Solstice Rituals: Seed Cake

Solstice Rituals: Seed Cake

Solstice traditions and magical tales and rituals come from all corners of the world. I enjoy reading about all of them, but mimicking the rituals of peoples exotic to me feels strange, and does not really feel like a receptive mindset for the significance of an important marker of time in my own real life. 

Fire, attention, cleansing, making space, seasonal decoration, silence, spending time with nature, and ritual foods feel more fitting and less forced. Seed cake, while not exactly Yule specific, does feel like a suitable choice for the here and now. 

Today, in the US, grocery bakery goods, frozen cakes, and cake mixes with canned frostings are what we imagine for “cake”.  Light, fluffy, very sweet, often almost gummy, mostly crowned with sugary vegetable shortening frosting and intense artificial coloring and extracts.

Europe however, has retained more of their historic connections to food, and tends towards more dense, heavy baked goods flavored more often from nature than laboratories. Seed cake is one such cake you will not often find in the US.  One reason is because it’s texture is dependent upon a certain inefficient manner of architecting the ingredients.  It’s joy, like that of many British and Irish foods, is dependent upon the sheer exceptional quality of the simple ingredients – pastured eggs, homemade butter from the well-fed family cow, and local flour not readily available or “affordable” in modern times. 

Expensive and/or unavailable indeed when measured with our American focus on efficiency and productivity. I wonder though, if my ingredients cost more errands and money, yet also are important nutrients in their own right instead of a guilt-inducing dietary derailment of artificial junk guaranteed to make me feel ill, which is more expensive? 

I love everything about this cake, though I did dial up the fancy a little by pouring syrup over the hot cake, which makes me love it more, and I enjoy eating it with a schmear of good butter.

It is substantial, filling, and the ingredients are not without calories or fat, but are also nutrient dense. There is sugar, which is always going to be a conundrum, and for which I have no natural solution other than moderation. Since the cake is filling in a nutritionally satisfying way, moderation is naturally easier. 

Anyway, this is a really nice tradition to bring into all your winter weeks, not just for Solstice, though in the day, it would be a luxurious choice during months when eggs and butter were scarce. Like now, which is why such cakes in December are so celebratory.

I happen to be rich in pastured eggs at the moment, so, bring on the hobbit-y cakes!

Darina Allen's Seed Cake

Adapted from Darina Allen's wonderful book, "Forgotten Skills of Cooking."
Servings 8

Equipment

  • ` Round cake pan 7” and 3” deep Size matters; a standard loaf pan works well also

Ingredients
  

  • 3/4 Cup Butter Room Temp
  • 3/4 Cup superfine sugar Domino's Golden Cane works well
  • 3 Chicken Eggs Pastured if possible
  • 1/2 tsp Pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Cups All purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 TBS milk or water
  • 1 TBS caraway seeds optional

Optional Glaze

  • 3 TBS Grand Marnier Brandy or whiskey can be substituted
  • 2 tsp water
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 TBS butter

Instructions
 

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease your baking pan with butter and flour. 
  • Sift the flour and baking powder together. 
  • In a separate bowl, using a mixer, whip the butter first, then add the sugar, and continue whipping until light and fluffy. Do not rush this, or combine the steps, it does make a difference to the texture of the finished cake. (In the day this was done by massaging by hand the warmth of your hands creaming the butter faster, and supposedly producing a lighter cake.)
  • Whisk the eggs and vanilla extract together, and gradually add to the whipped butter and sugar mixture. Mix well.
  • Gradually fold in the flour, taking care to not over-beat. Darina Allen calls the desired texture “dropping consistency.” It will be heavy and stiff, but should not be crumbly. Gently mix in the caraway seeds. Add the milk, liquor or water only if the batter is too dry. 
  • Fill into the prepared baking pan, do not worry of it is lumpy, it will spread into the pan as the batter warms in the oven. 
  • Bake 50 - 60 minutes, taking care to not overtake, which will toughen the texture. To make the glaze, simply warm the glaze ingredients gently in a saucepan until sugar is completely dissolved- do not boil. Pour over hot cake and let cool in the pan.
  • Remove from the oven, pour the glaze over the top if using, and allow to cool in the pan.
DIY holidays – a perfectly thoughtful cookie gift

DIY holidays – a perfectly thoughtful cookie gift

What can I do today, before the rush is on, to be ready for last minute gifts, kind neighborly gestures, and unexpected visits? Make recipes for rolls of unbaked refrigerator cookies, portioned into gift-sized logs, wrapped in waxed paper, and stashed in the freezer for gifting or fresh-baked cookies in minutes..

