Nogs, possets & wassails

It is pure and marvellous chance that two of the best words in the drinks lexicon are for versions of pretty much the same thing: eggnog and posset.  They are both basically a custard base of milk or cream with eggs; then laced with booze and spices to warm the coldest of cockles.

Eggnog is a much bigger festive tradition in America than here in the UK – we tend to steer more towards mulled wine as our festive tipple. But maybe it’s time to help eggnog break-free from the red cupped lattes its becoming most associated with now, and bring back the posset.

CHRISTMAS POSSET
Ale possets were drunk all year round in medieval England for medicinal purposes if you had a cold or couldn’t sleep.  As time went on the recipes became more extravagant for drinking at festivals, with different types of alcohol being used and the introduction of expensive spices. Possets’ soothing qualities also meant that they were often used as a hangover cure for when the festivities had all got a bit much.  

There are accounts of possets being drunk at the very end of Christmas Eve or as the thing to get Christmas Day started.  I just think it is a lovely, rich, warming and spicy tipple to enjoy whenever you like over the festivities.

900ml single cream
6 egg yolks
3 egg whites
300ml madeira or marsala
2 cinnamon sticks
1 fresh nutmeg, cut into quarters
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
130 caster sugar

Beat together the egg yolks and whites, all but 1tsp of the sugar and whatever alcohol you are using. Heat gently in a large pan until the sugar has dissolved, taking care not to scramble the eggs.

Bring the cream to the boil with the remaining bit of sugar, cinnamon sticks and two quarters of the nutmeg.  Let it simmer for a couple of minutes and then pour the cream into the egg pan, whisking as you go. If you think it is too thin, heat for a little while longer to allow it to thicken up a little

Remove the nutmeg and cinnamon; and you can now transfer your posset to whatever you want to serve it in – a punch bowl or serving cups / glasses. Sprinkle the top with a little sugar and grated nutmeg.

 

EGGNOG
The Americans borrowed our posset and turned it into eggnog. Here is the wonderfully succinct recipe from ‘The Carolina Housewife’ written by Sarah Rutledge in 1847:

“Six eggs, a quart of milk, half a pint of brandy, six table-spoons of sugar;  beat the yolks and sugar together, and the whites very hard; mix in the brandy; boil the milk and pour it into the mixture.

Enough said. Although a grating of nutmeg on top would be a worthwhile addition. And instead of brandy you could use bourbon or rum.

 

WASSAIL
Wassails go back even further than possets, but both were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Too much wassailing often led to the need for that hangover posset.

It comes from an old Norse word meaning ‘Be in health’. What once used to be proclaimed at apple trees to encourage them to bear more fruit, became a tradition for families on Christmas Eve, New Years or Twelfth Night.

And what’s not to love about a hot spiced ale with apples bobbing along on top, ladled out of a bowl for sharing amongst nearest and dearest? Especially when it is a ritual which in its roots is an invocation for everyone to enjoy health, and happiness and prosperity. A wassail is – and literally was – a toast to all who share in it. Some wassails would have cinnamon toast floating in it and that’s where our idea of a toast comes from.

6 small apples
an orange
13 cloves
150g soft brown sugar
2 litres ale
600ml dry sherry
a tsp each of ground cinnamon, grated nutmeg and ground ginger

1. Run a knife around the equator of the apples to cut through the skin and put them in a pot that’s both oven and hob proof. Sprinkle over 3 tbsps of brown sugar and 4 tbsps of ale. Stud the orange with the cloves and add to the apples. Cover and bake for about half an hour at 180C until the apples are tender. Then take the fruit out with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Put all the remaining ingredients into the pot that the fruits were in and simmer gently for 5-10 minutes. Pour into your serving bowl and then put the apples and orange back in to float on top.

A cinnamon stick in each glass is a nice finishing touch.

Instead of – or as well as – the apples, you could float cinnamon toast in your wassail as I mentioned before; or another tradition is to use some spiced buns in it. They soak up some of the drink and become gloriously, densely boozy Wassail Cakes.

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