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.
“Lucy Light; The Shortest Day & The Longest Night!”

“Lucy Light; The Shortest Day & The Longest Night!”

St. Lucy’s Feast Day is celebrated December 13, though since Gregorian calendar reform, the feast day no longer lands on the eve of Winter Solstice as it once did, so the focus on light may feel a little puzzling at first.

I find St. Lucy’s Feast to be a nice advent to Winter Solstice, reminding me to pay attention and  give presence to the significance and power of the shortest day & longest night. Though the worst of winter lies just ahead, the significance of knowing the days are growing longer is a huge lifter of spirit, and truly a yearly event worth celebrating.

To mark a feast day with many food references to sunshine and magic, what could call to mind sunshine more than yellow corn cookies in the shape of the sun? Simple, gluten-free, and virtuous while still being delightful and celebratory.  Plus, simple, earthy, and unfussy.

I am all for a category of sweets that is regular part of a nutrient dense, locally sourced everyday diet, not a shameful guilt-inducing lack of discipline, how about you?

Masa Zaletti (Cornmeal Cookies)

Not-too-sweet but perfectly delicious Italian cornmeal cookies. Vegetarian, gluten free. From my tattered-and-stained favorite whole grains cookbook, "Whole Grains For A New Generation" by Liana Krissoff.
Servings 28 cookies

Ingredients
  

  • 1/3 cup dried currants
  • 1-1/2 cups masa harina
  • 1 cup raw fine yellow cornmeal
  • Pinch salt
  • 10 TBS unsalted butter melted
  • 3 large egg yolks beaten
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • Grated zest of 1 large lemon

Instructions
 

  • Preheat oven to 375° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  • Put the currants in a bowl and cover with hot water, let soak until soft.
  • Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the masa marina, yellow cornmeal, and salt. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the butter.
  • In a medium bowl, whist together the egg yolks, sugar, baking soda, and lemon zest. Pour the mixture into the masa marina mixture and stir to combine. Drain the currants, reserving the soaking water; add the currants to the dough and knead gently in the bowl with your hands until the dough is thoroughly combined, sprinkling in up to 4 TBS of the currant soaking liquid little at a time to make a dough that holds together when you squeeze it.
  • Scoop up a rounded tablespoon-size chunk of dough and squeeze it into a ball; flatten it between your palms to make a 1/4-inch thick round and place it on the prepared baking sheet. (Or, drop the batter onto the cookie sheet and use a decorative cookie stamp to make it festive.)
  • Repeat with the remaining dough, arranging cookies 1" apart. Bake until golden brown at the edges and firm in the centers, about 12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through so they brown evenly.
  • Let cool on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool.