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."
- 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
- 3 TBS Grand Marnier Brandy or whiskey can be substituted
- 2 tsp water
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 TBS butter
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.
Wild California Rice. Have you tried it? It’s obviously not local to Pennsylvania, but it is a sustainable, healthful, and tasty addition to your year-round pantry. It’s perfect for stretching meats or mushrooms, stuffing poultry, making cabbage rolls, stuffing squash, tomatoes, or peppers, and adding to substantance tol cold salads and soups.
Wild rice is actually not a true rice, but is instead an aquatic grain. It is an extremely important food in Native American traditions, where the ritual of harvest, drying and hulling is an important cultural touchstone to old ways. Nutritionally it is a powerhouse, near quinoa in protein content. It is not certified organic, but no pesticides or herbicides are necessary, and the water used is carefully managed to conserve and reuse before allowing it to drain back to the source.
This California wild rice is a more production-oriented product than the wild indigenous product. It is farmed from similar grains as the truly wild rice, but is instead intensively managed making it more productive and reasonably priced. The flavor is hard to describe, being somewhat floral, nutty, and smoky at once. The texture when properly cooked is toothy and substantial; and a 1/4 – 1/2 cup portion is really filling. It really is a different ingredient entirely from regular rice – a direct substitution would certainly work, but might not be exactly what you had in mind.
Wild rice takes longer than more common white rices; about 45 – 55 minutes. Cooked rice also freezes well, so packets of precooked rice or other whole cooked grains like farro, spelts, or rye berry is a handy ingredient to have at the ready in your freezer. I really had no recipe in mind, just wanted to spend some time getting to know the rice, so I cooked the entire pound bag, even though I was cooking just for myself. I mean, if I am going to boil a grain for almost an hour, I want to make that hour count, right?
From my pound of dry rice, I got about 14 loosely measured cups of cooked rice, of which I scooped approximate two cup portions into zip lock freezer bags, squeezed the air out as completely as possible, flattening and sealing the packages. I lay them flat on a plate and freeze, then the packages once frozen will stack neatly upright and fill as little freezer space as possible.
So, now I have seven 2 cup portions of frozen rice, ready to quickly steam as a side or toss into soups and recipes. Your milaege may vary. What are we gonna make? When cooking Rancho Gordo products, I always return to their Rancho Gordo Recipes for inspiration. Steve Sando rubs elbows with some diverse and interesting food people, and the recipes and ideas always give me if not specifics, direction.
The linked recipe for stuffing caught my attention. Of course I did not make it exactly, since my rice was already cooked, and I didn’t really have all the ingredients, but I was close. And just because it is called stuffing, doesn’t mean it wasn’t good in a bowl, by itself, as a main dish. I did stuff a roasted squash for lunch, brushed first with Swad coriander chutney, garnished with a plop of thick whole milk yogurt, it was a bright spot in a dark, dreary, rainy day.
The recipe makes about six cups, and I only used one, so once again, I have cooked for both now and later, and when summer squash and chickens arrive, I am so ready with a frozen quart ready and waiting. By the way, freezing grains has very little effect on their quality, particularly if you cook them a tiny bit al dente. Mushy overcooked grains will not magically improve in the freezer.
Okay, here we go, to the printable recipe:
Wild Rice Stuffing
This recipe will stuff a 12-pound turkey or half a dozen game hens. It's delicious as a side dish for meats, as a filling for cabbage rolls, squashes, ingredient in soups & salads, or simply on its own.
- 4 cups cooked wild California Rice
- 1/2 - 2 tsp Mexican Oregano
- 1 pound lean ground beef, pork, elk, venison, or bison
- 1 can green chilis
- 1/2 large red onion, chopped
- 1 cup chopped and lightly toasted pecans
- 2 Tbs fresh orange zest
Sauté meat in heavy large skillet over medium heat until cooked through, breaking up with a wooden spoon, about 10 minutes. If your skillet has excess grease or liquid, drain the beef, and remove excess from pan.
