A Sunday for Reflection and a Cake for Christmas

Novemeber rain

Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them – Marcel Proust

This morning I watched the rain run down the window as the wind drove sheets of rain across waves of grass and beyond out over a turbulent grey sea. A metaphor for the poignant memories which turn my thoughts to the many Remembrance Sunday services when I stood quietly with my father and granny as a child, a girl and later a woman. Now I am the only one left to remember and stand in silence.
So thinking about my family, I begin to look forward – it is time to make the Christmas cake.
In the first half of the 17th century Christmas was one of the most important religious festivals and holidays. It was a period of indulgence with the consumption of great quantities of brawn, roast beef, plum-pottage, minced pies and Christmas ale accompanied by dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays. Christmas still retained the medieval elements of “misrule” and in the eyes of the Puritans of the Cromwellian Commonwealth it was an excuse for drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess.

The order of 19 December 1644 by both Houses of Parliament sums up the mind-set of puritan opposition to Christmas.

The order of 19 December 1644 by both Houses of Parliament describing the Puritan opposition to Christmas.

Among the stricter English Protestants the objections to the traditional Christmas celebrations were not based solely on questions of morality. The Christmas festival was popular among the Catholic recusant community and, therefore, in Puritan eyes it had all the trappings of popery. (After the Reformation those who refuse to attend Anglican services, whether Catholics, Quakers or other Protestant non-conformists were known as recusants)
Inthe the 17th century the original plum pottage¹ (a boiled beef with red wine, beer, spices, apples and dried fruit “soup”) had not yet evolved into the Christmas pudding. However, when the Christmas pottage was made flour and eggs were added any left-over mixture to make a cake to be eaten at Easter. There was also cake to celebrate Twelfth Night which contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. By the time Cromwell had finished the mince pies and mummers had been vanquished, but the Christmas cake, something of an amalgam of the Christmas pudding and the Twelfth Night cake, managed to survive. With the re-invention of Christmas by the Victorians, the Christmas cake became an iced and decorated extravaganza.

Ladies of fashion" gather in a confectioner's shop to buy a Christmas cake, in an engraving published in 1818. Image: Geffrye Museum, London

“Ladies of fashion” gather in a confectioner’s shop to buy a Christmas cake, in an engraving published in 1818. Image: Geffrye Museum, London

Now you can choose – a traditional Christmas cake, a panettone, stollen, bûche de Noël or a Dundee cake. Even if you choose a traditional fruit cake, you can adjust the mix to suit your taste – dense and moist or lighter and drier, plain or iced, with or without almonds.
I don’t make a cake every year and it remains unadorned, except perhaps for some glazed nuts. The cake is spicy, moist and rich, and although the composition of the fruit mixture may vary from year to year, the basic recipe changes very little. It is also well fed, so it needs time to mature. I’ve added my recipe for a Cake for Christmas to the Croft Kitchen recipes, so you can compare it with your family recipe.Christmas-cake¹Plum-pottage was also probaly the origin of mince pies (minced pies). The style of Christmas pudding we now consider traditional did not arrive until the 19th century.




Opening the spice cupboard and lighting the Advent candles

Still Life Luis Melendez

Luis Melendez (1716-1780)

