I love a traditional wassail, and I make it three times a year – on the first day of snow, on the longest night of the year and on New Year’s Eve. And today marks the longest night of the year and the shortest day. We’ll celebrate with wassail and by lighting a candle that will burn all day long and into the dark, dark night. Wassail, like the celebration of the winter solstice, is steeped in ancient tradition and it is that ancient tradition, as you might imagine, that I love – that otherworldly feeling of connectedness to past and future generations all in one heady sip of spiced cider and brandy. So it’s this – a traditional wassail recipe – I offer to you as my yuletide gift and I pray you use it in the very best of health.
Traditional Wassailing (and, incidentally, Toasting)
Wassail, first started as a greeting or as a toast. Waes hael, revelers might say holding up a mug of spiced cider. Eventually, as things go, wassail referred less often to the greeting and more often to the drink. Similarly, the toast that was traditionally floated atop the wassail eventually became our toast; that is, when you hold up your glass and announce, “Let’s have a toast,” or ”I’ll toast to that,” you’re paying homage to this very old ritual of floating a bit of toast in a spiced ale, a mulled wine or a traditional wassail as an honor or in celebration.
Wassailing itself – the habit of visiting neighbors, singing carols and sharing drink – is a long-standing tradition related to another ritual of the seasons, mumming. Mumming, despite having fallen from favor most everywhere, is still practiced in my community where a troupe of masked revelers travels from restaurant to restaurant on the autumnal equinox singing songs, performing for restaurant patrons and drinking their fill from the wells of the bars. You can see more pictures of this week-long harvest festival here and here and here. And so it is with wassailing, too, except that in some areas of England, wassailers didn’t travel from house to house performing for a drink; rather, they’d venture out of the home with a trimmed bowl of wassail and would offer it in the street for a few pennies.
But in my favorite of the wassail traditions, the spiced cider was offered as an ancient honor to the trees. In wintertime, wassailers would prepare the traditional wassail – soaking pieces of bread, cake or toast in it – and travel from apple orchard to apple orchard in effort to ensure a good harvest for the coming year. Wassail-soaked pieces of bread or toast were then buried at the trees’ roots or hung in the trees’ branches to appease the tree spirits and feed them well until the next harvest.
Eggs in Traditional Wassail
You’ll note that the traditional wassail recipe listed below also includes egg. Egg is often included in traditional alcoholic beverages including both wassail and, of course, the more easily recognized egg nog. Egg is rich in nutrients like choline and biotin, but it’s the saturated fat found in egg that proves to be its greatest benefit as it relates to alcohol. Alcohol challenges the liver, but saturated fat helps to mitigate the effect of alcohol on the liver, meaning that moderate and occasional consumption of alcohol in conjunction with foods rich in healthy fats – like eggs, may help to offset any potential damage. Life is, after all, about balance.
- 4 small apples
- ¼ cup unrefined cane sugar
- 1 medium orange
- 13 whole cloves
- 2 quarts hard apple cider
- ½ cup brandy
- 1 tbsp powdered ginger
- 1 tsp grated nutmeg
- 6 allspice berries
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 6 large eggs, (separated)
- toast, (optional, to serve with)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Scoop out the core of the apples without fully penetrating the apple – a melon baller works well. Fill each apple with about a tablespoon of unrefined cane sugar. Place the apples in the baking sheet. Stud an orange with thirteen cloves and place it in the baking sheet. Bake the apples and orange together for forty minutes.
- While the apples and orange bake, pour apple cider and brandy into a heavy-bottomed stock pot and warm over moderately low heat. Whisk in powdered ginger and grated nutmeg. Do not bring the wassail to a boil.
- Cut a small square of the butter muslin and place allspice and cinnamon into the square; tie with 100% cotton cooking twine and float this sachet of spices in the wassail as it warms.
- Beat egg yolks until light in color and set aside. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold egg yolks into whites, then temper the eggs by slowly pouring one-half cup wassail into the eggs. Remove the spice sachet from the wassail and pour in the tempered eggs. Transfer to a punch bowl. Float baked apples and orange in the wassail and serve by the mug, topping each much with a small slice of toast if desired.