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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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!

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.

“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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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!

Harvest Magic: Invoking The Horn of Plenty

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This season of harvest, I’m going to take a page from my ancestors and craft a little old-fashioned cornucopia magic. Because if “gratitude attitude” is the key to prosperity nothing says it better than the ole’ horn of plenty.  Spilling with fruits, grains, gourds and flowers, this beloved emblem of earthly abundance, pleasure, healing and good fortune has been presiding over harvest festivals, feasts and revelry – since time immemorial.

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Today it still adorns Thanksgiving tables, but we’ve forgotten that for our ancestors it was once a revered ritual object symbolizing the unlimited procreative powers of mother nature. And as such it was held high by fertility and harvest goddesses such Fortuna, Ceres, Demeter, Abundantia and Flora, who brought forth growth and plant life.

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 Linked to medieval legends of the Holy Grail, the mystical chalice that returned green to the wasteland, it was the source of life itself.  In Norse mythology, the horn was carried by goddess Idun, “The Glorious Maiden Who Knows the Age-Cure of the Aesir’  who dispensed the elixir of immortality and the eternal regeneration of youth.

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Cornucopia were also carried by the Mothers or Matrones of ancient Gaul. Countless carvings, votives, statues and shrines dated between the 1st to 7th century, depict the Mothers (divinities associated with rivers, mountains, springs and tree’s) holding cornucopias filled with fruits and grains. Scholars generally agree this “Cult of the Mothers” was a pagan expression of female divinity in nature.

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Some believe the cornucopia’s origins date to the upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic, when animal horns were placed on stone altars to evoke invoke the blessings of the bountiful all giving mother, the great goddess who in her cow incarnation, nourished the world through her horns of plenty.

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I find this association with horns fascinating. The spiralling structure of horns, like the cornucopias, reflect the spiral patterns of energy manifesting through the natural world, as seen in water, sea shells, the spiral of galaxies, and DNA.

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Perhaps in the old goddess/earth worshipping traditions, these horns might have been seen as receiving and broadcasting the life-giving energies of nature, especially considering “broadcast” was once an agricultural term for spreading seed. And as the womb is also composed of spiralling muscle tissue, I think the horn also reflected women’s biological powers to give birth and new life.

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So were the “horns of plenty” once seen as vessels for channelling earth’s life-giving energy?  Could they have been used during harvest rituals for consecrating plants or objects placed within it?  Or to receive prayers that were chanted or spoken into it? Who really knows? But I like to think so.

So in honour of the great mother of all, her goddesses, The Mothers, the herb chanters, plant healers, and wise women whose ritual acts of “thanksgiving” created a horn of plenty, a prosperity magic to bless themselves and the land, I will go into my local woodlands, fields, shores and backyard, with a ceremonial basket.

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And in the next few days leading to the Autumn Equinox (known to contemporary pagans as Mabon, Harvest Home, the Feast of the Ingathering and Witch’s Thanksgiving) the day the celestial clock ticks from summer into the official arrival of fall, I will like my ancestors, harvest. And I will give thanks for the abundance of herbs, berries, roots and seeds, provided by mother nature to fortify us in the coming winter.

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Then like my foremothers of old,  I will take a ceremonial moment to call on the horn of plenty, the holy chalice, to bless this basket. And then of course, also like my ancestors, I will get to work transforming my bounty into a literal cornucopia of delicious fall foods and healing medicines, for myself, family, and community!

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So far, I’ve gleaned nettle, milk thistle, wild mustard, lambs-quarters, sheep sorrel, motherwort and wild mugwort seeds, and these along with herbs of rosemary, sage and thyme, will be used to create tasty, nutrient rich seed salts.

Rose-hips and berries, spicy nasturtium blossoms, liquorice fern and burdock roots, will create vitalizing vinegars and nourishing tonics. (Stay tuned I’ll be posting recipes in an upcoming Cornucopia themed post.)

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And there will be delicious hawthorn ketchup, acorn cake, crabapple chutney, sage infused honey, wild fennel crackers, Staghorn vodka and wild vermouth as well. Oh and there will be Yarrow and California Poppy tincture too. And this is only the beginning.

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But so far the best part of my autumn equinox harvest is this. In this time when the geese fly overhead and the landscape shimmers with the reds and yellows of dying foliage, my basket fills me with “gratitude attitude” for the never-ending ability of the earth to provide. And in the darkening days of encroaching winter it’s a good faith to have.

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May you be blessed with prosperity and abundance this season of harvest!

