Category Archives: Feasts

Michette di Liguria: sweet buns, strange legend

Michetta, michette di liguria, Dolceacqua

After a slice of my torta di Santiago, a friend of my brother’s asked if I knew of any cakes that are traditionally eaten for the Christian feast day of the Assumption of Mary, celebrated on 15 August. I didn’t.

My native England has lost so much of its traditional festival foods, and I hadn’t encountered any Assumption baked goods while living in Italy. So some research was undertaken. The Feast Day Cookbook suggested veal cutlets and shrimps in béchamel. Neither of which satisfies the cake remit. Digging around more though, I came across a sweet bun from Liguria, northwest Italy. Specifically they’re from the town of Dolceacqua.

They’re called michette. Michetta is a term that’s more commonly used in Italy to refer to a type of hollow bread roll, originating from Lombardia; I knew it in Rome as a rosetta. The Dolceacqua michetta is a little different though: it’s a small, enriched bun. It also comes with such a striking, disturbing folkloric origin story.

Once upon a time…
Here’s the story, or an interpretation thereof based on me plodding through various Italian sources and a couple in bad English.

In the 14th century, a Dolceacqua baker had a beautiful 19-year-old daughter called Lucrezia. She was set to marry a young lad called Basso. Unfortunately, Marquis Doria, the ruler of Dolceacqua, enjoyed his droit de seigneur, or lus primae noctis: the supposed right of the feudal ruler to claim peasant brides on their wedding nights. With claim basically meaning rape. Remember the scene in Braveheart? (Fictitious. Apparently droit de seigneur is fictitious too, or at least historians agree there’s no conclusive evidence for it happening in the Middle Ages in Europe.)

Understandably, Lucrezia and Basso were not happy about this and tried to hide. Doria, however, had had his eye on Lucrezia and tracked her down, taking her back to his castle. Desperate, she tried to throw herself from the window of a castle tower. The Marquis stopped her, and to subdue her, locked her in a hot, damp dungeon. She remained steadfast though, and died there of hunger and thirst.

Hearing of the death of the popular girl, the locals had had enough and approached the castle. Basso was able to sneak in and, at knife point, forced the Marquis to abolish the lus primae noctis.

To celebrate – and commemorate – local bakers like Lucrezia’s dad started to make a small, sweet bun – michette.

I’m a bit confused at this point, but some of the sources say the bun was supposed to resemble female genitals – it was like an offering to the feudal lord, an alternative to the rape. It’s the sort of thing that sounds like it has its origins in older, even weirder, stories, but I’m not sure. Some of the source even had quotes in Ligurian language, which really threw me.

Anyway, the day after the Marquis relented was the Feast of the Assumption, which in Dolceacqua also became the Festa della michetta. Since then, “the word ‘michetta’ is still used to define the virginity and the female womb”, apparently. I suspect locals could explain it all better.

Not many sweet buns come with such heavy historical and cultural associations though. Take the Chelsea bun – it’s a sweet bun, which was first made in Chelsea. That’s its story.

Michetta, michette di liguria, Dolceacqua

Shapes and notes
The most common shape for the michette seems to be a small elliptical bun. Then on this video (at 1.00 minute) you can see a baker making a version with snakes of dough rolled into three ball shapes. I’ve given instructions for forms. I’ve also read of the existence of a cross form, the crocetta, but I haven’t done these.

Note, this is a very yeasty dough – it’s not a nice healthy long fermentation bread, it’s an indulgent, feast-day bun. Even if you can buy them all year round now in Dolceacqua. It’s also a very rich dough – as befitting a feast-day sweet – containing sugar, eggs, butter and olive oil.

Butter in doughs can be problematic if it gets too warm, it’ll become greasy and ooze. If your dough is getting too greasy, cool it off in the fridge, to firm up the butter a bit.

Also note that Italians may well make the dough volcano-style, that is with the flour piled up on the work surface, a crater in the middle and the liquid ingredients added. I do this for pasta, but I find it easier to use a bowl for bread doughs, as it’s more familiar and gives me a better sense of how it’s feeling.

Recipe
500g flour – 300g strong white, 200g white plain (all-purpose)
40g fresh yeast (or 25g active dried yeast)
100g water, tepid + about 80g more
100g unsalted butter, not warm
2 eggs (about 100g, without shells), lightly beaten
120g caster sugar
2g fine sea salt
Zest of one lemon
40g extra virgin olive oil
Water
Extra caster sugar

1. Mix the yeast with about 100g of the water.
2. Put the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
3. Stir in the sugar, salt and lemon zest.
4. Add the yeast mix, eggs and oil.
5. Bring to a dough. Add more water if it feels tight. I ended up adding about 80g more, so about 180g total.
6. Turn out the dough and knead. You want it quite moist and sticky – but manageable. Don’t overwork it, or the butter will get to oily. The best way to handle this is a few more short kneads over half an hour.
7. Clean out the bowl, oil it slightly, then put the dough back in and cover. Leave 10 minutes then give it a short knead. Return to bowl, cover, leave 10 minutes then give it another short knead.

Michetta dough, first proveMichetta dough, first prove, doubled

8. Put the ball of dough back in the bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in volume. As there’s so much yeast in this mix, it’ll be quite quick, especially if the room temperature is warm.
9. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently deflate to redistribute the gases.
10. Divide the dough into pieces, scaled at 60g if you’re being accurate.

Michetta dough, scaled at 60gMichetta dough, form balls

11. Form the pieces into balls.
12. Form the balls into the final shapes, as mentioned above, there seem to be two variables. For the basic buns, they’re small ellipses, so just squash and stretch the ball slightly. For the longer form, roll out the ball slightly, then using the karate chop side of your hand, roll slightly to make two indentations all around the circumference of the cylinder (see pic below).
13. Place the michette on baking sheets and allow to prove up again.
14. Preheat the oven to 200C.
15. Bake for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

Michette - two shapesMichette, baked, caster sugar

16. While still warm, brush the top with water and sprinkle with (or roll in) caster sugar.

Enjoy as a breakfast bun or for afternoon tea.

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Filed under Baking, Cakes (yeasted), Feasts, Recipes

Torta de Santiago for St James’s Day

Torta de Santiago, Tarta de Santiago

In Christianity, St James, son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. Western Christianity celebrates his feast day on 25 July.

Although it’s spread across the globe now, in part thanks to tourists and pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, the chief dish for celebrating the Feast of St James is the torta de Santiago, from Galicia, northwest Spain.

