How to make your own lamb’s wool (or wassail)
Sometimes you just get that urge to make drinks according to medieval (or late renaissance) recipes. A good time to get that urge (provided you can control it; it’s usually a sudden-onset thing) is around Twelfth Night, when there is a seasonally-appropriate drink to remake: wassail, or lamb’s wool as it’s also called (to be strict, lamb’s wool seems to be a variety of wassail, at least according to wikipedia, and as we know wikipedia is always right).
Lamb’s wool is essentially warm beer with sugar, apples and spices (whereas wassail is warm cider, though I’ve seen wassail recipes based on beer, too). Sounds good, right? Who doesn’t like sugar, apples and spices? And we all like beer, obviously. So this is what I did.
First, I found a recipe that I could play with (I rarely cook exactly according to recipe. It wreaks havoc with my soufflés, but I like living dangerously): I picked this one, by cocktail guru Nick Strangeway. I changed it around a bit while making it and I have changed it retroactively as well based on things I discovered while cooking. So, here goes:
In order to make lamb’s wool, you need to make a) a spiced sugar syrup, and b) some apple sauce. This recipe is for 8-10 people, and still you will likely have some apple sauce and sugar syrup left afterwards. This should not be an issue as you can have the apple sauce with pork and you can put the sugar syrup in your tea with milk for a neat chai latte effect.
For the sugar syrup:
300 g granulated sugar
400 ml water
6 allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick (5 cm)
1/2 vanilla pod, cut open
The peelings from a inch-and-a-half-long piece of root ginger (see below)
For the apple sauce:
3 big bramley cooking apples
200 g dark brown muscovado sugar
An a inch-and-a-half-long piece of root ginger, grated
A generous pinch of grated nutmeg
A splash of water
2 or 3 500ml bottles of beer (see below)
First, make the sugar syrup. Put all the ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil and let simmer for 5 minutes. Strain into a jar or small pitcher (the finer your sieve, the less gunk you will have in your syrup, though bear in mind that gunk may add to the ‘medieval’ effect).
While the sugar syrup cools slightly, make the apple sauce. Put all the ingredients into a thick-bottomed saucepan and heat on a low-medium heat, lid on, until the apples have dissolved (the original recipe suggests this takes 6-7 minutes – even factoring in that it uses about half the apples, I’d say this would take more like 10-15 minutes). Open the lid and stir once in while. When the apples are dissolved or near-dissolved, pour the mix into a blender or blend it using a wand blender until smooth.
Next, heat the beer gently (it shouldn’t boil). You can lick your finger and stick it in the pan to judge when it has reached the appropriate temperature (don’t let your guests see you doing this). When beer is hot, mix it with a bit of apple sauce and a bit of sugar syrup in a mug or, ideally, a tankard. Now, the original recipe doesn’t say anything about the proportions of apple sauce and sugar syrup to beer except “to taste” (cop-out!). My experimentation indicates that you can be generous with the apple sauce (maybe two fingers/two generous spoonfuls) but should be more careful with the sugar syrup (the sweetness definitely risks overpowering the whole thing as the apple sauce is also plenty sweet) – in my view, one to two tablespoons are probably enough.
Most importantly, there’s the issue of which beer to choose. Do you want something that contrasts with the sweetness or something that complements it? Unfortunately, I did not have much opportunity to experiment – I only tried two beers, Ivanhoe, an ABV 5.2 English Pale Ale from Ridgway Brewing, and Stocking Filler, an ABV 4.8 dark Christmas (i.e. spiced) bitter from York Brewery. Of these, I thought the Stocking Filler worked much better, the spiciness and maltiness of the beer added to the spiciness of the sugar syrup and apples. The Ivanhoe was a bit too bitter; the flavours did not blend well but rather tasted “separate”, which was weird. I’m willing to bet that a slightly sweeter stout or a breakfast/coffee stout would work well, as would a big IPA or DIPA whose hop character is more towards the fruity end (I found myself thinking that the Human Cannonball from Magic Rock would probably make a great lamb’s wool mixer).
If anyone happens to try this recipe, please do let me know which beer you choose and how it worked! I would love to hear about all your crazy flavour combinations.