I love this time of year: the vibrant cocktail of Hebridean weather, woolly socks and snuggly snoods, candles and a glowing stove on dark afternoons, the gutsy flavours of Northern European peasant food, the indulgent aromas of spices and intense sweetness of dried fruit. I particularly enjoy Advent, I like the concept of looking forwards, anticipating, waiting and preparing; and it is immaterial whether it’s Christmas, Yule, or Shabe Yaldā. It is the antidote to the modern cult of instant gratification and it is a great shame that it has becen usurped as the festival of the cult of shopping and consumerism. Fortunately living on the edge of the world I can dismiss the siren calls of the marketing men with bah humbug, consign their spam to the great cyber darkness, put the junk mail into the recycling bin and get on with enjoying the preparations for a simple croft Christmas.
At this point I should explain that the croft house will not be decked with holly, ivy and the folderols associated with the Dickensian, New England, Scandinavian or whatever contrived version of Christmas is currently in vogue. There will be candles, driftwood, bowls of spices and herbs, clove studded oranges and definitely no bling. Who need fairy lights when I have velvety dark skies strung with skeins of stars?
If you think this sounds a little dour and fundamentalist perhaps the influence of the Wee Frees (apologies Free Church of Scotland) lingers throughout the islands even though South Uist and Barra are predominantly Catholic. Originally Advent was all about spiritual preparation and abstinence, and as an atheist with hedonistic, pagan leanings (or is it the other way round?) neither are on my agenda. However, the Lord of Misrule and the Abbot of Unreason will both be invited to preside over our Feast of Fools.
My Christmas shopping list reveals that I am seriously at the risk of committing one of the sins of excess or more likely developing type 2 diabetes. The dried fruit, nuts, spices. exotic condiments, conserves, sugars and syrups, not to mention the pomegranates, cranberries and citrus fruit are purchased without guilt despite the accumulation of food miles. I enjoy cooking the traditional Christmas foods, both savoury and sweet, probably more than eating them. Essentially it is all about sharing with friends and delighting those you love. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, a glass of mulled wine with some mince pies or farmhouse cheeses with homemade bread and chutney.
Now that I no longer have an extended family to cosset I have eschewed the fruit-laden Christmas cake and pudding in favour of smaller confections. I have now recovered from the trauma of the Revenge of the Gingerbread Men and I am going to try some new recipes. To mark the start of Advent, a little something that’s not too rich and fruit laden. A minor success as the Apple and Pecan Muffins vanished in a thrice so this afternoon I had to put on the apron and start again. There is no higher praise than a rapidly emptying cake tin.

Time for Tea

Tea timeThere is nothing more glorious than June – roses, cricket, lawn tennis, the evening glass of chilled white wine on the terrace……….. You can smell and taste the nostalgia, the idyll only disturbed by the sound of hay fever snuffling and sneezing, and a summer storm! Oh well it must be time for tea.
Assam or Darjeeling? Will you take milk or lemon? Whether you prefer the delicacy and refinement of bone china and the finest single estate leaf tea or something more practical involving a mug and a tea bag; a cup of tea will refresh and console. Cucumber sandwiches may be reserved for only the most superior of establishments, but an afternoon cuppa is not complete without homemade cake or scones and jam.afternoon teaThe Chinese may have been drinking tea since the third millennium BC, but here afternoon tea did not become a fashionable social event until the mid 19th century. Whilst upper and middle class ladies adorned in tea gowns, hat and gloves, developed the rituals of afternoon tea, the working class remained firmly in the pub.
The days of tea parties on the lawn in the perfect English garden are part of the myth perpetuated by television costume dramas. In reality they were enjoyed by a privileged  minority and belonged to a society which was changed forever by the first world war. Afternoon tea is now reserved for high days and holidays, the preserve of genteel tea rooms and posh hotels. It is also part of the ritual of garden visiting as even the smallest “Yellow Book” garden will usually offer tea and cakes and the WI tea tent remains a quintessential part of the village fête.
The world and afternoon tea have changed and many of us now use the tea bag, with or without a tea-pot. Fortunately home baking is enjoying a revival and plain and fancy cakes are one again on the menu. The difference between fine leaf tea and the bag is probably equivalent to the difference between supermarket plonk and a good estate wine. There is room for both, as a fine tea like vintage wine needs time to be appreciated and enjoyed. Whether you drink Iris Orchid Phoenix Oolong, Darjeeling Bannockburn Supreme or supermarket own brand value range, take a little time to enjoy your tea and admire the garden.
So are you a tea bag dipper of leaf tea and strainer imbiber?china tea

