Sunday, December 06, 2009

Here we come a'wassailing

Well, Thanksgiving is over. And as the Christmas season starts to spark into full, capitalist-driven life, let's consider some of the older traditions that accompany it.

Wassail, for example.

Now, the average American, for a number of good reasons, has no idea what "wassail" might be. The closest they might come to it is the old carol from which this post takes its name, Here We Come A'Wassailing.

Now, traditionally, "wassailing" was based in the Anglo-Saxon habit where a group of peasants went to the lord's manor and sang badly until they were given something, usually food or drink, just to make them shut up. We can see this reflected in the lyrics to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, where they end up begging for "figgy pudding." (Somehow, I doubt that a box of Fig Newtons would cover it for them, but what do I know?)

Etymologically, "wassail" apparently traces back to the Anglo-Saxon phrase wæs þu hæl ("be thou hale," or "be in good health"). This was shortened at some point to Wæs hal! ("Be healthy!"), and thus to "wassail." And wassail was the liquid equivalent of the figgy pudding, a drink that the master could keep on hand for the servants to ladle out to whoever came around singing.

If you look around, you'll find an abundance of recipes claiming to be wassail. Some of them are fruit punches, some are based on tea, but none of them are likely to be accurate - many are based on various formulations of mulled cider.

Now, Alton Brown (our cooking lord and savior, blessed be his name) did a little research, and came up with a recipe for wassail that may be entirely accurate.
Alton Brown's Wassail Recipe

6 small Fuji apples, cored
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup water
72 ounces ale
750 ml Madeira
10 whole cloves
10 whole allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick, 2-inches long
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 large eggs, separated


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Put the apples into an 8 by 8-inch glass baking dish. Spoon the brown sugar into the center of each apple, dividing the sugar evenly among them. Pour the water into the bottom of the dish and bake until tender, about 45 minutes.

Pour the ale and Madeira into a large slow cooker. Put the cloves, allspice, and cinnamon into a small muslin bag or cheesecloth, tied with kitchen twine, and add to the slow cooker along with the ginger and nutmeg. Set the slow cooker to medium heat and bring the mixture to at least 120 degrees F. Do not boil.

Add the egg whites to a medium bowl and using a hand mixer, beat until stiff peaks form. Put the egg yolks into a separate bowl and beat until lightened in color and frothy, approximately 2 minutes. Add the egg whites to the yolks and using the hand mixer, beat, just until combined. Slowly add 4 to 6 ounces of the alcohol mixture from the slow cooker to the egg mixture, beating with the hand mixer on low speed. Return this mixture to the slow cooker and whisk to combine.

Add the apples and the liquid from the baking dish to the wassail and stir to combine. Ladle into cups and serve.
The only really unusual ingredient there is Madeira, which is basically a fortified wine - historically, the vintner would just stop the fermentation of a batch of wine by adding enough distilled alcohol (usually brandy) to kill off the yeast before it ate up all the sugar. Madeira, Marsala, port, sherry, vermouth - they're all considered "fortified wines." They tend to be more alcoholic than most wines, but less than most liquors.

We made a batch of Alton Brown's wassail tonight, just in support of that whole Christmas tradition, and while I have to admit that it isn't the most disgusting thing I've ever put in my mouth... oh, lord, it isn't good.

You know how some things are greater than the sum of the parts? Yeah, this isn't one of them. If anything, this takes some of the less appealing parts of the ingredients and amplifies them: the slight bitterness of the ale doesn't really match well with the sugar in the baked apple and the sweet bite of the Madeira wine. (And, incidentally, if you don't temper the eggs well before adding them in, you end up with some slightly boiled scrambled eggs on top, which isn't what a normal person might consider good eats...)

If you don't believe me and want to make it for yourself, let me help you out a little: here's the cut-down version of the recipe. Try it and see for yourself.
1 small Fuji apple, cored
2 2/3 teaspoons brown sugar
Enough water to give you about 1 cm on the top of your smallest baking dish
A 12 ounce bottle of ale
1/2 cup Madeira
2 whole cloves
2 whole allspice berries
Half of a cinnamon stick
Dash ground ginger
Dash ground nutmeg
1 large egg, separated
Treat them as above. But don't say I didn't warn you.

We've used a crockpot recipe for years, involving apple cider, cranberry juice, brown sugar, a cloved orange, some spices and time to heat. (Personally, I think it works best with a shot of rum added - that's just me.)

I think we'll stick with that one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was actually planning on making a batch of this on Christmas Eve, I saw a few positive reviews on but now I'm a little spooked to be honest.

I am left wondering if maybe it's just a little isoteric for most people to enjoy. I suppose I can try the cut down version, but I'd still have to get the wine so it's really no less expensive to try a sample.