Add chiles and onions to the meat. Continue to sauté over medium heat until onions are soft, about 10-15 minutes, adding a bit of liquid if necessary to keep beef from becoming dry.
Add the cooked wild rice (frozen is okay), sauté gently until heated through, again taking care to keep it moist, not wet. Stir in the pecans and orange zest. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Can be prepared a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate once cool. If you'd like to serve as a side dish, re-warm covered in 350°F. oven for 20 minutes.) Transfer to bowl and serve.
If using as poultry stuffing, cool completely and fill bird.
When I purchase a bag of wild rice, I cook the entire pound, which I then portion a loose two cups into ziplock pint bags for the freezer. Cooked slightly al dente, the rice is a really handy ingredient to have ready for fast meals and saved cooking time, as wild rice takes about an hour.
*Also, about the orange zest - whenever I have good oranges, I always scrub the outside and zest the orange before peeling, saving the zest in a freezer container for later recipes. If you don’t have it, you could substitute chopped apple, parsley, lemon zest, raisins or cranberries for a fresh bit of bright flavor; it's a flexible recipe overall.
How great is it that locally raised mushrooms are a focus of local producers now, and they are easily found at farmer’s markets and as add-ons to CSA shares? Mushrooms are delicate though, and prone to mold, so a method to extend their usefulness helps make the most of your fungi.
I love this little appreciated, kind-of-plain book I picked up long ago, and many of my basic kitchen ways are based upon things I learned here. Sadly out of print, and probably often overlooked in favor of more visually beautiful photo books, but if you are truly wanting to learn some foundational kitchen skills and habits, I highly recommend this one. Available used online, for cheap, so it is a good one when the budget is tight.
In the Light Basics cookbook, Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe for pan-cooked mushrooms gives you dense little chunks of deep, earthy flavor, which works for pretty much all mushroom varieties.
I make this recipe as soon as I get my mushrooms, and save them in a jar to add later to salads, greens, accompany steaks, pizzas, omlettes, saucy meats, pasta. Really, what isn’t made instantly richer and fancier with some herby, garlicky, flavorful chunks of mushrooms cooked in booze?
King Trumpet and Nameko Mushrooms, fresh rosemary, garlic and thyme.
Personally, I can’t resist nicking them straight from the jar, so preserving them is rarely a problem, but if you find yourself with an abundant haul, this recipe is a good way to extend their life – simply put in a sterilized jar and top with olive oil. Make sure your shrooms are submerged – the flavored oil when the mushrooms are finished is a lovely ingredient in its own right, too.
Because the moisture has been released, and there is salt and olive oil, your mushrooms are intensified in flavor and much less vulnerable to mold.
Deliciously savory mushrooms cooked with a little wine, garlic, and herbs
- 1-1/2 pounds mushrooms
- 1/2 tsp salt or to your taste
- 1/2 cup dry white or red wine brandy, or vermouth
- 1-1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves or 3/4 tsp dried
- 1-1/2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves or 3/4 tsp crumbled dried
- 1-1/2 TBS olive oil
- 2 - 4 large garlic cloves peeled and minced or pressed
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 3 TBS chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
Trim away the tough stemps of the mushrooms or remove the from portabellos, for regular mushrooms just cut the very ends of the stems off. Rinse briefly in cod water to remove any sand and shake or wipe dry with paper towels. Cut into thick slices, halves, or for sall shrooms, leave whole. If using a clumpy variety like oysters, tear in half or cut away the bottom of the stem and separate.
Heat skillet over medium-high heat, add the mushrooms and salt. Watch carefully, the mushrooms will soon begin to release liquid. Stir and cook until the liquid has evaporated, which can be anywhere from 5 - 15 minutes, depending on the moisture content and type of mushroom. Stir in the wine, thyme, and rosemary. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring, until the wine has evaporated, 5 - 10 minutes. Add the olive oil and garlic. Cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to color and the dish smells very fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Season with pepper, stir in the parsley, adjust salt if needed, serve.