Legend has it that St James’s remains are at the cathedral of Santiago de Campostela in Galicia. Iago is one of many Iberian variations on the name James, which is itself the English version of the Hebrew Jacob, Yaʿqob. In ancient Greek it became Iakobos, which was Latinised as Iacomus, which came Iacobu in Vulgar Latin, which in turn evolved into the Galician Iago – hence Santo Iago, Santiago.

Cake or tart?
Although torta (Galician, also the same in Italian), tarta (Spanish), tarte (French), torte (German) are related to the English word “tart”, in the sense of open-top fruit pies, they all derive from the Late Latin torta, possibly meaning a small bread. By Medieval Latin the word had come to mean a cake or a pie/tart. The full etymology isn’t certain, lost in the mists of time and the convolutions of Latin evolving into various different European languages. It’s salient in the case of torta de Santiago though, as it’s a product that breaks down those pie/tart/cake distinctions: it can be made with or without a pastry case.

The defining characteristic of the torta is a slightly citrusy mix of ground almond, egg and sugar. And, if you’re going for a bit of decorative iconography, a cross of St James on the top in icing sugar.

Jewish or Christian?
Claudia Roden posits the torta may have its origins in Jewish food, writing: “The Galician city of A Coruña is on the Jewish tourist route. There is a synagogue and an old Jewish quarter there. Jews from Andalusia, fleeing the Berber Almohads’ attempts to convert them, came to Galicia in the 12th and 13th centuries.”

Something related to the modern torta de Santiago may have emerged in Christian 16th century Galicia with the torta real (“royal tart”) or bizcocho de almendras (“almond cake”). A more recognisable modern incarnation is generally traced to an 1838 book by one Luis Bartolomé de Leybar, as a tarta de almendra.

The bottom line, as ever, is to take the notion of ancient traditions with a pinch of salt – so many things we like to imagine were practised fully-formed in the middle ages were instead more likely invented or at least consolidated in the 19th century.

Some versions include grape marc, aka grape pomace – ie the leftovers from pressing – which is interesting and makes sense if you have a vineyard. I don’t. The version in the Moro cookbook, meanwhile, adds membrillo (quince paste); I don’t have a quince tree either. Almonds and citrus is enough for me.

6 eggs, separated
250g caster sugar
1 lemon, zested
1 tsp orange blossom water
Almond extract, a few drops
250g ground almonds (either pre-ground or grind blanched almonds in a food processor)

Plus
Butter, for greasing
Icing sugar, for dusting cake

Torta de Santiago ingredientsZest of one lemon1. Preheat oven to 180C.
2. Grease a 25cm loose-bottom tin with butter and line with baking parchment.

Beat the egg yok and sugar until pale and creamyAdd the ground almonds

3. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a thick pale cream, ideally in a mixer or with handheld beaters.
4. Beat in the zest, orange blossom water and almond extract.
5. Beat in the ground almonds.
6. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Note – if you’re using the same beater attachments them spotlessly, as any fat will stop the whites beating properly!
7. Add a blob of the egg whites to the almond batter and beat it in. It’s a thick mixture so this is to lighten it up slightly to make it easier to add the rest of the egg whites.

Add the egg whitesTorta de Santiago batter

8. Add the rest of the egg whites and fold in. Don’t beat! You want to retain the airiness.
9. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.

Ready to bakeBaked
10. Bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cake feels firm.
11. Let it cool in the tin then turn out.
12. Before serving, dust with icing sugar. You can cut out a cross of St James/Santiago to decorate the top. Have a look online for a shape to give you a template.

Torta de Santiago template, dusted with icing sugar

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Filed under Cakes, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes

Acciuleddi – Sardinian deep-fried sweet pasta

Acciuleddi, drizzled with honey

We first encountered acciuleddi on our holiday in Sardinia a few weeks ago. They’re a form of sweet, deep-fried pasta and as such are a cousin to frappe, which are found on the Italian mainland. I ate a lot of frappe in Rome, when they would appear in shops for Carnevale – the blow-out before the fasting period of Lent, the run-up to Easter in the Christian calendar.

Pasta, deep-fried then sweetened? What’s not to like? Well, perhaps such things aren’t brilliant for your arteries so it’s good they’re just eaten for Carnevale. Except of course it wasn’t Carnevale in June for our holiday, so I think the proprietress of the Gallurese (northern Sardinian) bakery we bought them, La Panetteria del Porto in La Maddalena, from was bending the rules slightly.

If she can do it, so can I. Though I wouldn’t normally endorse eating celebratory seasonal or feast-day foods at the wrong time of year. It’s as obnoxious as British supermarkets stocking hot cross buns all year round. They cease to be special if they’re on the shelves all the time.

Sweet pasta
The very concept of sweet pasta may be a bit weird for staid Brits, but I just couldn’t resist a crack at these, given my love of frappe.

Looking at Italian – and Sardi – recipes, the pasta generally seems to be made with semola rimacinata di grano duro – that is fine, “re-milled” semolina (Triticum durum) flour. That’s not something it’s terribly easy to source here in the UK, so I went for a mixture of 00 flour for the fineness, and normal (ie medium milled) semolina for some robustness.

Also, the pasta does seem to have been traditionally made with strutto – lard. Now, I don’t have a problem with lard in principle, as I do eat some meat and as it was a key ingredient for older, traditional British baking (such lardy johns, or the more well-known lardy cake). The thing is, I try to only eat meat where I know the provenance, and generally that means from people we trust who have a farm nearby. I hoped they’d do some lard, but they just don’t have the demand. Instead, the only readily available lard in small-town England is foul crap spat out by the grotesque industrial meat machine, and I don’t want to use that. Instead, I’m going for all eggs, which some of the Italian recipes I researched also did.

So really, it’s just a pretty basic egg pasta – with the familiar ratio of 1 egg to 100g flour. Though with a little added sugar and some lemon zest.

Then deep-fried.

Surface & tension
The best surface for making fresh pasta is marble, the next best is stainless steel. I don’t have either, so I just used my bamboo worktop, rubbed with a bit of oil, as I do when making bread. It worked fine.

150g 00 flour
50g semolina
20g icing sugar (or caster)
Pinch salt
Zest of half a lemon (optional), finely chopped
2 medium eggs (about 110g total yolk & white)
Extra water, or egg, if mixture is too dry
Oil for frying

1. Sieve together the flours and icing sugar, add the pinch of salt and lemon zest.
2. Form a mound on your work surface.
3. Create a hole in the middle of the mound, much like the gaping mouth of a miniature volcano. Or like when you’re making concrete by hand.
4. Crack the eggs and put in the hole. You can of course do all this in a bowl, but there’s something very satisfying about eggs in a mound of flour..

