassail. Cut the apple into quarters to share with your guests, if desired. Cheers!
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