Lavender Tea Milk Punch: A Libation to Toast the Returning Light

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It’s that magical time of the year—halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox—when we start to consider the returning light and warmer, softer days. The seeds in the earth are stirring and in some parts of the world (like ours) snowdrops are up and daffodils are already starting to peep through the soil. For my ancient ancestors, February was a time of great anticipation for the coming growing season. To ensure bountiful crops, productive livestock and healthy mothers and babes, they practiced fertility and purification rites—many of them featuring milk. Why, the Gaelic festival of Imbolc/Imbolg (Feb 1-4) has milk right in its name.

In light of the academic controversy that ultimately surrounds the term for this festival, the distinguished linguist Eric Hamp has conclusively proven that the second syllable for Imbolg can be traced to the Old Irish words for “milk” and “milking” which, in turn, was derived from the Proto-Indo-European root-word *Hmelǵ– signifying “purification”…Rekindling the Rites of Imbolg, W. MacMorrighan

Milk played an important role in these rites. It symbolized new life and so was considered sacred and pure. I imagine it was also dear. It seems unlikely to me that ancient peoples actually drank much milk. It would have been difficult to store and milk production was tied to the seasons. I reckon they made butter, cheese, yogurt, etc and possibly saved the milk drinking for ceremonies or for offerings to goddesses—particularly fertility goddesses.  Brighid, the mother/sun goddess associated with Imbolc, has a close association with milk. Legend has it that she was nourished exclusively on milk from an Otherworldly red heifer. Even post-sainthood, St. Brigid was considered a protector of herds and a producer of milky miracles. Pre-Christian and Christian worshippers of Brighid/St Brigid relied on the goddess/saint to bless and protect the milk supplies of their herds and the new mothers in their communities. Of course there’s a whole lot more to Brighid/Brigid than an affinity for dairy—like fire, poetry, herbs, healing…for starters.

In Scotland, dairymaids made libations of milk to the Gruagach, a female spectre of the class of brownies and a protector of herds. It was a practice that may have originated with ancient mother goddess worship and continued as recently as 1770, with an account of dairymaids on the Island of Trodda leaving daily offerings for milk on hollow stone. (source)

And so with a nod to milk-loving faeriefolk, fertility goddesses the world over and for my own ancestors who would have so revered dairy this time of year, I’m once again making this rich “milk punch” for my own midwinter feast. Danielle and I served this last year at our Midwinter Festival of Lights workshop and I’m so looking forward to lifting a cup or two (or three) again this weekend.

The recipe is pretty simple—it’s really just a heavenly mix of whole milk, cream, honey, tea and herbs & vanilla. Heat-loving herbs for a celebration to welcome the sun, makes sense to me. And so I went with lavender for it’s calming, healing and purification properties. You could experiment with other herbs and flavours. I’ve made this with rose and cardamom for a winter solstice party and it was delicious. Rosemary, another Brighid/Imbolc herb, might be interesting…Oh, and bourbon, brandy or any other favourite spirits make this ceremonial libation all the more magical! I serve this in a milk glass (of course) punch bowl with an ice ring (water & flowers frozen overnight in a bundt pan) and a sprinkling of lavender buds. You could also serve this with boozy whipped cream as you would with egg nog. For those avoiding dairy, I imagine you could do something quite spectacular with almond milk or coconut milk and coconut cream…

Recipe: Lavender Cream Libation

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Lavender Cream Libation by candlelight…and cake.

Ingredients 
1/2 cup + 1 1/2 cups whole milk (the most delicious you can find, grass-fed, organic, fresh,etc)
2 cups of good heavy cream (again, the good stuff, sans artificial thickeners)
4 teaspoons honey (more or less to taste – I use lavender-infused herbal honey)
1/2 a vanilla bean, split & scraped
2 cups of strong brewed lavender tea (use store-bought tea bags or make a tisane with fresh or dried lavender. I used a commercial chamomile & lavender tea. black lavender tea is also lovely. brew extra for blending to taste)
brandy (optional)
lavender buds for garnish (optional)

Instructions
Brew a pot of lavender herbal tea. You can make your own with dried/fresh lavender or buy herbal tea bags from the shop. I use multiple teabags and allow it to steep overnight or at least for a few hours to really get that nice herbal flavour. Remember you’re going to blend this with a whole lot of milk and cream, so your tea needs to be able to hold her own.

Once your tea is how you want it and cooled to room temperature, slowly heat a 1/2 cup of milk over low heat with the honey and vanilla. Stir to dissolve the honey and break up the vanilla bean seeds. Allow the sweetened milk to cool and chill.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining 1 1/2 cups of milk and cream in a large bowl. Add 2 cups of tea and remaining sweetened milk. Mix and tinker to taste! Add brandy if you like. Sprinkle with lavender buds or grate some nutmeg on top. Serve very cold or on ice. And if you have a bit to spare, go pour a bit in your garden to bless your own fields or leave a draught or two for the faeries. Happy almost-spring!

 

 

Rosemary & Lavender Lemon Curd “Tassies”: Here Comes The Sun!

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Nothing says Imbolc better that the bright yellows of lemon, butter and egg yolks. So what happens when you infuse a sweet, zesty, creamy, lemon curd with the aromatic herbs of the sun? Glorious food magic is what!