I don’t have much time, or kitchen space for elaborate preserving projects anymore. So, I have to be really selective and spend my time making the one tomato-y thing that will be quick, flexible, but still remind me in the heart of January that the dark, frozen nights will again be soft and desk, with tomatoes, still warm from the garden. See, that connection to my own Pennsylvania summer is a real spirit lifter – one which canned tomatoes from the supermarket just cannot match.
Elimination thinking makes my decision super-easy; this uncooked tomato sauce, straight from the freezer tastes exactly like summer, is compact and efficient to store in my freezer, and quick and easy to use in lots of ways later.
Before beginning, I’d like to make this one plea: Resist the urge to chef this one up until you’ve made it once exactly as it is. Yes, it’s a VERY simple, plain recipe, but therein lies the charm. The simplicity allows the special summertime quality of the tomatoes to shine which is exactly why I love it so much. You can add herbs and spices when you use it later if you wish. Oh, and this sauce plain is beautiful with fresh mozzarella… and allows a bit of good olive oil to really shine.
Here’s a link to the more specific recipe. It makes four servings to be eaten right away but to preserve larger quantities for freezing, simply repeat as many times as you like ( I just figure out how many pounds of tomatoes I have and work it backwards), throw the milled batches together into one large colander, drain over a large bucket then freeze the concentrated sauce in single serving portions.
The split skins will peel right away – then toss into your food mill. I use a Roma and run the tomatoes through two or three times to extract every last drop… If you don’t have a food mill, just do your best to skin, seed and chop as finely as you can. The texture won’t be exactly the same, but don’t let that stop you – it’s still going to be awesome.
The tomatoes after processing. Add kosher salt and ladle into your cheesecloth lined colander. Maybe you’re not like me with large pieces of cheesecloth lying around. Not to worry, you can use a simple cotton dish towel or pillow case but be prepared for it to be forever stained. I toss my clean cheesecloth into the boiling water for a few minutes before using. Line a colander with the cheesecloth and you’re ready to pour in your tomato mixture. Place the colander over a large bowl or bucket and drain for at least a couple of hours or overnight
For me, one cup portions in freezer bags is the perfect size. One cup feeds two with plenty of leftovers for the next few days. Looking at the chicken scratch I wrote on my recipe, apparently I used 24 pounds of tomatoes last year and today I know it was not nearly enough. A word of warning: a little of this sauce goes a long way. I use 2 or 3 Tablespoons to dress a serving of pasta. Really.
Fill your freezer bags, squeeze out any air, and stack flat on a baking sheet or plate to freeze. Onse frozen stiff, the packages can be stacked upright in a container, and are easy to see and access in your freezer, and take little space.
Pouches of finished sauce, in my freezer stash. I freeze this in one cup portions in small freezer bags to use all winter. Thaw it in the bag and gently spoon over cooked pasta tossed with olive oil or butter. If you must heat the sauce, simply warm a little olive oil in a sauce pan and stir in the sauce until just warmed.
Because you are straining away most of the water, the volume will be greatly reduced. I started with a nearly full 5 gallon bucket of tomatoes, and ended up with about 5 cups of sauce. This will vary based on the water content of the tomatoes and the amount of time you leave them drain.
Use your sauce to make summer-fresh Margarita pizzas, toss in the crock pot or dutch oven for a stew or braise, soup, with a pot of beans, anything that can use some fresh tomato flavor. Since the star of this project is the tomato, I wouln’t bother with thick walled, tough-skinned, weak flavored commodity varieties. This is meant as a celebration of the flavor of local, peak-of=freshness, sloppy, flavorful old-fashioned and heirloom varieties.
Home made pasta, uncooked fresh tomato sauce frozen from last summer’s harvest and some good quality parmesan or pecorino – perfection in its simplicity!
Also, when you’ve finished making this sauce, especially if you made a bunch for freezing, you’ll have lots of nutritious tomato essence (the water left after straining the tomato solids for the sauce) left.