Making acciuleddi pasta 1Making acciuleddi pasta 2
5. Using a fork, whisk up the egg, then starting combining the flour. Try to keep that wall around the edge intact, and add the flour bit by bit.
6. When the dough is starting to get quite thick, bring the rest of the flour into it by hand.

Making acciuleddi pasta 3Making acciuleddi pasta 4

7. Knead the dough until smooth, then form a ball, wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge for about half an hour.
8. Take the dough out and cut off small pieces. Mine weighed in at about 15g.

Acciuleddi pasta ballAcciuleddi cutting pasta
9. Take a piece and roll it out to form a long snake. Mine were about 300mm long, 5mm wide.

Acciuleddi, roll outAcciuleddi, roll out
Shaping acciuleddi 2Shaping acciuleddi 3

10. This is the tricky bit, so I’ve also made a video. It’s my first video and it’s not exactly slick, focus is an issue, going out of frame is an issue, and it is entirely un-edited, sorry. But it might help.


11. Anyway, you take the snake and join the two ends together.
12. Gently roll one end, while holding the other end still, to form a spiral. There will be some tension in the spiral – retain it.
13. Now, join the ends together again and that tension should cause it to spiral around itself again – creating a kind of double helix. Help it on its way as needs be.
14. Squeeze together the join.

Acciuleddi ready for frying
15. Put the acciuleddi on a tray or plate, lightly dusted with flour or semolina, and cover while you make the rest so they don’t dry out.
16. Heat oil for frying. I used sunflower oil, though I imagine the most authentic, original ones were fried in lard too. You want it at 180C or thereabouts, if you have a thermometer or fryer with a dial. If not, throw a small piece of dough in. If it bubbles, bobs to the surface and browns within a few minutes, you’re good to go.
17. Fry the acciuleddi in batches until browned.
18. Drain and put on some absorbent paper.

Acciuleddi, drizzle with honey
19. While they’re still warm, pile them up and drizzle them liberally with honey. I used some from our friends’ hives, from when they were in south London. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. This seemed like one.

The results were good. Sweet, crunchy and simultaneously indulgent and undemonstrative. They were a bit chunkier than the ones we bought from La Panetteria del Porto, so if you want to make more refined, smaller ones, use pieces of dough weighing about 10g and roll that snake even thinner!

I want to go back to Sardinia now.

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Filed under Feasts, Misc, Other food, Recipes

Challah

Challah torn 2

Not being Jewish, I don’t have an iota of authority making challah, aka chollah, challa. But it’s a bread I love, and I’ve made a few times before, so I wanted to revisit it.

Quintessential for Sabbath and Jewish holidays, challah is not only a delicious enriched bread, a religious cousin to the secular brioche, it’s a great shape. I love the braid format, it’s handsome, fun to make and satisfying to tear.

I believe one of the reasons it’s a braid is that it’s easier to tear and as such doesn’t require cutting, thus avoiding introducing a knife – a weapon – to Sabbath and holiday proceedings.

Challah torn 3

I also believe the strands of the braid are symbolic of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Being a pretty amateur braider, I’m not ready for a 12-strand version yet, so I am sticking with the more commonplace four-strand form. It’s not something I’ve done for a few years, so excuse any clunkiness in execution. Heck, I can’t even practice plaiting my wife’s hair, as she’s wearing it short at the moment.

Symbols and meanings
Talking of the symbolism and heritage of challah, I do get the impression that there are different interpretations. So while Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food writes, “… the meaning of the word challah in biblical Hebrew is this bit of dough, ‘the priest’s share’.” Claudia Roden writes, “The name challah was given to a bread in South Germany in the Middle Ages, when it was adopted by Jews for the Sabbath… John Cooper (Eat and Be Satisfied) notes that the first mention of the bread was in the fifteenth century and that the term was coined in Austria. Before that the bread was called berches, a name that is still used by Jews in some parts today.”

Other sources suggest berches – at least today – is a water-based challah, with potato in the dough. Fascinating. I love these baked-goods family trees.

Anyway, my challah is a dairy version. I’ve read about enough American-Jewish versions to know they exist, with butter instead of oil and milk instead of water, but not enough to understand the kosher restrictions. Indeed, none of my friends with Jewish heritage seem to understand these things either, so I shouldn’t kick myself too much for being an ignorant gentile in this case. Adapt as fits your requirements, eg replace the sugar with honey.

Recipe

As with all my recipes, it helps if you have electronic scales. And I use grams. They’re simply easier and more accurate. Plus, it’s the second decade of the 21st century, folks!

I’ve included baker’s precentages too, as they’re handy for conversions, scaling, comparisons etc.

This recipe uses a pre-ferment, a sponge. It’s a very pleasing technique, as you feed the yeast on some of the flour and some, or all of the liquid, and create what becomes a lively bubbling mass. Andrew Whitney also says it’s an important and useful technique for enriched doughs as “Yeast cannot feed on ingredients like fat, egg and spice, so it is a good idea to get it working vigorously before mixing it with these things.”

Make 2 medium sized, 4-braid loaves

Ingredients

Ingredient Percentage Quantity (g)
White bread flour 60 340
Plain white flour 40 225
Milk 42 240
Yeast (fresh) 2 12
Egg 20 110
Salt 1 6
Butter 12 70
Caster sugar 4 25
Total 181 1028

Notes
White bread flour – that is, higher protein.
Plain or all-purpose flour – that is, lower protein.
Use 6g of active dried yeast or 5g of instant yeast instead.
110g of beaten egg was exactly two medium eggs for me, though sizes vary. I wouldn’t agonise too much, bit more would be fine as it’s quite a dry dough.

Method

1. Warm up the milk and crumble in the yeast. In a medium bowl, mix the yeasty milk, the sugar and 200g of the white bread flour and beat together to make a slurryish mixture.
2. Cover and leave to get bubbly. This will take about an hour, depending on temperature. You could leave it in the fridge overnight.
3. In a large bowl, combine the plain flour, the remaining bread flour and the salt
4. The butter should be soft – at least at room temperature. If it’s not, warm it up a bit. I tend to nuke it for a few seconds in the microwave.
5. Crack a couple of eggs into a bowl, whisk briefly, then weigh out the necessary amount.

Combine egg, butter, sponge and flourBring together
6. Put the butter, egg and sponge in the large bowl with the other flour and bring to a dough. Alternatively, just combine in a mixer with a dough hook, and form the dough.

Turn outKnead till smooth
7. If working by hand, turn out the mixture and knead until you have a smooth dough.

Prove till doubled
8. Form the dough into a ball, then put it in a large, clean bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size. Time will vary depending on the air temperature but mine took about two hours.
9. Turn out the dough, then form it into a ball again. Leave to rest, covered, for five minutes.

