The oldest recipes for a wassail drink involve heated spiced brown ale on which slices of toast spread thinly with yeast were placed. After a couple of hours in a warm place the toast was removed and the ale bottled and corked. The drink was ready for serving when the bottles popped their corks a few days later, so the ale was lightly frothy.
In 1666 Samuel Pepys records staying up until 2 am playing cards and drinking Lamb’s Wool. This was a bowl of spiced ale (or cider) set in front of the fire to warm. Apples were strung out above the bowl and as they gradually cooked some of the pulp fell into the bowl below. Lamb’s Wool is the traditional wassail drink of Somerset.
Other wassail cups, also consisting of hot spiced ale, float small baked red dessert apples (originally these would have been crab apples) atop slices of toast on the surface of the drink. The toast is then hung in the branches of the apple tree as part of the wassail ceremony.
The ingredients of Lamb’s Wool are the same as for the Wassail cup, only the method alters slightly as described below.
3 quarts (3.5 litres/approx 6 pints) brown ale
4 glasses of dry sherry (1-1½ pints)
Soft brown sugar (recipes vary between about 9 oz and 1lb)
Cinnamon (about a level teaspoon)
Ginger (preferably slices of fresh or candied ginger)
Nutmeg (1 level teaspoon)
Strips of lemon peel
6 small red dessert apples (or cooking apples if making Lambswool)
6 small slices of toast
Cut the skin around the circumference of the apples and set them in a warm oven to bake.
Put all the other ingredients, except for the toast, into a saucepan and heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for 5 minutes, but do not allow it to boil.*
Taste and add more sugar as necessary. Serve from a large bowl with the baked apples on toast floating on top.
*If making Lambswool, the pulp of the baked apples should be sieved (cooking apples make this easier). The pulp is stirred into the hot liquid during its last 5 minutes of heating.