Tea & Bourbon Barmbrack for a Midwinter Festival of Light

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

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

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Star of Heaven (detail), Edward Robert Hughes

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

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

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

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The Dises (1909) Dorothy Hardy

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

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

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

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

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

Tea & Bourbon Barmbrack for Imbolc

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Adapted from dochara.com 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woodland Shortbread: Two Recipes for Foraged Fir Biscuits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown Sugar Foraged Fir Shortbread

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Ingredients

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

Instructions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown Butter Evergreen Shortbread

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Ingredients

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

Instructions

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

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

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

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

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