Divide into pieces
10. Weigh the dough. It should weigh around 1000g. To make two medium loaves, divide it into eight pieces, each weighing about 125g. Alternatively, you can make one large loaf – just divide into four pieces, each weighing about 250g.
11. Form the pieces into balls, cover and rest for five minutes.

Form balls, form strands
12. Form each ball into a snake or sausage or rope. You get the gist. Each needs to be the same length. Mine were 50cm, but I’m actually thinking it looks better if they’re shorter. Your choice.
13. Take four snakes and pinch one end of each together firmly, tucking the end under and laying the strands out in front of you like half a tired octopus.

Lay out strands

14. There are plenty of videos online for braiding four strands. I remember it like this: 2/3, 4/2, 1/3 and repeat.

2 over 34 over 2

So take 2 (the second from the left) and put it over 3 (the third from the left), see above left. Then take 4 (the furthest right) and put it over 2 (the second from the left), see above right. Then take 1 (the furthest left) and put it over 3 (the third from the left).
Note, you’re not numbering the same strand itself, you’re numbering the position the strand is currently in, from left to right. Repeat to the end, then pinch together and tuck under again.

BraidingBraiding 2
15. Put on a baking sheet, cover and leave to prove again until doubled in size.
16. Preheat the oven to 220C.

Final prove - beforeFinal prove - after, egg wash
17. Brush the risen loaf with the remaining beaten egg. (At this point you can decorate it with seeds: poppy and/or sesame. Dip a wet knuckle in the seeds then press it onto a segment of the braid. Repeat until each segment has a patch of seeds on it.)

Baked
18. Put in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180 and keep baking for another half hour or so. You want a nice golden colour.
19. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

2 challah

 

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Filed under Baking, Breads, Feasts, Recipes

Zeppole di San Giuseppe, St Joseph’s Day fritters

Zeppole San Giuseppe 2

March 19th is the feast day of San Giuseppe – Saint Joseph, husband of Mary, Jesus’ mum. For this feast day Italians eat various goodies including bignè and zeppole, types of sweet fritter.

This recipe is a modern take on zeppole di San Giuseppe. Or are they bignè di San Giuseppe? The two terms seem to sometimes be interchangeable, but one distinction between the two seems to be as follow. Bignè are choux balls filled with pastry cream (crème patissiere, or crema pasticcera in Italian). Zeppole on the other hand are choux piped in nest shapes that are then filled with pastry cream. Both are cooked by deep-frying. Except when they’re baked.

Different regions and dialects may use the words bignè and zeppole differently. Furthermore, in Gillian Riley’s Oxford Companion to Italy Food, she says in her entry on zeppole: “The sfinci of Sicily are similar”. She doesn’t discuss the similarities or otherwise with bignè. The word is clearly related to the French beignet though.

Ah, the confusing world of the taxonomy of traditional foods!

St Joseph’s Day
Either way, these fritters are made and eaten for St Joseph’s Day. Except, however, I recall seeing them in Rome several weeks before St Joseph’s day, sitting alongside castagnole during Carnival and, if memory serves, remaining available until Easter. So much for the Lenten fast. It’s not unlike the modern British habit of eating hot cross buns for the six weeks preceding Easter, when originally they were made and eaten only on Good Friday to celebrate the end of fasting.

The site Italy Revisited features various different versions of zeppole and bignè in its fascinating collection of recipes. On one of the zeppole recipe pages it says “North Americans often think of ‘zeppole’ as cream puffs because that’s what pastry shops sell in March round the Feast Day of Saint Joseph. However, the cream puff style of zeppole is a rather modern take on this recipe. Apparently, prior to the 20th century ‘zeppole’ was just another donut-shaped fried dough that was sweetened with sugar.” As with all these food traditions, it has mutated over time (see my discussion of simnel cake.)

I was planning to make something that would these days, in Rome at least, be called bignè – a filled choux-ish item. But as I fancied practicising my (very rusty) piping skills I sidestepped to what would now most likely be called zeppole. If any Italians are reading, please tell me what your family calls these things!

Makes 10-12

Crème patissiere / crema pasticcera

250g milk (full fat)
2 egg yolks
30g cornflour (cornstarch in the US, amido di mais in Italia)
60g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla essence (or fresh vanilla seeds, if you’re so inclined)
1 tbsp Strega liqueur (optional)

1. Put the milk on to heat up.

Mix sugar, yolks and cornflour 1Mix sugar, yolks and cornflour 2
2. Beat together the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, and Strega if using.
3. Bring to the boil. (If you prefer to use a vanilla pop, scrape out the beans and add them to the milk before you heat it.)
4. Allow the milk to cool slightly then pour it onto the egg mix, beating.
5. Put the mixture back on the heat.

Heating cremaCrema cooked
6. Heat the mixture up again, gently, stirring all the time, and keep cooking on a medium heat until it thickens. This shouldn’t take long – a matter of minutes.
7. Pour out into another clean, cool bowl. To prevent a skin forming, dust with icing sugar and/or put some plastic film on the surface.
8. When cool, refrigerate until you need it.

The paste

Let’s not beat about the bush. From looking at various Italian recipes really is basically a choux paste.

80g butter
200g water
3 medium eggs, beaten (QB), approx 150g
150g flour – plain, all-purpose or low-protein 00
Pinch of salt
40g caster sugar
Zest of half a lemon

1. Put the butter, water and salt in a saucepan and heat up.

Butter and waterButter and water melted
2. Bring to the boil, stirring with a wooden spoon.

Butter and water, flour addedMixing in flour
3. When the butter has melted and the water is simmering, add all the flour (ideally sieved first), beating until you have a smooth paste.

Cooking flourCool bowl
4. Keeping cooking the mixture, on a low heat, for a few minutes. This gelatinizes the flour, ie makes the mixture gelatinous and jelly-like – it shouldn’t be sticky, and should come away cleanly from the sides of the pan.

Add sugar and zestAdding eggs
5. Remove the mixture from the heat, beat in the sugar and lemon zest, then put in a clean, cool bowl.
6. Allow the mixture to cool. If it’s too hot when you add the egg it will scramble.
7. Beat in the egg slowly and gradually. Each time you add some egg, mix it in completely. You may not need all the egg (QB). You want a thick paste, not runny. If you have a mixer, that’s great for making this type of paste. Mix well.
8. Allow to cool and rest.

To make the zeppole

The crema
The paste
Sunflower oil
Sour cherries in syrup or glacé cherries… or not. See below.

1. Put the paste in a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle.
2. Cut out squares of baking parchment or foil, about 8cm square.

Piping nestsPiped nest CU
3. Pipe nest shapes onto the squares. The older type of zeppole was simply a ring, but as we’re adding crème pat to these, you need a middle – so start by piping a spiral, then build up a slight wall around the edge.

