Soon May Day Eve will be upon us – so I’m sharing this recipe posted last year at Gather Patreon. (Patrons will see a new recipe coming soon!) This Maibowle Cream Cake – made and glazed with Maibowle Wine – is infused with sweet woodruff, a pretty unassuming little forest herb linked with May Day fertility magic for literal ages. Said to bestow, prosperity, wealth and “make the heart merry” sweet woodruffs enchanting scent of fresh hay, flowers, cream, vanilla and almonds was (and still is) the starring ingredient in May Wine or Maibowle – a sweet and fruity wine punch popular with May Day revellers.
May Day Eve or Beltaine was known as Walpurgis Nacht by the Teutons and it fell exactly six months from All Hallow’s Eve making it the second most magical time of the time. A time of betwixt and between, a night the veil between the worlds thinned and witches were at their most powerful. This explains why it was also called Hexennacht, from the Dutch (Heksennacht) meaning Witches’ Night.
Germanic legends and folklore tell that on Walpurgis Night witches flying on broomsticks or riding black cats would fly through the night to gather on a high mountain in Germany known as the Brocken. And according to Otfried Preussler’s classic German children’s novel The Little Witch Walpurgis Night celebrants included “mountain-witches, wood-witches, marsh-witches, mist-witches, storm-witches, wind-witches, flower witches and herb witches.” And it seems Maibolwe was the legendary libation of choice -an aphrodisiacal celebration of fertility and the spirits of the forest.
Cleric authorities condemned the ancient spring festival as witchcraft and renamed the night before May 1 “Walpurgis Night” in honour of Saint Walburga (710 – 795), an early abbess, who was canonized on the first of May.
In the Catholic Feast Day Cookbook (1951) Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger share a recipe for Maibowle noting that St. Walpurgis Eve was first “celebrated as a druidic feast of some importance in honour of spring’s returns” and was accompanied by the lighting of new fires and feasting on certain foods. May Milk, Beltane Cakes, caudle (custard) eggs and meat pies were consumed or set beneath the trees.
While we’re not sure when the drinking of Maibowle began, the first reference appears in the Middle Ages, and in 1854, the best-selling Romantic poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen by Joseph Victor von Scheffel is set during a medieval outdoor celebration involving Maiwein The lord calls the ladies to gather the “white flowering, May-wine flavouring woodruff.” By 1901, the influential cookbook of Henriette David provided instructions for making Maiwein and her recipe still forms the basis for May Wine today.
Known by its German colloquial name as Waldmeister (master of the forest), this small plant with its tiny white flowers and distinctive crowns of leaves around the stem grows wild deciduous European forests and can be gathered wild in April and May. Today naturalized in many parts of the Pacific Northwest (and North America zones 4-8) it is most commonly used as a ground cover garden plant. And according to Linda Raedisch author of Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night “If you want to know what Walpurgisnacht smells like, dry some sweet woodruff and stick your nose in it.”
Long used as strewing herb in homes and churches (to ward off evil) sweet woodruff was also used to infuse milk, cream, sauces, glazes for tarts and cakes. When steeped in milk — overnight or for several days — Sweet Woodruff makes a vanilla-scented drink to help ease anxiety and bring on sleep. As a tea sweet woodruff is thought to possess tonic properties (especially for the liver) as well as digestive supportive, anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic and diuretic actions.
Sweet woodruff contains coumarin, a natural plant substance used as an anticoagulant, so it is not for people on blood-thinning medications. Steeping leaves for extended periods is not recommended because of their high coumarin content, and they must be dried or at least wilted before using to capture their flavour/aroma. When dried the coumarin is present in extremely small amounts – so it is perfectly safe for most people to consume. But be warned, for those prone to migraines, coumarin should be avoided.
This Maibowle Cream Cake is infused with sweet woodruff cream and glazed with May Wine or Maibowle (mixed with butter and sugar). Sweet woodruff is associated with the element of fire which is likely why it marked the calendrical shift between the seasons of darkness and light. With roots in old pagan rites, May Wine is part of the ancient magic that banishes the dark and that invites us to enjoy the sweetness of life.
- A handful of wilted woodruff leaves (preferably harvested the previous day)
- 1 bottle of sparkling wine
- 2 bottles of white wine,
- ¾ cup of sugar
- Juice of ½ lemon
Pour one bottle of wine into the punch bowl, add the sugar and lemon juice stir until it has fully dissolved in the wine.
Add the woodruff and let steep for 20 – 30 minutes.
Remove the woodruff and discard. Add the remaining white wine and top off with the sparkling wine. Chill and serve with ice and strawberries.
Maibowle Cream Cake
- 3-4 tablespoons dried/wilted sweet woodruff
- 2 1/4 cups cake flour, sifted
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- ½ cup may wine
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons superfine sugar
- Powdered sugar, for dusting cake (optional)
- Whipped cream, for serving (optional)
- ½ cup white sugar
- ¼ cup butter
- ¼ cup white wine
- 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar, or as needed
Place dried/wilted woodruff, whipping cream into a pot and set on lowest heat. Bring just to a simmer, then allow to cool completely Strain out the leaves, then chill in the fridge.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt pan; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Sift flour mixture and set aside.
In a bowl, whip the infused cream on low, gradually increasing speed to medium-high as the cream thickens, until stiff peaks form.
In another bowl, whisk together wine, eggs and vanilla. Gradually add egg mixture; beat until thickened (like mayonnaise) and well combined. Gradually add sugar.
Gently fold half the flour mixture into the cream mixture until flour is dissolved and well combined. Repeat the process with the remaining flour mixture. Transfer batter to the prepared cake pan.
Bake until a cake tester inserted into the cake comes out clean and springs back when lightly pressed with your finger, 25 to 35 minutes.
Combine 1/2 cup white sugar, butter, 1/4 cup white wine together in a saucepan immediately after removing the cake from the oven. Cook sugar mixture, stirring constantly, over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and butter is melted 3 to 5 minutes. Spoon 1/2 the glaze over the cake while the cake is still warm. Let cool.
Invert the cooled cake onto a cake plate and spoon remaining glaze over top of the cake. Allow the cake to absorb glaze, about 15 minutes. Using a metal spatula, loosen the top edges of the cake and invert onto the prepared wire rack. Let glaze set. Before serving, sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.
Note: Just a reminder that because of their high coumarin content, steeping leaves for extended periods is not recommended and they must be dried or at least wilted overnight (like those pictured above) before using. When dried the coumarin is present in small amounts – so it is safe for most people to consume. People on blood-thinning medication and those prone to migraines should avoid it.