Lemon Tassies are old-fashioned dessert tarts filled with easy to make citrusy curd. And while no one is sure where they first originated, the word Tassie is believed to be derived from the old Scottish & French words for small cup. And since France and Scotland were once Celtic lands (from which Jennifer and I both descend) I decided they were perfect to bring to her Imbolc Soirée, where we will once again celebrate with neighbours and friends, the return of Brigid, the Celtic maiden goddess of the sun.

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Imboc occurs somewhere between Feb1st or 4th (when the sun hits the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox) a time when days grow visibly longer, and deep in the earth seeds begin to stir. And with the promise of spring, as new shoots and buds begin to appear, it was a time of preparing the ground and beginning the agricultural work of the new year.

Magically, Imbolc was a time of purification and protection symbolized by Brigid the goddess of fire. Bonfires were lit to cleanse the fields, hearth fires were put out and re-lit, and lit candles were placed in each room to guide Brigid and her blessings to their home. Special foods symbolizing the power of the sun were made, offered and eaten, to help Brigid spread her green cloak of new life, across the land.

Long associated with the sun, butter has long been served at Brigid’s Feast. Legend tells when Brigid was sent to help the dairymaids churn butter, she prayed for abundance and the butter doubled. This she took and fed to the poor. Today people still leave out butter as a special gift to Brigit for Imbolc so that she will bless them with prosperity and abundance.

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Eggs (with their golden round orbs) have long been symbols of fertility and new life, and the lemon’s bright fresh, cleansing yellow, the colour of spring. Add to this the purifying and protective powers of rosemary and lavender, herbs both sacred to Brigid, and you’ve got some sweet treats I’m sure will please her tastebuds and help spread her sweet warmth over the wintry land.

And that’s why these Lemon Curd Tassies are the perfect offering. Buttery rich, lemony fresh, and suffused with the aromatic herbaceous notes of rosemary and lavender, they’re brimming with the magic of the sun. A perfect addition for any Imbolc celebration right?

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Plus Tassies are easy to make! Making the curd is a fairly simple procedure, and it begins with infusing your butter with your herbs on low heat for a few hours. Then you strain out the herbs and put butter aside. After that the most arduous part is grating the lemon rinds and squeezing of juice. This juice whisked together with sugar and eggs until light and frothy. And it makes a sunny pretty picture indeed!

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Then this mixture is put in a saucepan on low to medium heat to thicken and cook. Slowly  stirring, watch for when the consistency of the curd becomes thick enough that it hold its shape and doesn’t run back together with you a put spoon through. Once ready,  your infused butter is added, and gently stirred until melted. In a few minutes a beautiful creamy curd appears.

This is cooled for a few hours so that the curd takes on a thicker, even creamier consistency, and is then spooned into prebaked golden tarts. I used store bought mini-tarts because I wanted their perfect sun like appearance, but of course you can use home-made pastry or even a shell of buttered nuts and seeds.

Voila the delicious food magic of Lemon Curd Tassies!  Bring on the sun!

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Rosemary & Lavender Lemon Curd Tassies

Makes about 2 cups.

INGREDIENTS

  • ½ cup fresh lemon juice
  • Zest of 2 medium lemons
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¾ cup organic cane sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 4-inch stems of fresh rosemary
  • Teaspoon of dried lavender buds
  • 5 tablespoons butter

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Put butter in small sauce on low heat. Once butter is melted, add your rosemary and lavender. Let infuse on lowest setting for an hour. Strain herbs from butter. Set butter aside.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon juice, zest and salt until frothy and light.
  • Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and place over medium low heat. Stir constantly, until the curd thickens, about 5-7 minutes or so. When you can run your spoon through and it leaves a clear path without running back together in the pan, remove from heat.
  • Press the cooked curd through a strainer to filter out any cooked zest pieces and/or tiny lumps.
  • Then turn the heat all the way to low and stir in the butter. Cook and stir until the butter is melted and fully incorporated.
  • When the curd is cooked, allow to cool on the counter to room temperature before refrigerating overnight, or at least 4 hours. This will allow the curd to fully thicken to its proper consistency.
  • Once cool spoon into small pre-baked mini-tarts and adorn with blossoms of rosemary and lavender.

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Infused Wassail Cider: A Recipe For Blessing The Earth (and Ourselves)

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Yes, the sun has begun her official return. But as I write this, frost shimmers, the ground is frozen and every footstep crunches. And it’s easy to understand why our ancestors, as the pantry grew lean, wanted to give mother nature just a little loving nudge in waking up. So to me, in the barren starkness of winter, the old traditions of wassailing, of pouring libations upon the earth, just makes perfect sense.  So in honour of this old seasonal magic, I decided to infuse a sparkly apple cider with the warming energy of sunshiney herbs and flowers!

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The word wassail is derived from both Old English (wases hael) and Old Norse (vest heil), and literally means “be healthy” “be you hale”, and it refers both to a mulled cider poured on the roots of apple trees to bless and nourish the orchards, and an actual toast drunk to ensure good health and good harvest.