Frying
4. Heat sunflower oil in a pan to about 170C and add the nests, paper and all. Don’t overcrowd the pan.
5. The square of parchment or foil will come away. Remove it with tongs.
6. Keep cooking until the zeppole are a golden brown colour.

Fried
7. Remove and cool.
8. Once cool, pipe the crème pat into the centre of each.
9. You can top with a cherry. I hate cherries – sour, preserved, glacé or even fresh. Frankly: yuck. That would spoil it for me. So instead, I just dust with icing sugar.

You may notice in the above pic my batches came out different sizes. The ones on the left puffed up best, on the right worst. It’s shoddy work I know. I suspect it’s to do with the oil not staying a constant temperature. Really must get a decent thermometer. Being a boy, obviously I want one of those ray gun ones  (er, infrared). I’ll add it to the list of kitchen kit I covet.

Zeppole San Giuseppe

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Simnel cake, Mothering Sunday and mutating feast days

Simnel cake slice

Simnel cake is the traditional British Easter cake. Or is it? Laura Mason and Catherine Brown write in The Taste of Britain that this light fruit cake with marzipan “was originally associated with a Mid-Lent Sunday when the Lenten fast was relaxed to allow the consumption of richer foods, adding variety to an otherwise monotonous diet. This was known as Mothering Sunday…. Later the holiday developed into the secular festival of Mother’s Day.”

I’m not sure it developed into, but it’s certainly been conflated with Mother’s Day, a 20th century North American celebration. Both are moveable feasts, but while the North American Mother’s Day is usually the second Sunday in May, the older Mothering Sunday is based on the date of the spring or vernal equinox and this year is on Sunday, 15 March.1

Like so many Christian feast days, Mothering Sunday, or Laetare Sunday (from the Latin “rejoice”), may have its origins in pre-Christian celebrations. At the spring equinox the ancient Greeks celebrated the mother goddess figure they called Kybelis, who originated in what is today Turkey, but who migrated across the Mediterranean to become the Romans’ Cybele, with the feast day of Hilaria2.

As they do, the traditions evolved and migrated further over history, but the “mother” aspect was retained, getting tweaked into signifying the “mother church” for Christians.

Cake, boiled and baked
The tradition of eating something called simnel cake on this feast day emerged in Medieval England. Initially it was an enriched, yeasted wheat bread. Indeed, the word simnel may derive – like the Scandinavian semlor – from the Latin simila: fine wheat flour. But no one is sure.

The early modern versions, according to Mason and Brown, were a dough enriched with fruit, almonds and spices then “enclosed in a pastry crust and… boiled before being painted with egg yolk and baked, giving a very hard exterior.” Feast Day Cookbook by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger mentions such a cake was so hard it gave “rise to the story of a lady who used one for years as a footstool”.

In English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David writes “At one time simnel cakes were… baked with a layer of almond paste in the centre of the cake.” She they says they these were “gradually superseded by ordinary cake batters and the strip of almond paste or marzipan moved from the centre to the top of the cake, which was originally made for Mothering Sunday.” In the 19th century, servants and apprentices were allowed Mothering Sunday off to visit their families – and take a cake to their mothers.

Burton and Ripperger describe simnel cake as “a yeast cake very yellow in colour because of the saffron and candied peel it contained”. I can’t find other mentions of saffron being an essential ingredient, though I suspect it would have been included in some parts of the country, possibly where saffron was cultivated such as Stratton in Cornwall or the famously named Saffron Waldon in Essex.

Indeed, different parts of the country had their own variations, most notably the towns of Devizes (“which produced a star-shaped version without marzipan”3), Bury (“Where a rubbed-in mixture, giving a result rather like a very rich scone, was baked in a long oval”4), and Shrewsbury. This regional varation, still so common in countries like Italy, is something that was largely lost in the era of industrialisation, neutralisation and homogenisation that’s defined British food that past 70 or so years.

Simnel cake hyacinths

Balls not eggs
The best known form today, developed from the Shrewsbury type, is decorated not just with a coating of marzipan but with 11 balls of almond paste. These balls represented Jesus’ apostles. Sometimes there are 12 balls – to include Jesus himself. Both counts exclude the notorious Judas. I feel somewhat sorry for Judas. Some poor sod was fated to be the fall guy right? Lowest circle of hell seems a bit harsh, especially if you believe his role was predestined.

The final shift in tradition has occurred fairly recently. The cake is now largely made for Easter, and some prefer to see the balls as eggs. Easter eggs perhaps laid by the Easter bunny… Got to to love the mutability of tradition.

A hybrid recipe for a mutant tradition
This is a yeasted version. It’s a modernisation of the version in David. She based her version on one from Cassells’ Universal Cookery Book by Lizzie Heritage, published first in 1894. I wanted to incorporate both traditions of the marzipan layer in the middle and grilled marzipan balls on top.

One batch of marzipan, about 400g-500g. See my recipe here.
15g fresh yeast / 8g active dried yeast (or 6g instant yeast. See instruction 5 below)
180g milk
200g strong white flour
250g plain/all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
80g caster sugar
3 medium eggs, beaten (about 160g beaten egg)
125g butter, softened
160g currants or raisins
60g candied peel
1 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg (or 1 1/2 tsp mixed spice)

1. First make your marzipan. You could buy some but it really is easy to make.
2. Grease a 23cm round tin, ideally springform.
Simnel cake ingredients

3. Warm the milk slightly, then add the yeast (if using fresh or ADY) and a dessertspoon of the sugar.
4. Allow this mix to sit or until frothy and lively.

Simnel cake dough 1Simnel cake dough 2Simnel cake dough 3
5. Add the yeast mix to the flour, along with the salt, the caster sugar, and the egg. (If you’re using instant yeast, mix it with the flour at this stage.)
6. Bring to a dough, turn out onto an oiled or lightly floured work surface and knead until well combined. It will be quite sticky5, but try to use extra flour sparingly as adding too much extra will make for a dry, dense cake.
7. Form the dough into a ball, put in a clean bowl, cover and rest for about 10 minutes.
8. Give the ball another quick knead then allow it to rest again for another 10 minutes. Repeat this once more.
9. While the dough is resting, mix together the softened butter, fruit and spices.
10. Take the dough out of the bowl and stretch it out.

Simnel cake dough 4
10. Smear the buttery fruit mix over the stretched out dough, then wrap the dough around and carefully knead it all together to combine. Again, it will be sticky, but try to be sparing with any extra flour. A dough scraper is your friend.
11. Form the dough into a ball again and put back in a clean bowl.

