Monday, December 13, 2010

December 13

And now we know what keeps The Fat Man so jolly...

"Here We Come A-Wassailing"
performed by Kate Rusby

Call me a curmudgeon, but I have never been a fan of the "wassail". The word itself has long annoyed me, especially when it is misused on party invitations at Christmastime. For the traditional Canadian wassail is most certainly NOT an event to which one should be invited. A REAL wassail is more like an assault, or an invasion of your home by boisterous, although well-meaning, most often drunken individuals. If you're lucky, you yourself will be plied with so much hot alcohol (which the invaders will have brought to the impromptu party) that you will soon no longer care that your home is being thoroughly trashed, and your pantry raided of all the good things you have painstakingly prepared for your own family's Christmas. To top it off, you will then be convinced to leave the warmth of your own hearth, to strike out with the group and join the attack upon your nearest neighbours.

Thankfully, however, music is also involved in this process. Unless you are a fan of anarchy (and those of you East Coast Canadians who partake in this annual revelry know what I'm talking about), I would humbly suggest that if you hear a gaggle of individuals lustily singing a wassail tune outside your house on any night over the next several weeks, you keep your front door firmly locked. Accept the revellers' blessings from the safety of your bedroom window. The music is a kind of an "advance warning", if you ask me: kind of like a flare signal, only louder.

It is because of all of this-- and several somewhat-memorable experiences I had during my university days-- that I have always cringed (inwardly) whenever I have heard a "wassail" sung during a celebration of Christmas carols.

Thank heaven for Kate Rusby. Because this year, she changed all of that.

Kate Rusby is also known as "The Barnsley Nightingale", and hails from Penistone, South Yorkshire, in England. She is widely regarded as one of the finest English folk singers of contemporary times. I find her rendition of this traditional wassail tune completely irresistible. Even King's College, Cambridge can't touch this: Kate Rusby's sweet voice and lilting Northern accent somehow makes the song seem more "true" (even if the wassail DID originate in the South of England, where the majority of apple farms were, and the best cider was produced). More perfect still, she is accompanied by instruments that are far more like the ones that might have been carried from door-to-door in times-gone-by...

That is... IF the musicians were still able to stand in an upright position.

"Wæs hæil!"
Drink hæil...
(you have been warned!!)

4 (2*) cups good Apple Cider (freshly pressed)
1 cup Orange Juice
2 pints heavy (winter) ale*
3 cups Port*
4 small tart/sweet apples (peeled and cored)
2 lemons
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. nutmeg
3 small or 1.5 large cinnamon sticks
15 whole cloves
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
4 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tbsp, butter (cold)

* 2 pints Sherry or Madeira wine and 1-cup rum are often substituted (for ale and port) by non-beer drinkers - resulting in a somewhat sweeter flavor, with a lighter body.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Pack 1 tbsp. of brown sugar and ¼ tbsp. of butter into the core of each apple. Place the apples in a small baking dish and fill dish with ½-inch of water. This will keep apples from burning or sticking to the bottom. When oven is heated, bake the apples uncovered for 45 min. to 1-hour, or until they are tender and soft, but not mushy. Drain the water. Quarter each baked apple (or divide into eighths, depending on the number of guests you have, and how greedy you think they might be).

Combine cardamom, cloves and ginger in a small piece of cheesecloth, and tie it closed with twine to form a spice packet. (A tea ball or tea bag may also be used for this purpose, if that's what you've got.)

In a large stockpot (or crockpot) combine the apple cider, orange juice, (plus Ale, Port/Rum, Wine, as you like), and the juice of one lemon. Place the cinnamon and nutmeg directly into the liquid and stir to infuse the nutmeg. Submerge the spice packet in the stockpot. Stir the apples into the stockpot: they'll ultimately float on the top and begin to soften, then fall apart and add a creamy quality to the liquid. Simmer on medium/high (but don't allow the mixture to boil-- that defeats the purpose!) for two hours, until the hot spices are thoroughly infused, and the apples have begun to dissolve.

Remove the spice packet and decant into a fancy "Wassail Bowl" if not using a stockpot or a crockpot. Garnish the bowl by floating thin slices of the remaining lemon on top.

Serve in mugs, with a sizable piece of apple in each mug.

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