New World Wassail: A Drink to Your Health

by on December 14, 2009
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New World Wassail

Most of the holiday food traditions in my family seem to involve oranges. October through January is citrus season in southeastern Louisiana, or at least in my parents’ garden, so both Thanksgiving and Christmas are celebrated with plenty of citrusy dishes like ambrosia, cranberry relish (with raw orange peel included), lemon pies, and wassail.

During the holidays my mother often brews up a pot of wassail, and I grew up hearing the word and associating it with both her hot, spiced tea and orange drink and with the first line of the carol, “Here we go a-wassailing.” I thought it had something to do with caroling, but I didn’t really give it a thought beyond that. As it turns out, wassail as a noun and a verb has a long history in England, predating the celebration of Christmas, and has virtually nothing to do with tea or even oranges.

New World WassailWassail started out as an Old English greeting, was hál, and meant “be hale” or “be of good health.” Along the way it became both a drink of spiced ale or wine and a drinking salutation or toast; in fact, our use of the word toast comes from the practice of floating pieces of toast in the wassail bowl. Wassailing as a activity may have begun from the practice of toasting and drinking from a common bowl but in feudal times it evolved into a sort of combination of door-to-door caroling and trick-or-treating. Peasants would visit their feudal lords and offer their blessing, or wassail, in expectation of being given food and drink:

“Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year”

I call my version of wassail “New World” because instead of wine or ale, I’ve used fruit juices, including juice from cranberries, a North American ingredient that wasn’t available in Europe until the 1800′s. I’ve left out the tea that my mother uses–as well as the generous amount of sugar that she adds to sweeten it–and stuck to 100% juice: apple juice or non-alcoholic cider and a cranberry juice blend that does not contain added sugar. A handful of cranberries brightens up the color and long simmering brings out the spices, while a little brandy added at the end, if you like, carries on the tradition of wassail as an alcoholic drink.

If you’re interested in the long and varied history of wassailing, there’s plenty of information be found in Wassailing Through History and in this Wikipedia article. And, if you’re interested in more traditional types of wassail drinks, check out the spiced brown ale recipe at Accidental Hedonist or the Madeira and ale version by Alton Brown (which contains eggs and gets a bad review from at least one blogger).

Wassail, everybody! And Happy Holidays!

New World Wassail

New World Wassail

(printer-friendly version)

Ingredients

  • 1.5 quarts apple cider or apple juice
  • 1 quart natural cranberry blend drink (no sugar added)
  • 4 sticks cinnamon stick
  • 8 cloves
  • 10 allspice berries
  • 1 quarter-sized slice ginger
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 1/4 cup cranberries (optional)
  • 1/2 – 1 cup brandy (optional)

Instructions

  1. Place all ingredients except the brandy in a large, non-reactive pot or crockpot and bring to a low boil. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cover. Simmer for at least 2 hours (may be kept in a crock pot for 4 hours). About 15 minutes before serving, add the brandy and continue to simmer on low.
  2. Strain out the spices and fruit and serve with cinnamon sticks and fresh slices of orange.

Preparation time: 10 minute(s) | Cooking time: 2 hour(s)

Number of servings (yield): 10

Nutrition Facts

Nutrition (with 1/2 cup brandy): 180 calories, 4 calories from fat, 0g total fat, 0mg cholesterol, 13.8mg sodium, 247.7mg potassium, 38.5g carbohydrates, 3.9g fiber, 13.9g sugar, 0g protein, 2.9 points.


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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liv December 14, 2009 at 9:36 pm

My goodness. This sounds fabulous, and is now on my to-do list for tomorrow. Susan, I've been following you for awhile now, and thought I would finally comment. I've recently been accepted to Teach for America and am coming to the Delta in June to live and teach for a couple of years. I do have a little leeway in where I am sent (not much but a little). My question is: do you find it for the most part easy to be vegan in Jackson? I'm looking at either Jackson, or somewhere close to Memphis. Thanks for any insight!

p.s. I made your Chickpea and Turnip Ethiopian Stew today. Sooooo tasty. Thanks for all the recipes over the years!

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2 SusanV December 14, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Liv, I'm so happy to hear you're coming here to teach. To answer your question, Jackson has great places to buy ingredients as does Memphis, but Memphis has more vegan-friendly restaurants. Anywhere in between will be much more difficult. As long as you're close enough to one or the other to come in to shop periodically, you should be okay, though you probably won't run into many fellow vegans.

Good luck! I'd love to hear from you after you're here.

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3 Katy December 14, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Wow, you must have been reading my mind…Alton Brown did a wassail episode tonight and I was wondering if it was possible to healthify it up!

I'll be giving your recipe a shot. :)

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4 Josiane December 14, 2009 at 11:47 pm

This sounds delicious, and much more appropriate in our freezing cold weather than the cold punch that is the traditionnal holiday drink here! I've got to give it a try and see if I can start a new tradition in my family!

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5 Malitsu December 15, 2009 at 4:30 am

This is really interesting! I've never heard about wassail before but it sounds almost identical to a traditional Finnish Yule drink called glögi.

Here's how I usually make it. I've posted some variations of it lately as well.

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6 Mathieu December 15, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Hi! I just have a question before making the recipe: What is natural cranberry blend drink? Is it the same thing as cranberry juice made from concentrate without added sugar?
Thanks!

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7 SusanV December 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Mathiew, the cranberry blend drink I used is a combination of cranberry juice and other, sweeter juices such as pear, apple, and white grape. Straight cranberry juice might be a little too tart without adding some kind of sweetener. You could always use less of it and more apple juice to balance out the sweetness.

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8 Junglefrog December 15, 2009 at 5:09 pm

I jumped over from tastespotting upon seeing this fabulous drink (and the wonderful photos) Lovely!

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9 tracieMoo December 16, 2009 at 12:48 am

What a lovely blend! I love the stunning colour of it, yet it's really nutritious drink!

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10 Kip December 16, 2009 at 4:36 am

I bet this would be good with some blood orange juice thrown in too. I'm a real sucker for hot spiced fruit drinks in the winter…

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11 Kristen December 24, 2009 at 2:48 am

I posted up a wassail recipe, too! it's definitely a winter drink that brings back good memories! hello from Austin!

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12 Anonymous January 8, 2010 at 2:57 pm

My grandma makes it like this, minus the ginger. It's one of my favorite parts of Winter. It's also good with a bottle of red wine added, instead of the brandy.
I'm going to add some ginger to our next batch, I love the stuff so I'm sure it will make it even better.

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13 Sharoni Poni January 12, 2010 at 12:25 am

Hi! new to your blog and I love it! currently roasting an eggplant as we speak to make the creamy creole casserole! I saw this wassail post and was intrigued! I've seen wassailing once, as it is done in england and what they do there is dunk bread into apple cider (the alcoholic proper stuff) and the womenfolk put the bread in the branches of the oldest tree in the cider apple orchard and pour the rest of the cider at the base of the tree and bang pots and pans around the tree and orchard crying out wassail to scare away bad spirits and encourage a good crop!

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14 Jen December 19, 2011 at 11:18 am

I made this for a holiday party this past weekend and boy, did it go over well! I should’ve doubled the recipe – lots of sad faces when I had to admit the punch was gone.

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