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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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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“Soul Cakes” for an Old-Fashioned All Hallows Eve

soulcakes101-001“A soule cake, a soule cake, Have mercy on all Christen soules for a soule-cake.”  John Aubrey, 17th century

I’ve been researching old world recipes in search of Halloween food inspiration, and these sweet little barmbrack “soul cakes  are the result. And while we may think of all things pumpkin when it comes to Halloween, originally it was magical cakes, berries and nuts (especially hazelnut) that played starring roles in the feasts of “Hallowtide” (Oct. 29th, Nov. 1st and Nov 2nd).

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Hallowed Celebrations (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Bridging pagan and Christian faith traditions, these foods were associated with both Samhain and All Souls Day, a Christian festival dating to 800 AD. Both had many similarities. According to this source, the dead were honoured, skeletons were decorated, lit candles were carried in processions, bonfires burned to ward off evil spirits, carnival like costumes were donned – and of course there was plenty of cake.

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Soul Cakes (recipe here)

Both featured small round “soul cakes” made with berries, fruits and nuts. And in a custom reminiscent of modern day trick or treating, according to The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, people went from house to house singing and asking for a soul cake.  For each cake received, a prayer was said for the dead. And today soul cakes are still part of Catholic cuisine, baked in celebration of All Hallows Eve.

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Barmbrack (recipe here )

Another Halloween treat served at both Samhain and at the All Hallows Feast was Barmbrack, a sweet fruit bread or cake. This was a dark tea cake spiced and speckled with berries, dried fruits and nuts. This Irish recipe tells how tokens, rings, beans, and peas were once baked inside the cake, and each member of the family given a slice. A penny in the cake meant you were going to be rich, a pea means a future filled with health, a ring for the bride-to-be, and “a thimble for the one who would never marry and a small piece of cloth indicating the one who would be poor.”

In Celtic traditions Samhain was known as “Summer’s End” and was the time of a ceremonial third harvest, one of nuts and berries. And I was enchanted to read in Witch’s Halloween: A Complete Guide to the Magick, Incantations, Recipes, Spells and Lore that one of the most sacred of these was the hazelnut. Celtic myth tells the hazel tree overhangs the Well of Enchantment and “the hazelnut, more than any other type of nut, has long been associated with the Halloween tradition of divination particularly the amatory type. Many witches traditionally eat a hazelnut on Halloween prior to scrying crystal balls or other divining methods to see into the future.”

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Hazelnut, botanical book plate (source here)

According to this source Women in Scotland would designate a hazelnut for each of their love interests, then toss the nuts into a fire on Halloween. The nut that burned to ashes, instead of popping, supposedly represented the woman’s future betrothed. Or if a woman ate a dessert of sugary hazelnuts and nutmeg before going to sleep on Halloween, she’d dream of her future husband.

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Getty Images

And while I’m already in possession of a husband, it would be handy to scry into the future on this night when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. So it seemed obvious to me that baking up some Halloween hazelnut barmbrack soul cakes would be a wonderful way to honour my ancestors and the beloved who have crossed to the other-side.

I’ve adapted the recipe from several sources for both soul cakes and Barmbrack to make these All Hallows Muffins. And instead of using raisins, currants, or dried fruit, I went with foraged berries of the season, the bright orange (Chinese lantern and Arbutus berries) and red berries (Barberries) for colour and texture. These grow practically everywhere from gardens to seashores so click on the links if you want to know more.

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If you don’t have any of these handy, cranberries would likely do nicely, but remember to add in a few candied citrus peels or currents for additional flavour. Click the above links if you’d like the more traditional recipes.

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Hazelnuts, Chinese Lantern, Barberries, Arbutus berries, dried Oregon grape berries and Almonds.

Magical lore tells that one should harvest the hazelnuts the day before or on Halloween, but I had a basket of hazel nuts foraged in late summer waiting for just such a special occasion. Hazelnuts can of course be found outdoors – or at your local market!

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And did I mention these barmbrack soul cakes are oh so easy to make? And fun enough for children to join in, especially if one decides to put a magical treasure inside each cake before baking!  Happy Halloween!

