As the thermometer plummets and cold, dreary days become the norm, my thoughts turn to wassail and all the warmth and good cheer that it brings. Derived from the Norse phrase “ves heill” or “be in good health,” wassail holds several longstanding, culinary roles. It can be a toast to the aforementioned health, the alcoholic drink with which one is toasted, or the festive event where drinking and toasting occurs. Yet, oddly enough, to go ‘wassailing’ could just as easily mean that you’re off caroling at Christmastime as out imbibing. Of course, the carolers of yore did expect to receive steaming cups of wassail, food, and heartfelt good wishes in exchange for their melodies.
At my house wassail is a favorite hot, mulled drink. Although customarily made with mead or ale and occasionally wine, I opt for a seasonal brew of white rum and apple cider. Whole cloves, cinnamon sticks and ground ginger spice up the tart cider while an ample amount of sugar sweetens the mix.
Traditionally, this toasty beverage was placed in a large, goblet-shaped bowl and ladled into cups. Since I lack an authentic wassail bowl, I pour my concoction into a punch bowl and dole out the fragrant libation in matching punch cups. Any leftovers I refrigerate and then gently reheat on low before serving it again from a decorative pitcher.
This wassail recipe originally appeared in a January 2008 blog entry on community cookbooks. However, as it’s such a simple yet delectable recipe, it deserves yet another mention.
WASSAIL from Cook’s Choice (Junior Guild, 1978) and Nancy Williams
Yields 2 1/2 quarts
“Keep warm with this at the football games — really keeps you toasty warm from the inside out!”
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 1/2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon ginger
2 cups orange juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 quart cider
1 cup white rum
Combine the sugar and water and boil 10 minutes. Add the cloves, cinnamon sticks and ginger. Let stand at least 1 hour. Strain. Add the orange juice, lemon juice and cider and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add 1 cup white rum. Easy. Can do ahead
A recent assignment forced me to spend a warm, sunny Sunday in the kitchen, testing stuffing recipes. It also got me thinking about my troubled relationship with this cooking staple. Since Stovetop Stuffing became all the rage during my toddler years, I have only hazy memories of my mother making homemade, rather than just-add-boiling-water, dressings. As a result, I can share no cherished family recipes for Mom’s cranberry-chestnut stuffing or Grandmother’s sweet potato-lentil filling. I can, however, wax about the stuffing varieties offered by Kraft Foods.
Hobbled by this culinary deficit, I’ve experienced my share of homemade stuffing disasters. Take the Thanksgiving where I watched my husband’s extended family spoon out parched bread cubes that clinked as they hit the dinner plates. Then there was the follow-up meal where I overcompensated for the bone dry dressing and served a bland, gooey porridge of bread, minced onions and celery. No wonder my mother opted for store-bought mixes.
Fortunately, I — and my dinner guests — persevered and learned from my mistakes. Today I can actually create respectable, homemade stuffings, ones that won’t leave friends and family grabbing for glasses of water or draining off excess stock from the serving spoon.
Over the years I learned some basic tips for making good stuffing. It goes without saying to use enough herbs — thyme, rosemary, sage — and seasonings. Taste test to ensure flavor!
Likewise, include enough fat in the form of butter, margarine or meat drippings. Fat keeps the stuffing moist, but unlike stock and other liquids, won’t turn it into a mushy mess. A slick trick for increasing filling moisture is to grease the foil that goes over the baking dish. When the foil heats up, the butter melts and the stuffing gets a little extra dose of fat.
Don’t rely on the same tired bread crumb recipe. Add a little excitement and replace the toasted white bread with cubes of focaccia, cornbread or gingerbread. Better yet, skip the bread altogether and substitute it with wild rice, lentils or couscous. Unorthodox? Yes. Delicious? Absolutely!
Serves 6 to 8
4 cups crumbled cornbread
2 cups wheat bread crumbs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup white onion, finely chopped
½ cup celery, finely chopped
1 cup Macintosh apples, diced
½ cup dried cranberries
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
½ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup apple cider
½ cup chicken stock
Place cornbread and wheat bread crumbs on a baking sheet and toast under a medium broiler until browned. Remove and place in a large bowl.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a large baking dish.
In a small sauté pan heat 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the onion and celery and sauté for 10 minutes, until softened but not browned. Place the sautéed vegetables in the bowl with the breadcrumbs. Add the apples, cranberries, thyme, rosemary and salt and stir until the ingredients are well combined. Evenly pour the apple cider and the stock over the stuffing and toss together.
If using the stuffing to fill a turkey or other meat, allow it to cool completely before inserting it into the bird, etc. Cook until the stuffing itself reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, loosely layer the stuffing in the buttered baking dish. Dot the top of the stuffing with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes remove the foil and continue to bake for another 10 minutes until browned. Serve immediately.