Customs differed regionally, but wassailing generally occurred on the Twelfth Night of Yule (January 17th). Celebrants would gather round the trees to make a racket to raise the Sleeping Tree Spirits (and scare away any evil spirits which might bedevil the future harvest). They also placed toast (sops) soaked in cider in the branches for the Robins, who were the guardians of the spirit of the apple trees. Then a Wassail bowl or cup was presented, and all drunk from it with the toast Wassail (be healthy)!

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I love these ‘old ways’ of creating blessings for ourselves and the planet. Sourced in the understanding of our symbiotic relationship with mother nature, they symbolically express our gratitude for the fruits of the earth and our role in the physical and spiritual care of the land.

While no is quite sure when wassailing began, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud , authors of A Dictionary of English Folklore believe it is sourced in the older “field-visiting custom” or “field remedy ritual” believed to fertilize the earth and ensure abundance. They write “Amongst all the calendar customs which popular folklore enthusiasts have claimed as remnants of luck-bringing rituals, wassailing is the only one that has a relatively clean and undisputed claim to this lineage.”

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The author Henry David Thoreau believed wassailing was a relic of the “heathen sacrifice” to Pomona, Roman Goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards. I think he’s probably right. The blessings of trees through the pouring of libations (oils, milk, mead and liquid honey) far predate Christianity.  The apple tree is one of our oldest spiritual symbols, and from the Romans, Greeks, Celts, Balts, Norse, Teutons, and Slavs, it was understood to be an embodiment of the goddess.

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Going clockwise: Indunn by Howard David Johnson, Pomona by Nicolas Fouché, Pomona Tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones and John Henry Dearle.

Apples were also the sacred fruit of Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love, beauty and fertility. And from Ishtar, Astarte, Hera, Indunn, and Freya, the apple was the Fruit of immortality, Fruit of the Gods, Fruit of the Underworld, the Silver Branch, The Silver Bough, The Tree of Love.

In fact the apple has so long been associated with the goddess and magic, it’s a wonder it took the Church so long to crack down. But finally it did, and according to the Cambridge Library Collection blog, ” In 1577 there was an edict against wassailing – superstitious practices believed to encourage good apple crop in the following year were banned: though in spite of this and later Puritan objections the custom was maintained in the traditional apple-growing areas.”

Today the tradition of wassailing is having a popular resurgence with celebrations popping up everywhere in private, community and commercial orchards. And in the past two years I attended local wassails that I’m sure rivalled any of their past counterparts in merriment.

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Top image is from The Guardian

But this year I decided to wassail the bounteous crab apple tree I’d harvested from late summer to fall. Standing not in an orchard, but in a mixed field of trees on an abandoned lot, I wanted to send her a little extra love and say thanks for all the sweet, tart goodness she brought to my life.

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The traditional English wassail recipes call for cloves, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and peppercorns tied in cheesecloth. This spice bag (along with the cider, apples, brown sugar, brandy) were put in a large pot over gentle heat. Eggs were beaten and added to make a frothy creation. (see sample recipe here).

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Traditional Wassail, Image from the Nourished Kitchen

But I wanted something less heavy, more effervescent (and less effort!) and so I decided to go with a sparkly cider made with Salt Spring wild apples. (Please note, whatever sparkly cider you use, and there are oodles of local craft ciders to choose from, you’ll need a re-sealable bottle with swing cap for this recipe.)

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Then, in the spirit of sympathetic magic that is wassail, I decided empower the cider with the aromatic enlivening herbs of the sun, rosemary and bay. To this I added yarrow and just a touch of motherwort, for their nurturing feminine influence. And finally, in honour of the goddesses of love, fertility and beauty, I added a liberal dose of the petals of their most sacred flower, the rose.

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Of course you can use whatever herbs and spices you feel so inclined to. Magic is a personal business. But fennel seeds and lemon balm also make wonderful aromatic additions, and plants with yellow flowers (calendula, St. John’s Wort, dandelion) that turn towards the sun can be used. And you don’t need much, it’s the intention that’s important here, plus too much plant material will just clog up the bottle!

The wassail of old was decidedly alcoholic, but if you want to go spirit free, an apple cider juice will still do the trick. There are plenty of recipes online, and most feature orange or cranberry juice as well. Here’s one for herbal tea and juice wassail.

Of course this recipe is far simpler, as it’s done right in the bottle. That said, you’ll find keeping the bubbles in when you poke down your herbs and petals, is a bit of a challenge! Because, as I discovered, it fizzes like crazy!

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So to make this infused cider, you’re going to need to be fast. Get a chopstick or skewer ready before uncapping the bottle, then push the herbs and petals down through the bottleneck as quickly as you can without losing the fizz! Quickly recap, and let sit for a day or two. And don’t forget to pay it some energizing attention (and intention) now and then.

On January 17th, as dusk closes, take your bottle to a place in nature that could use some nourishing libations. Decant and strain your wassail, then lift a toast to the health of all. Here’s a popular one from days past: “Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wassailing, So fair to be seen. Love and joy come to you, And to your wassail too.” And don’t forget a splash or two for the earth!