Hallowtide Soul Cakes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup fresh berries
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped hazelnuts ( I added a few almonds as well)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup hot strong black tea (I used a combination of ginger and Earl Grey)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp of nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cardamom 
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  •  A few tablespoons of chopped candied ginger (optional)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 1/2 cups of self-rising flour

Directions

  • Combine berries, nuts and brown sugar. Add the hot tea, stir well, cover and allow to soak for an hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a muffin/cupcake pan.

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  • Beat the egg into your wet mixture, adding the flour in 1/2 up batches, beating well after each edition.
  • Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until toothpick comes out clean (around 45 min.)
  • Let cool in the pan before turning out.  

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Oh so pretty to look at plain – but fun to decorate too!

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Happy Hallowtide!

Reclaiming The Radical Legacy of The Witch

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about witches. Not just because top ten lists of hot tv witches and sexy Halloween selfies currently swamp my social media feeds, but because my tables and shelves are currently so laden with herbs, plants, berries, phials and bottles that if an inquisitor of old were to enter, I’d find myself quickly tied to the stake. And while this worry seems remote, it’s a plain fact that women in third world countries are still hunted down, tortured and set aflame for the crime of witchcraft.

Sure, the witch is emerging from the world of taboo and shadows onto the world stage. Sure, she’s being touted as a feminist icon  – a “powerful feminine model free from male influence or ownership”. But I’m not so sure. Because how can it be that the witch, once associated with everything transgressive and beyond the realm of normative society, is now so trendy and positively mainstream?  Is it really a feminist step forward that W magazine declared Fall 2016, the season of the witch, replete with pouting models in gothic dresses, chains and black lace underwear?

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W Magazine, Salem Issue, 2016

And while many believe the witch of the middle ages was a spectre created by the church, I believe she was real. Yes, many put to death were just ordinary women who practiced folk magic, herbalism and midwifery, but many were powerful spiritual leaders of the indigenous, animist faith traditions of the old world – and their magic was earned through a lifetime of spiritual discipline spent in communion with nature.

And I worry her make-over into nubile fashion siren not only obscures this history, but her true relevance as a role model to us today. One that if resurrected, would be just as subversive and dangerous to the powers that be. 

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Today the witches tall black hat and burbling cauldron have become icons of Halloween kitsch, but they were once hallowed items of the holy women and priestesses, the healers and herbalists, the oracles and diviners of old Europe. Their conical hats and cauldrons date back to the 2nd Millennium BCE and were connected to the female shamans of the Indo-European peoples.

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Tarim Mummies, 1800 BCE

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Scythian Princess and her cauldron, 4-5th century BCE

Their cauldrons (as well as crystal balls and magical wands) were still being used thousands of years later by the “witte wieven” or wise women, the sibyls, seers, and female druids of Celtic, Anglo Saxon, and Norse traditions of the middle ages.

According to Max Dashu, author Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion,  these “dream-readers, sooth-sayers, and herb-chanters, fire-gazers in Switzerland, or water-gazers in France and Spain”, practiced “all the elements of shamanism: chants, prophecy, healing, weather-making powers, and shapeshifting”. Legends tell of their sacred cauldrons in which “they simmered mysterious herbs to produce a drink of immortality and resurrection.”

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The Magic Circle,  John William Waterhouse

These women were the guardians of the earth, the protectors of the sacred groves, lakes and springs, from which they derived their magical power. And until the middle ages they were highly respected, sought out and consulted for healing and divination by common folk, nobility and clergy alike.

But according to Barbara G. Walker , it was during the 14th century that the Catholic Church, during its relentless expansion and appropriation of sacred land, began to distinguish between witchcraft, perpetrated by women, and sorcery, a legitimate pursuit of men.

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While books on sorcery were condoned well into the enlightenment, female witches in contrast were said to “magically injure crops, domestic animals, and people, and in general “outrage the Divine Majesty”. And thus their religious practices (as described by Dashu) of “sitting-out” on the land “gazing, listening, gathering wisdom” were extinguished by a priesthood that sought to bring nature, magic, women (not to mention their land and property) under male control.

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These women did not go easily, or take usurpation of their holy sites and old ways lightly – it took the Church hundreds of years to hunt them down. And so it seems likely, at least to me,  that the stereotype of vengeful witch, casting curses and blighting crop, was real, at least for the church. She must have been the original eco-feminist, fighting the patriarchy with one of most powerful tools at her disposal, magic. And the Church took it pretty seriously indeed.

