Punch up your holiday spirits

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Wassail.

My research for this article led me to a cookbook published in 1891 by the Ladies of the Plymouth Church in Des Moines, Iowa. The book’s introduction contained the following caveat:

“The Ladies who compiled this manual have thought it best not to include alcoholic condiment, believing it better to lack a certain piquancy in food and drink than to bring to the home table anything which may so easily work mischief.”

Balderdash. The holidays will arrive and with them good spirits and spirited cheer. Parties will pop with Champagne corks, percolate with fragrant punches and sparkle with spiced wine. Lively libations will pour all around.

No matter what your spiritual persuasion, know that there are ancient links between mid-winter celebrations and spirited consumption. In centuries past, Yule logs were sanctified with wine to honor the Holy Trinity, priests blessed strong ale sold to thirsty parishioners on Christmas night, and pagans sprinkled wine on the roots of fruit trees in thanks for a bountiful harvest.

Practices may have changed, but the emphasis on strong drink has remained. Knowing the origins of today’s celebratory mixtures may add to your enjoyment.

We have the Netherlands to thank for Hoppel Poppel, as well as for numerous rules about how, when and where to get tipsy. Dutch drinking involved so much ceremony and ritual, in fact, that the French poet Theophile de Viau once said, “I am as much repelled by their discipline as by their excess.”

The holidays were especially popular times for Dutch ladies to become cupshoten on the following mixture:

4 egg yolks

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup rum or cognac

7 tbsp. sugar

1 qt. hot milk

Beat yolks and sugar to a froth, stir in vanilla and slowly add milk, beating constantly. Mix in rum and pour into heated mugs. Dust with nutmeg and serve. (This recipe makes six to eight drinks.)

Scotland’s contribution was Athole Brose, literally “brew,” from the country’s mountainous northern province of Athole. It’s original concoction of hot whiskey and oatmeal has been refined.

To make Athole Brose, mix equal parts of Drambuie liqueur, honey and heavy cream; warm and stir until smooth, then cool and serve.

The Scots use Athole Brose to toast the New Year, but it also makes an excellent cold remedy.

Punches, also popular among holiday party-givers, originated in India, where 16th-century British seamen were first exposed to the potent brew. Punch, from the Hindustani word for “five,” was blended from sweet, sour, bitter, weak and spirited ingredients. Wine Punch, a popular concoction of the day, was composed the following:

1 medium pineapple, peeled and diced

½ to 1 cup sugar to taste

2 bottles German Rhine or Moselle wine or 2 bottles dry red wine

1 quart crushed strawberries or 12 peeled, sliced peaches

1 bottle dry Champagne

Crush fruit and sugar into a punch bowl, then let stand until sugar dissolves. Add white wine and chill four hours. Add Champagne just prior to serving.

If more chilling is required, add an ice block to the bowl. Ladle into punch cups and garnish with fruit. (NOTE: Red wine punch does not need to be chilled as thoroughly, but may need extra sugar.)

But the libation most associated with the holidays is the traditional Wassail Bowl. Literally translated as “be well,” this beverage was used by the early Anglo-Saxons to toast each other’s health, especially in mid-winter. Peasants unable to afford their own Wassail took their wooden bowls from door to door and sang in exchange for refills – the origin, many say, of caroling. One of the best treats the peasants could hope for was finding a piece of toasted bread floating in the bowl, giving rise to the practice of “drinking a toast to one’s benefactors.” The classic Wassail bowl includes:

18 crab apples, cored

3 quarts ale

5 slices fresh ginger, or 1 tsp. powdered

½ tsp. powdered cloves

1 cup Cognac, heated

2½ cups brown sugar

1 bottle sherry

1 tsp. nutmeg

6 eggs, separated

10 slices buttered toast, quartered

Sprinkle apples with ½ cup brown sugar, then bake in pre-heated 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Heat sherry, ale and spices in saucepan. Beat egg yolks until thick, egg whites until stiff, then fold together. Pour ale mixture into eggs, beating hard. Pour baked apples into heated bowl. Add ale-egg mixture and Cognac. Serve immediately in heated mugs. Pass toast to dip or float. (This recipe yields about 18 drinks.)

Of course, the Ladies of Plymouth Church would not have approved, and almost in precognition of holiday revelers’ too-festive ways, they included in their same slim volume the “English Cure for Drunkenness”:

“The recipe comes into notoriety from the discovery of a man fallen into such habitual drunkenness that his most earnest efforts to reclaim himself proved unavailing. He sought the advice of an eminent physician, who gave him a prescription which he followed for several months, after which he lost all desire for liquor.”

The prescription was as follows: five grams of sulfate of iron, 10 grams of magnesia, 11 drachms of peppermint water and one drachm of spirits of nutmeg, to be taken twice a day. The tonic, the Ladies claimed, would cure anyone of the desire for strong drink.

We may look into that after the holidays, assuming we can find peppermint water.