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Sparkly Wassail Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 750 ml. bottle of sparkling apple cider (one with a resealable swing cap)
  • 1 sprig of rosemary
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • pinch of dried yarrow and mugwort
  • few crushed cardamom seeds
  • 1 handful of dried wild or garden rose petals
  • (and if you want to add a touch of sweetness – a dollop of honey)

Directions

  • Gather your plant material close at hand.
  • Uncap your bottle, and moving quickly, push down a few herbs or petals at a time using a skewer, chopstick or thin knife. It will fizz but keep going as fast as you can to get your plant material in. Pour in your honey (if you are using).
  • Then quickly recap. Turn the bottle and gently shake a few times to make sure your herb material is well soaked.
  • Let sit to infuse for a minimum of 12 hours, periodically re-shaking the bottle.
  • When ready to wassail, decant, strain and pour into glasses or mugs. Garnish with dried rose petals, rosemary and orange slices.
  • Wassail!

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Tea & Bourbon Barmbrack for a Midwinter Festival of Light

I’m relatively new to Imbolc. In fact, I’m not even 100% comfortable calling this ancient February festival by it’s Gaelic name despite my Scots/Irish heritage. Gaelic blood hardly makes me privy to old customs. The geography of my foremothers aside, I am drawn to this midwinter festival of light with it’s irresistible magic, food and lore.

For my European ancestors, this time of year, between winter and spring, would have been a time for cautious optimism. Provisions would be running low, but as the days grew longer and the earth began to warm, animals would be mating or birthing (depending on your locale) and the fields would begin to thaw. This meant that larders would soon be filled again with milk, butter and eventually meat—that is, if everything went well. To hedge one’s bets in a world considerably harsher than our own, it would be wise to appeal to the goddesses who controlled such things, often with a festival. And you can imagine how welcome a celebration would be as the weight of a long cold winter began to shift.

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Star of Heaven (detail), Edward Robert Hughes

Customs vary but there are similarities across agricultural communities. Most rites included offerings to the land or to the goddesses of the land to ensure fertile crops and families for the coming years. For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to focus on cake, but obviously there was a whole lot more to these festivals. Ceremonial cakes, usually round (to mimic the sun?) were made by women. The cakes were made with the women’s hopes and desires for the coming year along with the best of what remained in their cupboards. Often a cake was made for feasting and another or a portion of the family cake was left for a goddess or taken to the field to bless the crops-to-be.

“Cakes, in the ancient world, had ties with the annual cycle, and people used them as offerings to the gods and spirits who exercised their powers at particular times of the year…Agricultural peoples around the globe made offerings of cakes prepared from the grains and fruits that arose from the soil. The types of ingredients used to make these cakes contributed to their symbolism…The cake’s size and shape were equally symbolic of its ritual purpose…round cakes symbolized the sun or the moon…All of these cakes had definitive links to the myths the people embraced.”
Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology, Tamra Andrews [ABC-CLIO:Santa Barbara CA] 2000 (p. 52-54) via foodtimeline.org

According to Bede’s De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time)the Anglo Saxon month of February was called Sol-monath, which can be translated to mean “cake month”… or “mud month”.  As round cakes and loaves were made to mark the occasion regardless, I feel like we can make a solid case for “cake month”.  We have the Anglo-Saxons and the Gaels making round cakes in and around early February, or at least around the time that we now call February. Around the same time in Sweden, the Disting or dísaþing (“Disir-Assembly”) was held to honour female spirits known as the Disir. I couldn’t find much information about what happened during this festival, but I’m going to go ahead and assume there would be feasting and sacrifices to these female deities and to the land…and you know, probably cake.

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The Dises (1909) Dorothy Hardy

So, we know the ancients made cakes for feast days throughout the seasons.For more fascinating cake history, Danielle goes more in-depth here.  We’re still trotting out ceremonial cakes, though today’s edible oil “ice-cream” monstrosities and $800 wedding cakes are a bit of a departure from the magical, symbolic rounds of yore. We can do better.

Right, so now that we’ve established the cake thing, there are many other beautiful rites for this loveliest of cross-quarter holidays that I won’t go too far into here. Danielle and I usually host an Imbolc celebration and try to incorporate the traditions that strike us as beautiful and meaningful. Generally, we have a lot of candles (like, a lot) a fire and a feast featuring many gorgeous ceremonial dishes like ewe’s milk hung yogurt cheeses, herbal butters, milk punch (note the dairy theme: milk=purification), braided seed breads and of course, cakes! We also weave Brigid’s crosses/sun wheels using local greenery and set intentions for the coming spring. You can see photos of our past celebrations here and here. Pretty, right?

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Imbolc altar with handmade lanterns and…cake! Albeit, not barmbrack…

And here is where I finally get to the barmbrack AKA barm brack, barnbreak, bairín breac/ bairínbreac, or bara brith (Welsh). No matter how I mispronounce any of these names, they all mean a yeasted or fermented “speckled bread”, as in bread speckled with dried fruit.  I opted for an unleavened version. I fancy the idea of a more ancient cake, before they figured out how to easily extract yeast from brewing. I know if I were an ancient Celt, I certainly wouldn’t bother with wild yeast in a cold February kitchen. I suspect this isn’t a terribly historically accurate notion of mine. I should also add, that not all sources associate barmbrack with Imbolc, but I found enough do to support serving this for a pre-spring festival. Also,  I was out of yeast…

No matter, I wouldn’t change it for the world. This recipe is to die for (a good pun, if you know that barmbrack is popular treat during Samhain). It’s rich and flavourful and really quite beautiful to behold. I made it for a previous Gather Imbolc workshop and it was well-received. My fruit cake-hating six-year-old even liked it. Thank you DoChara.com for the basic recipe. I’ve adapted the recipe slightly to include ancient/older grains, however you can easily use whole wheat or all purpose flour. When you’re making your barmbrack, put some intention into it. Think about your hopes for the coming year. Think about the friends and family you’re going to serve it to. And maybe keep a piece to crumble into your garden to bless your own fields.