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And I’m sure that if they were here today, these witches would be doing a lot more than striking a pose, they’d be busy protesting our dying forests, fighting the polluting of our waters, and protecting the planet. I like to think they might even have been part of The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell or W.I.T.C.H. a radical feminist protest group whose manifesto stated witches “were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression — particularly the oppression of women — down through the ages.”

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W.I.T.C.H. casts a spell

Their first action took place on Halloween 1968, when WITCH members marched down Wall Street and place a “hex” on New York’s financial district. (The Dow Jones Industrial Average is said to have declined sharply the next day.) And isn’t this the radical role model rendered invisible in the witches new fashion friendly image?  One that explains why corporate interests would rather have us dressing the part, than actually taking her seriously?

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As her image grows ever whiter, more privileged, prettier, and objectified in the west, women accused of being witches in Africa, Latin America and New Guinea continue to be hunted down and burned alive. I can’t help wonder what this all means for the “real” witches here and now?

Accusations of witchcraft have long been used to control women’s behaviour. And if we take any lessons from history, what might happen to those who don’t (or won’t) look the part, or otherwise refuse to behave?  How long will it be before they hear the inquisitors knock at the door? Just who benefits when the witch becomes no more than a fashion statement or pouty pose?

But that said, I do find something hopeful evoked in the trend of witchy selfies found on Instagram and Tumblr. Like photographic spells, they evoke the long repressed archetype of the holy woman of old. And while they may be romanticized, they offer a vision of a forgotten time when wise-woman communed with the land for healing, guidance and visions, creating magic and blessing for themselves and their communities.

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It is this age-old impulse in the female psyche that is reemerging as the popularity of Wicca, herbalism, kitchen witchery, flying ointments, tarot, crystals and gemstones, continues to grow. An impulse, perhaps, that still threatens the powers that be?

And it’s why I resonate deeply with Max Dashu when she writes, “In a world in extremity, we are searching for the wellspring, the inexhaustible Source known to all our ancient kindreds. Many of us have been cut off from our deep roots, and especially from the ancient wisdom of women, and female spiritual leadership.”

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And as I look over the drying plants and herb craft spread around me, her words remind me of my childhood ways of spending hours alone in the woods, gathering stones, listening to the whispering wind and watching it move through dancing trees. But I had no guide to show me how to “hear”, no wise-woman to teach me how to “gaze” or “see”.

Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, believes the burning of witches, the subjugation of women, the desacralization of nature, and modern capitalism went hand in hand. And she asks us to consider – just what was eliminated when these women were condemned to the stake?

And that’s why in a world of ecological crisis, where the witch’s hat is cheap halloween merchandising, where the cauldron’s medicine is replaced by pharmaceutical labs, where nature is a “raw resource” without spirit or sentience – we are in need of the witches radical magic more than ever.

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Fudgey Burdock & Rose Brownie Cake

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Last spring, I tested out a batch of Burdock & Rose Brownies at Gather’s “Botanical Sweet Treat” bar. And they were the first to go. Their dark fudgey icing drew peoples eyes like a magnet – and no one cared a whit about warnings that these brownies were a little more “earthy” in flavour than usual. But judging by their expressions as they took their first bite (and the brisk sales) the Wild Rose & Burdock Fudge Brownie was a winner. So this fall, in honour of a young Venus turning 19, I decided to make a brownie birthday cake. burdockcale1-002

Grounded in the dark, heavy goodness of chocolate and the loamy roots of the burdock, this cake takes flight in the heady floral top notes of rose. And when it comes to indulgence it’s pretty guilt-free. Yes of course the sugar is “bad”, but everything else in these Burdock & Rose Brownie Cake is really gooood for you!

