Wassail: A Holiday Treat
Wassail is a word with much history and many meanings. It dates back to times BC and probably originated in Britain. The word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon: waes hael, which means good health. The oldest known version of the wassail beverages was made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar, and served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. It was common for wassailers to even carry their own cup as they went house-to-house.
The act of wassailing also had many flavors. At its most basic, wassailing was a group of people, often young men, who dressed in festive clothes and ribbons, and went from home to home singing, and asking for food and beverage. This was the origin of the Mari Lwyd, the skeleton horse that would challenge homeowners to a battle of rhymes. If you lost, the group would move on; if Mari Lwyd out-rhymed you, well, you would need to allow all the members of the wassail group into your home. This is the origin of today's Christmas caroling.
While I encourage you to engage in any and all battles of rhymes, it might be an easier place to start if you make yourself/family/friends some wassail punch.
In a soup pot on the stove or in a large slow cooker, combine 2 gallons of juice with about 2 cups fresh fruit and season as you like with spices and herbs. Remember, some of these spice are potent and a teaspoon of whole clove or juniper is plenty! You can overdo it easily.
Juices: I normally use 1 gallon Cranberry juice, 1/2 gallon of Pomegranate juice and 1/2 gallon of local apple cider. But any of these would be delicious!
Fresh Fruit: I use all of these.
Spices and Herbs: My favorites are Allspice, Cinnamon, Clove, Juniper, and Star Anise.
Cinnamon Stick (whole)
Hibiscus (dried roselles)
Ginger (in pieces, dried or fresh)
Juniper Berry (dried)
Star Anise (whole)
You can add sweeteners like maple syrup or sugar, but I usually don't. I enjoy the natural tart and spice of the wassail flavor.
It's traditional for Wassail to have alcohol. Gauge your crowd to consider children or folks who don't imbibe for any number of reasons. Some boozy options if you choose to add them include red wine, apple wine, hard cider, brandy, rum, or bourbon.
Allow to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for at least two hours before serving. The wassail needs both time and heat to infuse with that wonderful flavor. You'll know when things are getting delicious because your entire kitchen will start to fill up with the spicy aroma. You know, perhaps it is that traditional aroma that attracts the Mari Lwyd...