First prove
12. Cover and leave to rise, until doubled in size.

Simnel cake, divide in two
13. Take the dough out of the bowl. It should weigh about 1250g. Divide into two equal pieces, and form these into balls.
14. Leave the balls to rest for about 10 minutes, covered, then squash them down into discs.

Simnel cake dough and marzipan discSimnel cake second disc
15. Put one of the discs of dough into the bottom of the tin and cover it with a disc formed of less than half of the marzipan, rolled and cut out, using the tin as a template.
16. Put the other disc of dough on top.
17. Cover and leave to rest again, until nearly doubled in size.
18. Preheat your oven to 200C.
19. Bake for about 20 minutes then turn the oven down to 180C. Continue baking for another 20-25 minutes. If the top starts to brown too much, cover it with foil.

Simnel before bakingSimnel after baking
20. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then remove and cool completely.

Simnel after baking, side
21. When cool, brush the top with warmed apricot jam.

Brush and balls
22. Roll out the marzipan, keeping a bit back, and make another disc for the top. Brush with beaten egg.
23. Use the remaining marzipan to make balls (mine weighed about 10g each), placing them in a circle on the top of the cake. Brush with more beaten egg.
24. Preheat your grill or light a blow torch, and brown the top marzipan and balls slightly.
25. Take the cake to your mother, or enjoy with friends and family, hopefully welcoming the spring with a sunny day.

Simnel cake grilled

Notes
1. The Spring/vernal equinox itself, when the sun is over the equator and the lengths of day and night are roughly equal, isn’t until Friday 20 March 2015. In Western culture, its annual celebrations have been moved around between the date fixed by the ancient Romans, in the Julian calendar, then the later Gregorian Christian calendar, which most of the world uses today. Pope Gregory XIII introduced the latter because the date of Easter, which also takes it takes from the Spring equinox, was drifting and the Catholic church authorities wanted to recalibrate it. It’s quite a complicated issue, and still controversial among some Christians; read more here.
2. Hilaria means “cheerful” and relating to the modern English word “hilarious”.
3. and 4. Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, p726 (2006 edition).
5. In terms of baker’s percentages, the 450g flour = 100%. So 180g milk = 40%. The beaten egg at 160g = 35%. So the hydration – treating the milk and egg combined as the total liquid – is 75%.

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Shrove Tuesday Scandinavian cardamom buns: fastelavnsbolle or semlor

Semlor, semla, fastelavnsbolle

I’ve never been to a Scandinavian country, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying their baked goods from afar.

I’ve had my eye on these cardamom flavoured buns filled with almond paste and cream for a while, but as the Christian Shrovetide, the three days before the pre-Easter fast of Lent, only comes round once a year, now’s my chance to make them. Yes, yes, I know I made some seriously sugary carby Italian Carnival treats yesterday, but it’s a busy time of year for indulgent foods. Indeed, Shrovetide is all about the indulgent foods, even giving Christmas a run for its money.

In Britain, the remnants of this tradition are our pancakes, with the secular name for Shrove Tuesday Pancake Day*. We used to have a tradition to eat slices of bacon – collops – on the Monday before Lent, but this seems to be all-but forgotten now. It’s all about the fatty, rich foods though, as commemorated in the more common international name for Shrove Tuesday: Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish. The Danish and Norwegian name, meanwhile, is Fastelavn, which comes from older German and means “fast-evening”.

Versions of these buns are eaten throughout Scandinavia and adjacent areas, and go under various names: according to Wikipedia these are “semla or fastlagsbulle (Swedish), laskiaispulla (Finnish), vastlakukkel (Estonian) or fastelavnsbolle (Danish and Norwegian)”, with semlor the plural of semla, from semila, the Latin for flour (and related to the English and Italian grain-related words semolina, semolino, semola). Another Swedish name is fettisdagsbullar. So either “Fast-evening buns” or “Fat Tuesday buns”.

A common version of the bun these days involves filling it with almond paste and whipped cream. The almond paste form was first recorded in 1883, the cream supposedly came as a ration-busting celebration in Sweden after the First World War. In our modern world of more-is-more, both are combined.

Eaten without a filling, and instead sprinkled with cinnamon and served in a bowl of warm milk, they’re known as hetvägg. King Adolf Fredrik of Sweden purportedly died in 1771 after eating 14 but that may be one of those myths perpetuated by the internet. Not reading Swedish, I can’t confirm or deny it.

Almond paste

It’s very easy to make almond paste, marzipan or mandelmassa, but if you are intimidated it’s easy to buy too.

175g ground almonds
175g icing sugar (aka confectioner’s sugar, powdered sugar)
1 egg

1. Beat the egg slightly and combine with the ground almonds in a bowl.
2. Add half the sugar and bring together – either with a spatula or wooden spoon or by getting your hands in there – and form a sticky dough.
3. Sieve the rest of the icing sugar onto your work surface then turn out the dough, and bring together, incorporating the sugar.
4. Wrap in plastic and leave in your fridge until it’s needed. (Well-wrapped, homemade marzipan will last for a few weeks in the fridge.)

Dough and buns
1 tsp cardamom
75g butter, melted
300g milk
20g fresh yeast (or 12g ADY or 10g instant)
500g plain/all-purpose flour
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
50g caster sugar
5g fine salt

Semlor ingredients

1 extra egg, for glazing

Ground cardamom

1. Crack open a few green cardamom pods and grind the seeds to a powder in a pestle or mortar or spice grinder.
2. Combine the melted butter and milk, warmed to about body temperature.
3. Add the yeast to the milk and allow to sit and activate for a few minutes.
4. Put most of the flour, the sugar, the salt, the cardamom and the egg in a mixing bowl, then add the yeasty milk mix.

Dough, mixingDough, sticky
5. Stir to combine and bring together the dough. It will be pretty moist. (Say your beaten egg weighs 58g, along with the milk and melted butter that’s 433g of liquid, to 500g flour – ie about 87% hydration, though the butter will firm up somewhat.)
6. Put the rest of the flour on your work surface and turn out the dough. Bring it together and knead, trying not to add too much more flour – you want to keep it nice and moist, so the resulting crumb is light.
7. I gave mine a Dan Lepard style knead – that is, brought it together, formed a ball, let it rest, covered in a clean bowl, for 10 minutes then gave it another short knead. Then I repeated this 10 minute rest, short knead process twice more.

Dough close up
8. When you have a nice smooth dough, put it back in a clean bowl, cover, then leave to double in size. This will take an hour or two at room temperature (about 18C).

Dough pre first riseDough after first rise

ScalingForm balls
9. The resulting dough weighs 1kg, more or less. To make 18 medium sized buns, divide this into pieces scaled at 55g. You can go bigger or smaller – up to you!

