“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,”

Giovanni Battista Tiepol

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

For the last three days Zyphrus has roared and the horses of Poisedon have reared over the reef as the tempest raged…………
A full-blown North Atlantic gale is best described as a tempest stirred by the wrath of the gods. On the headland the storm force winds have a deep bass roar and as the gusts gather strength the sound waves roll into deep shuddering thuds. The rain arrives in icy squalls, falling as hard and heavy as a curtain of artillery shells, accompanied by a staccato rhythm of aqueous shrapnel.
Below the cacophony of the discordant air there is the constant surging rhythm of the sea. As the waves break over the rocks in an agitated fury of spindrift, a vapour of salt is released to etch the land with a desiccating, deadly frost. Beyond the reef the horizon undulates as the border between sea and sky is breached by white horses riding the storm tide.
Eventually Iris arrives to restore harmony painting an arc of serenity to heal boundaries between the sea, sky and land. As the warmth of the rainbow suffuses the monochrome storm wracked landscape  a thread of sunlight gilds the clouds. Another storm passes, the ancient rocks of Ardivachar slumber on and island life resumes.


Winter Afternoon

Winter sky Ardivachar, South Uist

Like languid trapeze artistes the gulls trace celestial arcs
as a dying sun tints the clouds with ashes of roses.
Effervescent spray breaks over the whale-backed reef
as a clowning troupe of ravens tumble earthward
Icarian feathers black as the cold fingers of night.

From Magi to Mummers and Wassailing to Wenceslas

Magi,Mummers, WassailingWhether your Christmas is bah humbug! or a childish delight in lighting the advent candles and eating mince pies, it is almost the night before the night before “when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse“.
Christmas or the mid-winter festival is a celebration for the 21st century offering the consumer an array of choices for everyone from the grumpy puritan, taking the moral high ground railing against commercialism, materialism and any other …ism, to the carousing hedonist bent on celebrating everything from Saturnalia to Twelfth Night. You can pick the spiritual or the secular and you can chose whether you celebrate Christmas Day on 25th December or 6th January or if you adhere to the Julian calendar on 7th or 19th January. You can also include the feast day of Anastasia of Sirmium (patron saint of potions – medicinal not alcoholic) or Newtonmas ( Isaac Newton’s birthday on the Julian calendar) on December 25th (Gregorian calendar).
The early Church pragmatically incorporated the local pagan winter festivals into Christmas and we have  continued the practice of adopting a whole range of global customs into our traditions. So whilst the romantic delusion of the Dickensian Christmas bears little relation to the medieval Yuletide we are free to chose from both and customise. So whether you prefer a boar’s head, turkey (bronze free range or supermarket frozen), goose or nut roast, a Christmas tree (real or artificial), fairy lights or candles and whether your celebrations are devout, debauched or something in-between – enjoy and prosper.

Happy Christmas & New Year

The Croft Gardeners – Himself & Apprentice

Pieter. Bruegel. the. Elder: Peasant. Wedding. Feast,. c. 1567

Pieter Bruegel the. Elder c. 1567

From Kringle Wreath to Bread Pudding

More adventures in the croft Advent kitchen
Will the Master Baker come to the rescue?