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Boozy Preserves: Wildcrafted Berry Compote

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Yes, the cold snowy nights of winter may seem a long way off, but you can be sure, they’re coming.  But if you get picking now – I guarantee this boozy, dark, thick wild berry compote will bring the heady luscious flavours of high summer back to your winter table.

Using alcohol and sugar to preserve the fruits of the summer is a centuries old tradition. My Oma made Rumtopf (literally meaning Rum Pot) into which she would add fruits and berries as they came into season; strawberries, blueberries, cherries, red and black currants, sliced apricots and pears. This concoction then sat until winter, when it was poured over ice cream for our families traditional Christmas Eve dessert.

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My Oma didn’t like rum, so she used vodka instead. And so I’ve followed her tradition by using vodka as well- though I’ve wildcrafted her recipe by using salal berries, blackberries and oregon grape. (Click on the links if you’re not sure how to identify.)

And it makes a dark, tangy syrup of wild berries that is absolutely delicious over winter custards, puddings, cheesecakes, pancakes, even french toast. But possibly my favourite way to enjoy Wild Berry Compote is to strain off the fruits (which can be baked into tarts, cakes and desserts) and serve as a Yule liqueur.

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Now as much as I enjoy consuming homemade berry jams and jellies, I’m far too lazy for the work serious canning. So aside from freezing, I love that this is by far, the easiest and most tasty way to preserve your berry bounty.  There are many methods but the basic premise is the same — simply mix fruit and sugar with enough hard spirit to keep the fruit well soused, and let it sit. (I’ve been substituting honey for years and it works just fine).

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My Oma made her Rumtopf in one large crock, layering in fruit throughout the season. I make mine in the large pot pictured above (which was handed down to me from my mom) but I also like to make smaller batches as well. I fill mason jars with different combinations of berries, foraged fruit (plums and pears) and alcohol (vodka, brandy, rum). Often I’ll infuse herbs and blossoms into the mixture, rose petals, fennel fronds, even Queen Anne’s Lace.

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The only downside is, of course, the waiting. This allows the full flavours to mellow and slowly develop, and can take a few months. (That said, I do occasionally dip into mine far earlier). But the upside is that you’ll have summer in a crock – ready for savouring by a blazing winter fire.  And it will warm more than your tummy and bones, it will nourish and revitalize your entire body as well.

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After all, wild berries are far more nutritious than their domesticated counterparts, brimming with important vitamins, phytochemicals, flavonoids, anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. And because many medicinal tinctures are made from soaking herbs and berries in alcohol, (which break down cellular walls, releasing their healing components) I like to think this compote as an enlivening winter tonic.

But for me, the best part of making compote is the magic. I begin picking the berries on the first of August, which in old Britain was the traditional time of the “Festival of First Fruits” better known as Lammas or Lammastide or Lughnasa. This represented the first harvesting of the growing season’s bounty, and was often referred to as the berry harvest.

In Ireland it was also known as Bilberry Sunday, the time to climb the mountain sides to collect wild berries. Bilberries were baked into pies, cakes and became part of ritual feast held alongside bread and other fruits of the first harvest. And it marked the traditional time to start making preserves in preparation for the coming dark months.

I love these old nature celebrations, and so making this compote from wild local berries has become a seasonal ritual. It connects me to my ancestors, to the bounty of nature, to the earth and the seasonal energies of the land. And when I crack open the compote pot to celebrate the fruit of my labours, I know the deep dark flavour inside will transport me back that moment I stood in the hot summer sun, popping ripe succulent berries into my mouth. And that’s why, when the dark winter nights roll around, this boozy wild berry compote is magic.

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Boozy Wildcrafted Berry Compote

Ingredients:

  • Approximately 1 & 1/2 cups blackberries
  • Approximately 2 cups salal berries
  • Approximately 1 cup oregon grape berries
  • (you can also use wild blueberries or huckleberries if you like)
  • 2 cups of honey
  • 1 750ml bottle of vodka ( if you like you can infuse the vodka with rose petals or other blossoms. Simply soak them in the vodka for a week or two before straining them off)

Directions

  • Rinse your berries of dust and debris and let dry.
  • Place in large ceramic crock or large pickling jar.
  • Pour over with vodka and honey. The berries should be completely submerged. If you still have room – add a few more berries.
  • Stir gently.
  • Then put away for the winter i.e. two to three months.Give a gentle stir every now and then. If you want to sample it earlier – wait one month at least!
  • When ready, just spoon over whatever you want.

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