Forming balls 1Forming balls 2

Forming balls 3Forming balls 3
10. Form these pieces into neat balls. I do mine two at a time, rolling them inside cupped hands. This technique works best if your surface isn’t floury, so the dough sticks just slightly. Even better if your surface is stainless steel or marble. As mine is bamboo, I oil it slightly first, which also works well for wood work surfaces.

Balls, final proveBalls, egg washed
11. Put the balls on lined baking sheets, leaving enough space for them to expand, then give them their final prove, again until about doubled in size.
12. Preheat your oven to 220C (I use an interior thermometer as you can rarely trust the temperature on the knob).

Buns, baked
13. When the buns are proved, brush them with beaten egg then bake for about 12 minutes, until risen and golden.
14. Cool on a wire rack, covered with a clean cloth.

Filling
200g marzipan
Crumbs from the buns
100g milk (QB – you may not need it all)

500ml cream, whipped

Buns, splitBuns, hollowed out

1. When the buns are cool, slice off the tops and scrape out some of the crumb with a fork or even a grapefruit spoon if you have such a thing. (I’ve got the remaining single one from a childhood set.) Put the crumbs in a bowl.

Marzipan, grated
2. Finely grate the marzipan then add to the crumbs.

Making the almond fillingMaking the almond filling 2
3. Add enough milk to form a thick paste by squishing it all together with a fork or spoon.

Buns, hollowed out 2Buns, filled
4. Put a blob of the paste in the cavities inside the buns.

All creamed
5. Pipe a layer of the cream on top of the paste, then put the lid back on. I only had a 250ml pot of cream, some of which I’d already eaten with another cake, so it’ll be much better with the 500ml I mention here. Shoddy. Sorry. But I wanted to get this post done today rather than rush off to the shop again.

To serve
Dust with icing sugar.
Enjoy. But don’t try eating 14.

Semlor, semla, fastelavnsbolle close-up

Personally, I’m not too fussed about calories and all that. As well as using the default human form of transport (brisk walking) or cycling when many modern slobs use their car, I also have a general principle that diet is about balance. So obviously I don’t just eat the stuff I write about on this blog. My weight naturally seems to wander about between 80 and 85kg. That said, during out building work last year, when we didn’t have a kitchen and I couldn’t bake, I was 80kg; now I’m 85kg. Methinks a few more brisk walks up our local hill are in order. Or some Lenten fasting. Hm.

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Castagnole recipe

Castagnole

Lent this year starts this Wednesday, 18 February. (Making today Collop Monday in olde British parlance.)  Which means it’s still Carnival, Carnevale, and there’s time for a few more traditional treats of the season. Anyone who’s read my blog before will know I enjoy castagnole, the Italian Carnevale sweets that are basically dough-ball doughnuts. The name relates to the Italian for chestnut, castagna, as they’re of similar dimensions, and deepfried to a lovely brown colour but there’s nothing else chestnut related in the recipe.

I ate loads of them last week when we visited Rome, but here’s my own recipe, for those of us living in countries with a more miserably chaste take on Carnevale.

You can make castagnole without any leavening agent at all, or there are recipes that are leavened with yeast. But I found this worked well, resulting in the balls puffing up and cracking slightly when you deep-fry them, and a fairly open, spongy interior.

250g plain/all-purpose or low protein 00 flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt
50g caster sugar
Zest of half a lemon (optional)
50g butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
Sunflower oil for frying*
Sugar for serving

1. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Add the pinch of salt, sugar and zest.
2. Add the vanilla to the eggs and beat slightly, then add this along with the butter to the flour mixture.

Castagnole componentsCastagnole dough 1

Castagnole dough 2Castagnole dough 3
3. Combine all the ingredients, then turn out and work to a soft, smooth dough. Don’t overwork it.
4. Wrap in plastic and rest for half an hour.

Shaping castagnole
5. Divide the ball of dough up into pieces and roll these into sausage shapes.
6. Cut the sausages into small pieces, about 20g each.
7. Roll these piece between your hands to form small balls.

Frying castagnole
8. Heat oil in a large pan (to about 180C if you have a thermometer) then deepfry the balls in small batches, until golden, about 2-5 minutes.
9. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper, to absorb some of the oil.

Castagnole cooling
10. To serve, liberally with icing sugar (aka powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar) or roll in caster sugar. Or indeed both if you really like refined sugar. So healthy!

Enjoy… while you can. I mean, you can make them any time you like, especially if you’re not Catholic or are entirely nonreligious, but personally I like keeping seasonal specialities special by having them at the relevant time of the year. So that means I have to eat all these before Wednesday. It’s not like I’m religious and going to have an ascetic Lent, but I respect the principle.

Castagnole close up

 

* Italian recipes I looked at say “Olio di semi” – seed oil, ie sunflower seed oil – or simply “Olio per frittura” – oil for frying, while another says “strutto” – lard. We talked about this on our last visit to Italy, where people even use olive oil for deep-frying, something that’s contrary to what we’ve been told here in the UK. There are, however, a lot of arguments (smoke points, cost factors, etc) and a lot of myths (destruction of nutrients etc), which I won’t go into now. Suffice to say, I actually used a mix of sunflower oil and rapeseed oil, as the latter is something that’s produced locally to where I live, unlike olive oil, which, sadly, isn’t.

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Barm brack for St Brigid’s Day, or Imbolc

Barmbrack

Also called barmbrack, barnbreak, bairín breac or bairínbreac, this is the Irish cousin of the Welsh bara brith, with both names meaning “speckled bread” – bread dotted with speckles of dried fruit.

It’s traditionally eaten on Halloween as well as on 1 February, the feast day of one of Ireland’s patron saints: Brigid or Brigit of Kaldare.* This is one of those Christian feast days, in combination with Candlemas on 2 February, that was a rebranding of an older, pagan festival: Imbolc, the mid-point between winter and spring equinoxes. Indeed, although Brigid was nominally a historical figure who lived in the 5th-5th centuries, there was also an older, Irish, or Celtic goddess of the same name and the feast effectively amalgamates the two.

It’s not a big feast day for us Brits, but as Fran and myself both have Irish great-grandparents, it’s a good excuse to try a recipe.

Barm brack is one of the breads that originally would have been made with yeast from brewing, but these days you can either make a yeasted version, ie more an enriched bread, or a chemically leavened one, ie more a fruit cake. Several months ago I accidentally bought an 8kg sack of self-raising flour, so as much as I like yeasted breads, I made the latter, as part of my efforts to use it up.