Tea & Bourbon Barmbrack for Imbolc

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Adapted from dochara.com 

Keep in mind you need to soak the dried fruit overnight, so adjust your timing and expectations accordingly!

You’ll need a 7 or 8″ round tin – I doubled and made one 10″ round + a 6″ round

1 cup cold strong tea (I used Irish Breakfast because I’m all about congruity)
1/2 cup of bourbon or whisky of choice
1/2  cup organic soft brown sugar
1 tablespoon unsulfured molasses
1 fresh organic egg
3 cups mixed dried fruit (I used foraged wild blueberries, currants, mulberries and a few sultanas)
1.5 cups of organic red fife flour
1/2 cup of organic einkorn flour (if you can’t find einkorn, increase your red fife flour or whole wheat/all purpose to 2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon mixed allspice
1/2  teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/2  teaspoon grated orange peel

Put the tea/bourbon, sugar, citrus rind and dried fruit in a bowl. Stir well, then cover and leave to soak overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350ºF and grease the tin with a little butter. Beat the egg and mix it thoroughly with the fruit & remaining liquid. Add the molasses. Sieve the flour, spices and baking soda together and stir well into the fruit mixture.

Turn the batter into the tin, place in the oven and bake for 90 minutes. Allow the brack to cool for about 20 minutes in the tin before turning it out to cool on a wire rack.

This loaf, if sealed up properly, keeps for a good 10 days. It also freezes like a dream!

Woodland Shortbread: Two Recipes for Foraged Fir Biscuits

“For the first time since he had entered Narnia he saw the dark green of a fir tree.”

Since childhood, I’ve had a powerful affection for conifers. Growing up in Saskatchewan, these motherly trees provided deep dark refuge from the summer heat. We would travel five hours to spend two weeks among the Jack Pine, Balsam Fir & White Spruce that surrounded the northern campsites. They were magic. They could make June smell like Christmas and in an attempt to capture some of that magic, I would bring pocketfuls of needles back home with me where they’d inevitably be forgotten about until my mother did laundry. Turns out a dried pine needle can really embed itself under a mother’s fingernail. Yikes. Again in December, a fragrant conifer provided refuge once more—this time from the dark, lighting up the corner of our living room with 70’s pinks, blues and oranges. But, no matter how romantic my childlike musings, eating conifers didn’t occur to me until I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Since then, I’ve been making up for lost time. From lemony Hemlock tea and Grand Fir pots de creme to Danielle’s Grand Fir Nougat, I’ve explored the sensory experience of culinary pine in the most delightful ways.

And so, shortbread seemed like the next logical step. I experimented with several recipes and eventually settled on two that I love for different reasons. The brown sugar version makes for a wonderfully dense and sturdy cookie with a definite Douglas-fir flavour that pairs wonderfully with chocolate. And the brown butter recipe is just so refined with it’s more delicate texture and subtle fir notes. I love them both and I usually make both recipes at the same time. Once you’ve harvested needles, you may as well go all in.

You can use any pine or fir needle for this recipe, once you’ve tested for edibility. All pine and fir needles are edible. You will find some references cautioning against Ponderosa Pines, but that’s a very specific warning for pregnant women and even then, you’d have to consume a great deal of strongly extracted pine to cause a problem (source). So, choose what is available and what tastes nice to you.  And while we’re talking taste, do try to erase any ridiculous association you may have with pine cleaners. Conifers lend themselves wonderfully to baking. And these buttery, citrusy biscuits are positively bursting with forest magic! One can easily imagine them on Mr. Tumnus’ tea table or crisping up in the woodland ovens of the Seelie Court.

First thing’s first, you’re going to need some fir. Grand Fir is a crowd-pleaser with its tangerine notes and eyes-shot-heavenward fragrance. Douglas-fir, while not a true fir hence the hyphen, is a bit more resinous and “piney”. To me, Douglas-fir smells like Christmas.  I love them both, so really just go with what you can find. When you’re foraging for fir, look for the younger growth at the tips of the boughs. You can use spring growth, however, I think those tender, citrusy lime green tips are better enjoyed fresh in salads or for something less demanding than a chunky buttery shortbread. You want needles that have come into their proper piney selves. Needles that taste the way they smell. Avoid very old or dark green needles. They’re too resinous and lend a bitter, astringent aftertaste. Every tree has a unique flavour, so make time for a little coniferous taste testing. You really don’t have to harvest much to get the cup of needles needed to cover both of these recipes. Clip only what you need, don’t ravage any one tree and never snip the top off of a young tree—you’ll expose it to nasties and stunt its growth.