Like many retro, forgotten ways, Icebox cookies add a simple, convenient and downright elegant trick to your pantry that will help preserve that element of snacking spontaneity we all love so much. They come in filled swirls, basic shortbread styles, with and without fruit and can be dipped in chocolate for an extra degree of fanciness.

The logs require almost no time to thaw enough to slice, arrange on a baking sheet, bake & cool. Thoughtfully wrapped with a recipe tag, they make a small and lovely gift. I like that since they have to be baked, you can save them for later, after the overload of sweets and snacks has passed.

Here are three of my current favorite recipes for Icebox cookies:

Salted Rye Cookies

  • Golden  Raisin Icebox Cookies – tender, crisp & rich, these are both rustic and sophisticated.
  • Fruit Swirls – an extra bonus to this one is the recipe uses no processed sugar. Instead, use honey and dried fruit. They’re tender, rich and easily adaptable for a variety of flavors.
  • My current obsession: Salted Rye Cookies. I love crunchy sugar crystals and was completely taken by this idea: these earthy rye rounds are rolled in a crunchy, crystal-ey mixture of coarse sugar and salt. Brilliant.

And, not just a DIY gift idea, icebox cookies are a great everyday pantry trick for anyone interested in real foods.

Fruit Swirls, no sugar. One recipe, divided into four logs, wrapped in waxed paper for gifting or baking.

Why do I love prepared snacks in my freezer?

  • simple strategy for portion control – divide the dough into smaller logs and only bake what you need
  • a quick, fun after school treat kids can make themselves
  • something special on hand to feed unexpected visitors
  • strategy to keep those overly processed commercial cookies out of your pantry
  • your kid tells you at 9 pm they need to bring cookies to class tomorrow – no biggie

In these days of pandemic, old fashioned neighboring is more meaningful than ever. What sweeter way to check on your neighbors than by gifting them a thoughtful log of ready-to-bake cookies?

DIY gifts: a sweet cuppa Valentine Love

DIY gifts: a sweet cuppa Valentine Love

Grand gestures are showy, but quiet, small ones are sweeter.

 

This week is that favorite day of retailers, florists and restauranteurs everywhere, Valentine’s Day. And while I’m weary of the commercialized aspect of the day, you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted to not love one big collective day of appreciation for the special people in our lives.

We Pennsylvanians will tell you that winter can be an old-fashioned, mettle-testing trudge. I can’t really complain this year, Western Pennsylvania has been warm, but warm winter mud presents its own kind of soul-crushing fatigue.   The kind of weariness that can be soothed with a steamy, creamy cup of home-made cocoa.

I nixxed commercial hot chocolate powders a long time ago in favor of the old-fashioned, off-the-package Hershey’s cocoa recipe that my mom used to make. Real milk, cocoa, salt, sugar and a bit of vanilla – all things found in an average kitchen. Is it really too difficult to heat a pan of milk?

But then , one day, I stumbled upon a GREAT IDEA.  Something I had to try ASAP. And I’m so glad I did.

This is one of the nicest, sweetest DIY gift ideas around – a jar of chocolate ganache ready to spoon into heated milk for a perfectly delicious, creamy, real cup of steaming cocoa.

Hot Chocolate Ganache
Yield: 2 generous cups ganache

1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized, if possible)
12 ounces semisweet chocolate (3 – 4 oz. bars)*

Note: In general, the fewer ingredients a recipe calls for, the better quality those ingredients should be. While you don’t have to break the bank on the chocolate, do go for bars around 70% cocoa (usually called bittersweet or dark) . The standard Hershey bar tends to disappoint.

Snap chocolate bars into a large, heat-proof bowl.  Heat cream over medium, until the first bubble breaks, then remove from heat and pour over chocolate shards.  Let sit 5 minutes, then whisk gently to combine, 1-2 minutes.  Pour into jar, decorate with a Valentine label and instructions, and refrigerate, up to 1 month.

To Make Hot Cocoa:

Heat milk over medium heat, until steaming.  Add ganache to hot milk: I don’t measure, the right amount of ganache is kind of a personal thing. Stir a Tablespoon or two of ganache into hot milk until dissolved, 10-15 seconds, taste, then add more, if desired.  Pour into mugs, and do not be stingy with the whipped cream or marshmallows.

No worries if your Valentine is too lazy to heat the milk – there’s always spoon truffles.

Spoon truffles? You know exactly what I’m talking about – no double dipping!