Saturday, November 21, 2009

21st Century: Whassup?!? 17th Century: Wassail?!?

It's Wassail Season!

Every year, I mark the beginning of wassail season on Halloween with the first hot cup at my Aunt Hazel's house in Woodruff. We take our bags of candy and decorated children to Aunt Hazel and Uncle Sam's house, dump off the candy to be handed out to trick-or-treaters, take a big group picture of the 25+ costumed family kids, grab a cup of steaming wassail from the pot on the stove and begin the walk around the tiny town, filling pillow cases with treats.

Even when we lived in the Valley, we would pack up the kids to go to Woodruff for Halloween if it fell on a weekend. It's an unofficial Potts family reunion. My Uncle Cliff brings his grand kids from Payson, my Cousin John brings his kids from Thatcher. And the first and last stop is always Aunt Hazel's, or, "The House of Woodruff" as Tanner called it when he was a tot.

There are certain things you can count on with Halloween in Woodruff: GiGi Gardner's soft, homemade gingerbread cookies are a favorite; the popcorn balls you always get at the house across the river; the truly scary haunted house that Peggy and Benny Goodman (who are in their 60s) rig every year, that had my fearless husband giggling in embarrassed fear last year (sorry, honey, everyone's fair game) alongside the usually fearless husband of one of my friends. I'm fairly certain they grabbed hands for a moment to pull each other past the masked, chainsaw wielding girl, but I won't swear to it. And, of course, we count on the wassail at Aunt Hazel's.

I called Aunt Hazel to get her recipe this week, and like all of us Potts women who cook but don't really use recipes, she gave me ingredients and rough ratios, then told me to just taste it and adjust till it was right. With Mom as my tester yesterday, I made my own first pot of the season for the 30 Primary children we hosted an activity for at the church.

Here's what we ended up throwing in the pot, to make enough for a crowd:

1 gallon of apple juice
1/2 gallon apple cider (you can do all cider or all juice, if you prefer)
1 gallon orange juice
5 large cinnamon sticks
10-15 allspice berries
15 whole cloves
2 c brown sugar*
2 T ground cinnamon**

Heat on high until steaming, stirring occasionally. Reduce to medium and simmer for at least 2 hours. Taste after the 1st hour to see if you need to adjust anything. Then, leave it on low for as long as you're serving it.

*I could have done without the sugar, but I like it tart. Do what feels right for you and yours. Yesterday we were serving this alongside popcorn, so it felt right to make it sweet for the youngsters.

*I only added ground cinnamon because my whole cinnamon sticks didn't have much scent; if yours are really aromatic, don't add the ground cinnamon. I added this after it had simmered for an hour and still didn't have the right amount of body. Freshness/strength of spices is a big deal for this - I bought my cinnamon sticks the day before I used them, but I'd wager they sat around in a warehouse for awhile before they hit our Safeway shelves. If your spices have a burst of aroma when you open the lids, you should be just fine. If not, you might want to toss the whole spices into a non-oiled frying pan and toss them around a little over high heat to begin to release some of their potency before putting them in the pot of juice. I've never tried it, but it seems like it would be a good idea. Or you could bump them around a little bit in a mortar and pestle if you have one.

This morning, I warmed up the leftover wassail for the girls and me, then went off to take a bath. After getting out of the bath I realized I'd left the wassail on high and rescued it just before it evaporated. Which led me to think of my next favorite winter holidays tradition: Homemade Potpourri or as we call it around here "The Stuff That Makes Your House Smell Like Christmas."

Whenever guests are coming over during the holidays, or I feel festive, or there's an odor in the kitchen that needs masking, I just throw the following together in a small pot:

Cinnamon stick or two
Whole cloves
Whole all spice
One orange, quartered
One apple, quartered

Bring it to a boil, then turn to low. I just keep adding water throughout the day. If you accidentally boil away the water, no biggie - just add a few fresh spices, more water and keep it going. Get up the next morning, add more water, and carry on. Refresh the spices after a day or two. If you have a wood stove, you could probably keep this simmering on top of it.

If you don't have whole spices, the powdered stuff works just fine. You can leave out the fruits altogether, if you want to. No allspice? No big deal. You get the picture.

Ok, now just go stand over the steaming pots on your stove, close your eyes and smile insipidly. Until you feel someone staring at you, then give the pots a good stir and look busy.

Love from the sweet-smelling farmhouse,

(P.S. Please don't stop by to smell; the house is a wreck. Go make your own.)

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