Johannes Vermeer - The Kitchen Maid

Johannes Vermeer – The Kitchen Maid c.1658. Rijksmuseum

After a course of counselling and esteem building I was ready to open the Advent kitchen again and continue my exploration of Scandinavian Christmas baking. This time I vowed to follow the recipe precisely, and accurately measure and weigh all the ingredients. However,  I decided to add the liquid carefully to avoid the sticky dough syndrome. I  was ready – clean apron, a perfect mise en place, bowls and utensils ready, recipe to hand and specs on.
Mixing the dough was easy and although I did not add all the milk and butter mixture, it still seemed a little sticky. As the kitchen is a little on the cool I left it to rise for an hour rather than the specified 30 minutes. So far so good. The dough was still stickier than I would have liked, but with a prodigious dusting of flour it was possible to roll it out into the 60 x 15 cm rectangle and spread it with the almond filling. The filling paste of marzipan, butter, ground almonds and beaten egg was sweet enough for my palate so I did not add any extra sugar. Rolling the dough into a cylinder was not for those with more than the average number of thumbs and my kringle wreath looked like a lumpy sausage stuffed into a lisle stocking.  The next initiative test was to get the wreath onto the baking tray – the solution was easy two large fish slices and a big palette knife, but the manipulation with only two hands was more tricky. By this time I was having serious doubts and wondered whether it might have been better to let it elegantly slide on to the floor. Undeterred I covered it with an antique, white damask napkin (the Master Baker is very particular about his bread cloths) and left it to rise. After the prescribed 30 minutes it has not doubled in size so it was left for an hour before putting in the oven.
After 30 minutes it looked like an incubating alien pod with tentacles spreading out over the baking tray – the Kraken wakes? After another 10 minutes it was a nice golden brown but cracking like a volcano. Time to call in the Master Baker for a second opinion – the verdict “give it another 6 minutes and let it cool on the tray”.
By the time it was cold, it had set – hard. Time for the taste challenge –  glossy exterior, good almond flavour and not too sweet, BUT a heavy doughy texture.  The post-mortem – “the dough was probably too wet and at some stage should have been lightly kneaded to work the gluten”. So I scraped my self-esteem off the kitchen floor again and the moral of the tale is don’t be seduced by recipe books with glossy pictures! This is the third failure from this particular book (Scandiliciious Baking  by Signe Johansen), and three out of three points to flawed recipes rather than operator ineptitude.
Fortunately not all was lost, it made a great bread pudding!
As for the cookery book, it will probably gather dust on the shelf, some tempting recipes but with a big caveat emptor!

kringle wreath

It didn’t look like this in the book!

The Revenge of the Gingerbread Men

oh no!

© Quentin Blake

The aroma in the Advent croft kitchen is delicious and augurs Christmas treats. There are enough spices to fill a potentate’s bazaar, jars of dried fruit and dark sugars, bundles of cinnamon sticks and piles of gleaming Satsumas and lemons. The Christmas cake is slumbering in a miasma of brandy in the cupboard with the jars of mincemeat and preserved oranges and there are dark chocolatey treats squirrelled away.
Today was scheduled as ginger biscuit baking day. Then it was if someone had shaken the Christmas snow globe as a gentle cloud of flour descended. It covered the entire work surface and coated the trail of spatulas, palette knives, assorted spoons, pastry cutters, crumbled balls and twists of baking paper and spheres of discarded cling film with a snowy film. It was if I had been visited by a hoard of giant children finger painting with sticky brown biscuit dough as they rampaged through the kitchen!
In a fit of recklessness I had decided to try a new recipe and as soon as I saw the dough I knew I was in trouble. After a night in the fridge and 15 minutes in the freezer the dough was still very sticky. I tried rolling it out between sheets of cling film and baking paper doused in flour but the more I tried the more it stuck to the paper, the work surface, every utensil I could get my hands on and of course to me! Eventually the whole sticky gooey mess was scraped back into the bowl of the mixer. By this time I was getting a little frazzled so without engaging brain I emptied in half a bag of flour and switched the machine on. Hallelujah – winter wonderland as the flour was spun from the bowl! Hysterical laughter and howls of frustration ensued and if it hadn’t been 9 am a restorative nip of cooking sherry would have been appropriate! So it was a quick chorus of Jingle Bells  and a few Bah Humbugs to accompany the rolling out of the now very, very firm dough. The end result was an assortment of oddly shaped, mildly spicy biscuits with a very chewy texture.
Lured by the aroma of baking Himself appeared and then quickly retreated! The comments were scathing but he did help me decontaminate the kitchen. So was it the curse of the Gingerbread Men, a faulty recipe or did I misread the liquid quantities, add them up incorrectly or perhaps tried to read the measuring jug graduations without my specs?

hand prints