If it’s not St Brigid’s Day or Imbolc or Halloween, don’t worry – you can still make this brack, and just call it a tea brack, a relative of the other similar baked goods known as tea breads in English.

Oh, and while researching recipes, I found some that were adamant you had to bake in a round tin, some that were free-form (yeasted) loaves, though the consensus seems to be to bake in a loaf tin, which makes sense as you can then slice it and spread it with butter and eat it for afternoon tea.

250g dried fruit – currants, raisins, sultanas or a mixture
300g black tea. We used Earl Grey for that citrus tang from the bergamot
1 medium egg
50g butter, melted
150g sugar, soft brown
270g self-raising flour, or 260g plain/all-purpose flour sifted together with 2 tsp baking powder
Some spice, to taste
Pinch salt
50g candied peel

1. Put the currants/raisins/sultanas in a bowl and pour over the hot tea. Leave it for a few hours, or overnight, so the fruit plumps up a bit.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C, or 160 if you have a fan. That said, my fan oven is pretty puny, so 170C seemed OK. Basically, a medium oven.
3. Grease and line a 900g/2lb loaf tin.
4. Put the flour in a large bowl, add a bit of spice if you like (I used cinnamon, a few grates of nutmeg and a pinch of black pepper, which is probably unconventional, but seemed appropriate) and the salt.
5. Add the sugar. I used soft brown and a bit of dark muscovado that was hanging around.
6. Add all the rest of the ingredients, and stir to combine. The resulting batter will be pretty sloppy.
7. Pour into the tin and bake for about one and a quarter hours, turning down the heat slightly and covering the loaf with foil if the top is browning too much.
8. When it comes out of the oven, you can brush it with a simple sugar syrup made from a few tablespoons of water and a few of sugar, dissolved then boiled quickly.
9. Turn out, allow to cool and serve.

Funny, I never much liked fruit breads and cakes, but I’m increasingly enjoying them, and this was lovely. We ate several slices, sitting around with our friend Liv, drinking gallons of tea. I was tempted to open an ale, as one source I read insists you have it with ale; which would make sense, but only a rich, malty ale, without too much newfangled hoppiness.

I’ll make a yeasted version come Halloween, but we’ve got spring and summer first, so I’m not wishing the year away on this cold late winter day.

Barmbrack 2

 

 

* Her name is also spelled Bride, and some suggest Saint Bride’s Well, and Bridewell Palace (mostly destroyed in the Great Fire of London) and St Bride’s Church in the City of London take their name from her too, possibly via Irish monks who came to England to convert the heathens.

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Sussex wassail apple cake

Sompting wassail cake
We live in a somewhat charmless 1950s-1960s neighbourhood, but we have a decent-sized garden and are close to some beautiful countryside. That garden contains, among other things, two old apple trees. A neighbour who’s lived here since the estate was built says much of it was an orchard beforehand. So those veteran apple trees, gnarled and neglected, deserve some respect as survivors.

One way we in southern Britain, particularly the southwest and southeast of England, traditionally paid our respects to our apple trees was by wassailing. To wassail is to salute, to wish good health, with the ail part of this Old English/Old Norse word equivalent to the modern English hale, as in “hale and hearty”, whole and in good health.

The word also refers to a drink drunk when wassailing, from a wooden “wassail bowl”. I must admit I didn’t make the drink this time, as the recipes I found on this fascinating site are types of punch-like concoction involving mulled cider, mulled ale, mulled cider and ale mixed, mulled cider and ale and fortified wine mixed, all often also mixed with whipped egg and garnished with toast. For toasting your apple trees, your neighbours, your community, in the hope of winning over apple tree spirits and guaranteeing a good harvest – and plenty more cider the following year. As a teenager I drank far too much snakebite – half-half beer and cider – and it made me so sick it put me off alcohol for years. So although I love tradition, I’m wary of cider-ale combinations.

Wassailing is traditionally carried out on Twelfth Night – that is, 5 January, the night before Epiphany. However, there’s also a tradition that favours Old Twelvey Night – the night of 17 January, the eve of the Epiphany according to the Julian calendar, which was replaced by the Gregorian calendar for most Westerners and Christians in 1582. This is – or was – favoured in the southwest of England, where Fran’s from, and my mother’s mother was from.

Anyway, after a few ciders – both local and from Normandy, another gift from some family friends – Fran and my mother, Helen, started singing a wassailing song, that goes (oddly, considering most the trees are bare of leaves):

“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.”

The song is probably Victorian. Indeed, although these traditions may well be ancient, possibly with pre-Christian origins, as we so much British folk culture, the form we know today was likely largely shaped by the Victorians.

While they tried to remember the song, I made an apple cake. This recipe is from Sompting, a Sussex village about 16 miles (25km) away from where we live in Lewes. The original recipe makes for a fairly substantial foot-square cake, a little large for my family gathering.

The woman who provided the recipe, one Marjorie Clarke said of the cake tin, “We use a special one with a hole in the base, so that the cake can be carried on the end of a spear in the procession.” That’s probably not the sort of cooking kit you have. I certainly don’t, and don’t really fancy drilling a hole in one of my tins. So I think a standard square, or similarly proportioned rectangular one should do. I reduced the quantities and tweaked it slightly. Then burned the top a bit in my new oven. But no matter, that felt suitably rustic and the cake was lovely and moist, the raisins fattened with very natural Wobblegate Sussex Scrumpy I used.

Local ingredients

225g eating apples
110g raisins
225g cider
170g butter
100g (4 tbsp) honey
4 medium eggs (approx 190g egg white & yolk)
200g self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder

1. Grease and line an 18cm square baking tin, or similar.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Put the raisins in a saucepan, cover with the cider, bring to the boil then remove from the heat.
Apple, raisins, cider
4. Add the apple pieces to the cider and raisins, and allow to cool while you continue.
5. Cream the butter and honey then gradually add the beaten egg. If it starts to curdle, add a little of the flour.
6. Sieve together the flour and baking powder.
7. Add half the flour to the batter, and combine.
8. Add half the cider mixture to the batter, and combine.
9. Add the other half of the flour and fold in.
10. Add the rest of the cider mix and carefully combine, until the mixture is uniformly mixed, but not over-mixed.
11. Pour the mix into the tin.
12. Bake for about an hour, or until risen and firm.

We didn’t visit neighbours and sing to them and their apple trees. Instead we stayed indoors and ate cake and raised our glasses of cider in the direction of our apple trees – the old ones augmented by a crabapple I planted last year and a dwarf apple I planted three years ago, which was a wedding present from my cousin and her husband. Here’s to a good fruit-bearing year! Wassail!*

 

 

 

* Yes, I know I should have posted this on Saturday, but there’s always next year.

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