Last spring I used a fresh burdock root in the recipe. I peeled it, gave it a boil pulsed it the food processor, then mixed the mash right in the brownie batter, much like you might use zucchini. But this time I used dried burdock root powder instead (made by whirring up the dried bits in my coffee grinder), and it added a delicious, roasted coffee-like flavour. (You can find dried burdock at your local herbalist shop)

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Burdock is a blood purifier and important detoxifying herb in both Western and Chinese herbal medicine. Nutrient and mineral rich, burdock contains phenolic acids, quercetin and luteolin, lignans, inulin, mucilage, sulphur, and organic acids, all of which assist digestion support the liver, balance hormones, and reduce inflammation. Studies show that burdock is useful to help ease arthritis and gout, and as an anti-tumor herb. And it rumoured to be one of the four ingredients in the legendary anti-cancer Essiac Tea, allegedly acquired from a First Nations healer.

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Image Source: Little City Farm

And it’ magical too. Old folk-lore and traditions tell us that burdock root protects from evil and negative influences.  Burdock should be gathered in autumn under the waning moon (right now!) dried, cut into pieces and strung on a red string. When worn as talisman or as a necklace this burdock necklace will protect the bearer from bad spirits and ill forces.

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And because the planet Venus rules over burdock (as it does the rose) it also associated with love. One medieval folk tradition tells girls to pick a burdock burr, give it her lover’s name and throw it against her dress. If it stuck he was faithful, if not, he was untrue.

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Image Source here

Of course nothing captures Venuses allure and beauty better than her signature flower, the rose. Long used in love magic, potions and spells it’s no wonder she has been called Venus Verticordia (“Venus the turner of hearts”). Because of her aphrodisiac qualities, it was an old custom to strew rose petals on the bed of a just married couple to enhance fertility.

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Last May I used the petals of wild roses but this time I went with the intensely fragrant blossoms of the Rugosa whose bright pink flowers are blooming again all over Victoria. To this I added a a fat coral rose from the garden with a wonderful peachy aroma.  These rose petals bring not only Venu’s intoxicating aroma to this brownie, they bring Vitamin C, antioxidants, polyphenols and bioflavonoids to it too.

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Yes, they really are this pink.

And considering that chemical compounds found in roses have been found to help to trigger “feel good” endorphins while reducing cortisol and blood pressure, helping the brain enter calm and relaxed states – this is one dreamy brownie cake indeed. And I’m not going to even begin in all the wonderful mood-lifting and healing properties of chocolate itself!  Lets just say, this brownie cake will not only nourish you as you indulge, it will make you feel really good too! 

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Burdock Root & Rose Brownie Cake

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons dried powdered burdock roots 
  • 2 cups fresh lightly chopped rose petals ( 1/2 cup dried)
  • 1 &1/2 cups organic cane (or brown) sugar
  • 1 & 1/2 cups unbleached organic flour
  • 2 & 1/2 ounces unsweetened or dark chocolate (in pieces)
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped, roasted hazelnuts (optional – I found some fall foraging so I threw them in)

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Directions

The first most important thing is infusing your petals in melted butter as this extracts their flavour.

  • Melt butter on low heat. Place the rose petals in the pot/pan and stir gently.
  • Let them in infuse in warm heat for at least an hour (don’t cook them- just let them release their oils into the better.  I put mine in a small casserole dish in the oven at lowest setting to sit.
  • Once roses are done (they should be limp) preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a small round baking pan and dust with flour.
  • Melt chocolate and set aside to cool.
  • Beat eggs and vegetable oil until fluffy. Add sugar and beat well. Next mix in melted chocolate. Add in your butter and butter infused petals. 
  • In separate bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Stir in nuts.
  • Fold together your wet and dry ingredients, mix well.
  • Spread batter into prepared round pan and bake for 25 minutes, or until toothpick stuck into center comes out slightly moist. Cool completely.

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Couple of Closing Notes:

If you want to use fresh burdock root, spring and fall are the best times for harvesting. Or should I say digging? Because fresh burdock definitely requires getting your hands dirty. These links by noted herbalists  Yarrow Willard and Jim McDonald tell you everything you need to know. Use about 1/2 cup, peeled, boiled and chunkily pureed.

And when it comes to rose petals any fragrant variety will do. Just take a whiff and your nose will let you know. And right now if you like in Victoria you can even find wild roses like Nootka making a last reappearance in the autumn sunshine. If you can’t find fresh roses, dried rose petals will work. Just be sure to place to infuse them in butter longer than the recipe requires – they will need to fully plump up before you use them. 

And when it comes to frosting – well, I’ll leave that up to you!

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