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Next, de-needle. The twiggy stems are definitely bitter, so you only want to be grinding up the needles. Working in batches, grind needles as finely as you can using a spice or coffee grinder. If you have something fancier like a Vitamix or whatnot…well, I’m jealous. Keep grinding until you have the 1/2 cup needed for each recipe. You can store leftover ground needles, sealed,  in the fridge for a few days.

Brown Sugar Foraged Fir Shortbread

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Ingredients

1 cup butter, softened (the best quality you can get your hands on)
1/2 cup of fresh evergreen needles (I used Douglas-fir), finely ground
1 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Instructions

Beat butter and sugar until creamy. I used my stand mixer. Add the ground needles and orange zest; then gradually stir in flour until well blended.

If you’re planning to roll out and cut your cookies, gather the dough into a disc and wrap it well with plastic wrap. Let it firm up in the fridge for at least an hour. If you’re using a cookie mould or want to simply slice rounds, roll the dough into a couple of logs, wrap and refrigerate. If you are slicing rounds, it’s nice to roll the logs of dough in sparkly, organic cane or chunky amber rock sugar for a pleasing crunchy ring-around-the-cookie effect.

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I like to use my Chinese moon cake mould to make large, beautiful gift-worthy shortbread cookies.

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Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C).

Rolling/Cutting: On a lightly floured area, roll out the dough to 1/4″ thickness, cut into desired shapes (may I suggest a Christmas tree cutter?) and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with sugar, if you fancy.

Moulded/Rounds: Slice 1/4 ” rounds or pack your floured cookie mould with dough. Enjoy the therapeutic thwacking required to loosen the dough from the mould. Truly enjoyable, this part. Sprinkle tops with organic cane sugar.

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Regardless, of what you decide to do with the dough, keep in mind this is a very crispy recipe—so don’t go too thick or you’ll find yourself tottering over from toothsome to tooth breaker in a heartbeat. And if you find you’ve gotten distracted by (insert standard life disaster here) and your cookies may have warmed up a bit in your kitchen, just pop them into the freezer for 5 mins. This will prevent them from spreading.

Pop in the oven for a good 20-25 minutes or until the biscuits are firm to the (very gentle) touch. It’s a low & slow bake for an extra-crispy cookie. If you’ve used a cookie mould, your biscuits may be a bit thicker, so adjust your time accordingly. While the cookies cool, melt some high-quality chocolate over a double boiler. 16 ounces was enough for to cover 18 large molded cookies. Dip biscuits in the melted chocolate and allow to harden at room temperature before you either store in an airtight container or freeze. And these do freeze like a dream.

Brown Butter Evergreen Shortbread

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Ingredients

1/2 cup of  pine needles (roughly chopped to release essential oils – use a knife or scissors)
1 cup salted, good quality butter, cut into cubes
3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
2 cups all-purpose flour
Organic cane sugar for dusting

Instructions

Melt the butter over medium-low heat, cooking until it turns a deep golden brown. Remove the pot from the heat and add the pine needles and cover the pot with a lid. Allow the butter to infuse for at least a few hours. I let it infuse overnight. The next day (or later), warm the butter up enough just to melt it and strain out the needles. Pour the butter into a bowl and chill until solidified once more.

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Preheat oven to 300 degrees and lightly grease a 10′ fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Remove the butter from the fridge and let it return to room temperature.

Beat the butter until light and creamy. I used my stand mixer. Add the confectioner’s sugar and beat on medium-high until fluffy. Add the orange zest and add the flour mixing just until it comes together

Press the dough into the tart pan, working quickly so as not to melt the dough with your fingers. Score the dough into wedges and prick the dough all over with a toothpick. Sprinkle with sanding sugar.

Bake for an hour or until lightly golden brown. Cut the shortbread into wedges along the score lines when the shortbread is still warm and fresh from the oven. Allow it to cool completely before you attempt transferring or serving.

Grand Fir Dark Nougat: A Touch of Solstice Magic

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I found the recipe for this “extraordinary and irresistible traditional Christmas candy” in a treasured old cookbook “The Auberge of The Flowering Hearth”. Created with only three ingredients, pine honey, toasted almonds and a pinch of thyme, it is caramelized down into a dark, delectable, chewy brittle known as Black Nougat. Well, I was enchanted. Not only did it sound easy to make and absolutely scrumptious, it was positively soaked in old world Christmas and Yule magic.

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Black Nougat was one of thirteen traditional desserts served at The Auberge (a small country inn located high in the Alps of France). As per Christmas Eve custom, it was paired with White Nougat, and served alongside dried fruits and nuts, fennel seed cookies, marron de glace (candied chestnut) candied citrus peels, marzipan, fruit galette (tarts) and gaufrettes (light thin waffles) brioche, quince paste, and a Buche De Noel (yule log). Oh my.

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The cookbook recounts the words of proprietor Madame Vivette to a group of guests on Christmas Eve. “We have come around the full circle of the year and this Auberge of ours – here among these snow white mountains – sometimes seems a very long way from my sunny childhood in provence. But on the night before Christmas I like to bring Provence into this house with the ceremony of The Thirteen Desserts of Reveillon”.