- Base for Bloody Marys
- Braising liquid
- Reduction for intensely tomato flavored sauces
- Added flavoring for beer or vodka
- Base for gazpacho or cocktail sauce
- Poaching liquid for seafood, shrimp, calamari or lobster
- Dressing for fresh oysters
- Marinade for white fish
- Vinaigrette mix-in
- Liquid for cooking rice or grains
- Refreshing chilled beverage served over ice, with basil
Or, simply use it in place of any liquid next time you make stock, bread, rice, bulgur, barley or risotto. These are kitchen basics you know you’re going to do anyway, so why not add a little free flavor & nutrient booster?
An icy glass of tomato essence…. yummy and refreshing straight up, and so many great uses in coctails…
The most complicated part of this approach is using a food mill if you have never used one. It makes for a really nice texture and removes the peel and seeds. A food mill is not necessary though, and this sauce will be just as tasty finely chopped by hand.
If you could only do one, what would your single tomato preserving project be?
I’m a Pittsburgh girl, so maybe there are cultural Red-Beans-And-Rice nuances I am not getting here. Made on Monday, check. Our own Auburn Meadow Farm Classic Cajun Andouille, check, check. Slow cooked all day? Nope. This is a quicker version, because I had already cooked beans in broth waiting in my freezer for just such a day.
All you real-deal Cajun cooks? Sorry, but also, not sorry, because this is some really good, wholesome, hearty hygge for a dreary winter day.
Since COVID, people have been hoarding good culinary beans, which is sad if they are just being stashed in somebody’s bunker – the ten pound bags of pintos at Walmart do a pretty decent job of resting on a shelf. The Rancho Gordo heirloom beans offer a range of flavor and texture that those ten-year-old warehoused beans just can’t bring. And, if you are planning a garden, those Rancho Gordos are good for planting too, so save some of your favorites and give them a go for some fresh shelling beans.
But hoarders can’t kill my bean joy. If you can’t have the bean you love, which for Red Beans and Rice would have been Domingo Rojas, then love the bean you have, which happens to be Ayocote Negro. Selecting beans by texture not color is key here. The Ayocote Negros are a gorgeous, substantial, shiny, black bean, and were perfect, if not red.
This should take ten minutes of prep and a half hour to forty minutes simmering, and serves four to six. Printable recipe here.
- 1# smoked Andouille, sliced into 1/2” disks
- 2 pint containers of pre-cooked cooked beans in broth* (or 2 cans of kidney beans, drained)
- 1 TBS good cooking fat, I use lard or bacon fat*
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 green pepper seeded and chopped
- 4 ribs celery, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/2-tsp to 1 TBS cayenne pepper dependent upon how hot you like yours. I omit entirely as I cook for people who don’t tolerate spices.
- 1-28 ounce can whole tomatoes in juice
- 1/2 tsp ground sage or poultry seasoning
- Smoked ham hock (optional)
- splash cider vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Mild hot sauce like Frank’s or Crystal for serving
- Cooked white rice for serving
- In a Dutch oven, melt your cooking fat over medium heat, add onion, green pepper, and celery. Sautee until softened, do not brown.
- Add garlic and andouille disks and sautee to release fragrance.
- Add the tomatoes, ham hock if using, cayenne and sage. Allow to gently simmer, allowing the flavors to develop.
- Add the beans, if you are using canned beans, strain the liquid before adding. continue to simmer to allow the beans to absorb the flavors. You don’t want to cook dry though, you are going for the texture of a thick soup. If your pot starts getting too dry, add some water (best boiled first – I use my teakettle).
- Taste and add salt, pepper, and cider vinegar to taste.
- Serve your beans with rice – this is important. It is honestly not difficult to make a perfectly cooked pot of rice. That detail makes a huge difference.
If you really want to eat like a farmer, try topping a bowl with a poached egg for breakfast . It’s even better next day.
*Some astericks here, because I am a pantry cook, and have stored in my freezer and pantry items you may not. That’s okay though, it’s not a big deal this recipe is pretty flexible.
Get these ingredients from us*:
Classic very mild smoked Andouille from our pastured pork, smoked ham hocks, Ayocote Negro beans
*Inventory subject to change without notice