This provencal tradition was far more than an elaborate banquet of sweets. Each of the desserts was imbued with spiritual meaning, and sampling all thirteen ensured a year of good luck, prosperity and a bountiful harvest. While the dishes have taken on Christian symbolism, many trace back to pagan times. While the number thirteen is commonly said to symbolize Christ and the twelve disciples, it also reflects the much older 13 day celebration of Yuletide, which also included many dishes, such as dried nuts and fruits, fruitcakes and sweetened breads for it’s celebratory feasts.

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A smattering of treats & a Buche De Noel Cake. Image Source here

The Buche De Noel Cake is a more recent addition, but takes it’s origin in the ancient custom of burning a Yule log. Madame Vivette serves the cake in remembrance of her childhood when “the ceremonial relishing of the great log fire in the hearth” took place before supper. The evening began with lighting the partly burned log which had been kept from Christmas Eve the year before. When the fire was burning brightly the family took its place at the table.

After supper, a local sweet wine and the thirteen desserts were enjoyed, and “when it was time to leave for the village church my father put out the fire, and asking a blessing for the house he would set aside the log to be kept for the next year. The Thirteen Desserts would remain on the dining table for thirteen days so that if a hungry beggar came to our door, he could be offered food to eat.”     

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Ye olde Yule Log burning bright!

Today the thirteen desserts are still served in Provence, dishes vary from family to family, region to region – but white and dark nougat are deemed indispensable. In the Christian tradition Black Nougat was said to represent black penitents and the forces of evil, while White Nougat the saved and the good – and both had to be equally represented at the Christmas table. But I lean with those who say the important pairing of dark and white nougat represents the return of the light on the eve of the solstice. The black represents the longest, darkest night of the year, and white, the return of the sun.

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White Nougat with hazelnuts & Black Nougat with Almonds

Now I love old world food lore and recreating long lost culinary traditions, but I wasn’t ready to prepare all 13 desserts, never mind a Buche De Noel, just yet. But a black nougat I could do, and it would be a lovely new (& old) way to mark the upcoming winter solstice.

Sadly, the recipe called for honey made with pine blossoms (a speciality of the region) – and I had none of that. But undeterred, I decided to try my hand creating my own localized rustic Black Nougat by adding Vancouver Island hazelnuts and grand fir infused honey. I went with Grand Fir because it’s citrusy flavour is similar to pine, and makes a good complement to all that caramelized sweetness. (Douglas Fir, Spruce or Pine, with their deeper resinous notes would also be equally nice.)

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Grand Fir Needles chopped into honey. Grand Fir can be identified by the needles which lie flat on the branches (not round like a bristle brush). They alternate short and long, and feature two white stripes on the underside of the needle.

The process of making black nougat is similar to how caramel is made – which means it’s a speedy process. It’s important to have all ingredients ready to go, because moving quickly is of the essence. The basic recipe is to combine honey with nuts then cook at low heat until honey becomes an amber brown. Then pour the mixture into a pan lined with buttered parchment or foil. Let cool. 

Once done, I topped my Black Nougat off with a dusting of grand fir brown sugar (with a few more minced needles) for additional texture and taste.  And it came out truly delicious, not to mention very pretty.  And I like to think that because it’s made from honey, nuts and grand fir – it’s also good for you too!

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Grand Fir Dark Nougat

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 Tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 cup of minced grand fir needles (keep a tablespoon back for garnish)
  • 1 cup honey
  • 2 cups roasted hazelnuts (or almonds)
  • pinch of thyme (fresh or dried)

PREPARATION

  • In a food processor pulse Grand fir needles (or mince finely by hand) and mix into your honey.
  • Line a small tin with aluminum foil and butter it well.
  • Pour the honey in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, and cook at low heat for 10 minutes.
  • Add the thyme and nuts and continue cooking for another 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
  • When nuts begin to crackle and honey thickens to an amber brown, your nougat is ready. (Be warned, if you overcook the honey at too high a heat your nougat will come out hard as a rock – so keep a close watch.)
  • To test, drop a teaspoon of honey into a glass of cold water; it should harden immediately. Remove honey from the heat and stir for 2 more minutes.
  • Carefully pour the honey mixture into the buttered tin (it will still be very hot). Smooth the mixture with a metal spoon.When the nougat is completely cool, break it into small pieces with the back of a knife. Store in a cool place.

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Note: If you want to make the white nougat too, there is a lovely recipe here., but it can also be purchased at many groceries, bakeries and European food speciality shops.

Winter Medicine: Delicious & Warming Tonic Syrups

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When dark, winter days challenge our bodies as well as our spirits, nothing makes a better remedy than old-fashioned tonic syrups. Time tested & true, these potent preventatives and remedial healers call on the nourishing, medicinal powers of tonic plants and adaptogenic herbs, berries, honey and warming spices. And not only will they help fortify your body, bolster your immunity and strengthen your heart, they will even uplift your spirit!

Plus they’re just darn delicious splashed into sparking water and cocktails or drizzled on pancakes, oatmeal, yogurt and ice cream. And if you’re already under the weather, take heart, served straight up by the teaspoon or mixed into hot tea, tonic syrups not only help soothe symptoms of colds and flus, coughs, congestion and sore throats, they make the medicine go down in the most delightful way!

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Created by extracting and preserving plant’s nutrients and medicinal properties, in sugar, honey, and alcohol, there as many recipes and variations for herbal syrups as their are herbalists. I’ve kept with the folk tradition – meaning oh so easy to make! Well in my book at least. At any rate, this means we’re not going to get hung up on precise measurements or ingredients, but allow intuition and creativity to guide us.

In general, when making a herbal syrup you start with a big pot filled with plants (herbs, blossoms, bark or roots) and spices, fill with water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and wait. Several hours later when the liquid has reduced to 1/4 of its original volume, you’ve got yourself a decoction. To this you add an equal amount of honey, and several generous splashes of booze. Voila, you’re done. (More details coming below!)

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These syrups were inspired by the healing magic of the deep, silent forest. I started with a base of fragrant evergreens, douglas-fir, grand fir, spruce and pine needles, twigs, and a couple of resinous cones. To this I added an assortment of woodland berries and rosehips, all packed with nutrients and medicinal properties that boost vitality and nourish at the deepest level.

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Top to bottom: Douglas-fir twigs and cones, oranges, usnea, barberries, dried oregon grape, staghorn sumac seeds, rosehips and dried hawthorn berries.

Conifer needles have a bright citrus flavour and are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids. And according to various studies they contain anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular-protecting properties, and are one of the richest sources of polyprenols which stimulate the immune system, cellular repair and contain antiviral properties – in particular against influenza viruses!  Plus their volatile oils help release stimulating neurotransmitters that calm the nervous system, reduce cortisol, revive stamina and provide feelings of peace and wellbeing. (For more on info on conifers click here)

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I used dried rosehips and hawthorn berries, because they were handy. Fresh is even better!

Hawthorn and rosehips are also both exceptionally nutritious. Rich in vitamins, anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidants and bioflavonoids, they contain compounds that protect and strengthen the cardiac system and provide adaptogenic benefits, which enhance adrenal function when the body is undergoing physical or emotional stress. Both are renowned for their ability to warm heavy hearts and chase away seasonal blues.

To this basic formula, you add in different herbs according to your mood, purpose or ailment. For example, I made three variations: a savoury syrup with rosemary, sage, and bay (to enhance mental clarity and brain function) another with lemon balm and california poppy (to help banish stress and promote restful sleep) and the last with staghorn sumac seeds, barberries, ginger and fennel (to support digestion after or before seasonal feasting). Wild mint, pineapple weed, chamomile, yarrow and dandelion root will also help calm digestive upsets. Elderberry and echinacea will help fight off flu, comfrey root and mullein are good for soothing coughs, and valerian and skullcap will help you relax and get a good’s night rest.  

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Left to right: Staghorn Sumac Seeds | Fennel Seeds, Barberries, Dried Oregon Grape | California Poppy & Lemon Balm | Bay, Sage & Rosemary

To this you can add different combinations of cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and allspice, all of which bring their powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities to the brew. Finally, for every cup of your completed decoction, you will add an equal amount of honey or a thick sugar syrup (boiled down sugar & water). A dark syrup made with brown sugar adds a lovely buttery, caramel like flavour. I like to infuse both my syrup and honey with roughly chopped conifer needles for additional flavour. Give them a pulse in the food processor to release their volatile oils, then add to syrup or honey and let sit for a day or two.

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And when it comes to alcohol, you’ve got brandy, vodka, even rum to choose from. I used a douglas fir-infused vodka and hawthorn brandy I had on hand, but any strong spirit will do just fine.

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So if you’re looking to ward off colds and flus, or just a little warming tipple on dreary grey days, tonic syrups will help see you through the aches and pains of winter. Great for enhancing energy and vitality, boosting immunity and overall wellness, they’re easy to make and bring a festive touch to seasonal dishes and beverages. And they make just the perfect gift for those looking for something wild in their Yuletide stockings! 

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Conifer & Wild Berry Tonic Syrup

(makes approx. 1 & 1/2 cups)

Ingredients

  • Approx. 2 1/2 cups of mixed conifer needles. Throw in a few twigs and cones as well. 
  • Approx. 2 cups of mixed rosehips, hawthorn berries (and whatever other berries you’d like). Fresh or dried.
  • Approx. 3/4 cup of mixed herbs (use 1/2 cup if dried)
  • Dried orange peel to taste
  • 1 teaspoon each of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice or fennel seeds. Fresh ginger is nice too!
  • Approx. 5 cups of water (enough to cover your plant material)
  • 1 cup of raw local honey (or a thick brown sugar syrup made by boiling sugar & water together)
  • 1/4 cup of brandy or vodka or rum

Directions

  • Put the plant material in a pot and cover with water. Bring this to a boil and then lower to simmer for several hours until the liquid is reduced to 1/4 of it’s original volume (about a cup).
  • Strain the plant matter from your decoction. Use a fine, tight weave cloth like muslin (not cheesecloth).This is important in case any of the rosehips irritating fine interior hairs have escaped during cooking into the liquid. 
  • Then take your remaining liquid and put back into pot, adding your honey (or syrup). 
  • Gently heat while stirring for 10 minutes or so. Do not boil.Then remove and let cool.
  • Add your alcohol, stir well.
  • Your syrup is done! Pour off into clean, sterilized bottle. Will keep in the fridge for several months – long enough to get you through winter. Cheers!

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