Let them eat cake

Hungry-gapWe are now well into the hungry gap. The last knobbly celeriac helped stretch some frozen cauliflower purée into soup, the final half bucket of potatoes are beginning to sprout  and I am left with a few small bags of broad beans lurking in the bottom of the freezer. In the absence of anything green the pots of herbs on the windowsill cringe every time I pick up a pair of scissors.
Northern springs are notoriously fickle and the impatient gardener can be tempted into rashness by a glimpse of sunshine and the exultation of the skylarks. The days may be lengthening but we are still beset by cold winds and squalls of hail,  and cling to the optimistic delusion that “April can be nice”. So we wait, plot and plan, nurture the delicate seedlings, that desperately need some sunshine, and plant some more seeds “just in case”. With the dedication of the anxious the seed trays are watered and checked for germination and the row of young salad leaves is eyed greedily as we wait for the next cut.
Ignoring the siren calls of the phoney spring, the vegetable beds slumber on undisturbed, and we wait for the soil to warm.  In one sheltered bed there is an explosion of life, buttery green, crinkly leaves, the size of elephants ears, and stems which glow like ruby wine in the sunlight. The rhubarb has stirred and is producing enough for the weekly breakfast crumble.
It will be a few more weeks before we can start to eat our own vegetables again, so for a brief spell we have to rely on the imported vegetables in our small local supermarkets. On principle I refuse to buy imported non-seasonal vegetables, such as asparagus or runner beans, and I’m irritated by the absence of UK grown root vegetables and greens. So I insist that we operate in extreme austerity mode, nothing (not even the most shriveled Dutch carrot) is to be wasted, the soup dragon has to be fed.
Hungry gap soup comes in more than 57 varieties and is based on lentil stock and imagination. Stir in the leftover vegetables that lurk in the fridge or a mix of stir fried vegetables, add some chilli, smoked paprika or a good slug of sherry. It can be dressed-up with croutons, toasted seeds and nuts, chopped herbs or even a swirl of sour cream. Cherish the soup dragon and austerity soup becomes a lunchtime luxury.
So while I’m pondering over tomorrows soup recipe and wondering just how bad the predicted equinox gale will be, there is just time to make some muffins. The vegetable store may be empty but there is always cake!

Cinnamon oat and raisin muffin

Cinnamon, oat and raisin muffin

Christmas in the Croft Kitchen

Back to Basics and a MasterclassAlmond tartIt is Christmas eve, the wind is rising to storm force, the surf is pounding the beach and there are squalls of sleet hurtling past the window. Strangely the croft kitchen is quiet, the larder overflowing and even if we could squeeze in another culinary delight more baking would be a risky enterprise, as there is a high probability of yet another power cut. So far this month we have only managed two gardening days, otherwise it has been too wet and windy to venture farther than the shed to fetch logs or raid the vegetable and preserves store. Four big storms with winds gusting above 80 mph in 3 weeks is extreme even for the Outer Isles.
Filling the days is not a problem, but there are afternoons when we gaze longingly out of the window and sigh for a walk on the beach or session hard labour in the garden. As an alternative there is hard graft in the kitchen, although improving my baking skills is more of an indulgence, even if at times there are both blood and tears.
As usual the croft kitchen has been full of spicy aromas with dark undertones of dried fruit and molasses sugar and the heady fumes of Christmas spirit. There were also some demons to slay as I had vowed there would not be a repeat of last years extravaganzas. First the gingerbread men – with ruthless determination I blew the dust off the old recipe and assembled the ingredients, I was ready. In the shake of a snow globe, there were 36 perfect gingerbread biscuits. Self-esteem restored was I confident enough to try some patisserie or would hubris be humbling? Not for me the basic Bakewell, but tarte amandine aux pruneaux!
I was taught to make pastry by my mother, very basic, very simple and in times of austerity there were no fancy additions and certainly nothing as extravagant as butter and eggs. You rubbed the fat into the flour (usually a mixture of lard and margarine) to the fine breadcrumbs stage, by hand of course, added the required amount of water to make a dough, rolled it out and that was it. This method produced perfectly mediocre edible and rather grey pastry. With affluence and experience I moved onto to more complex  recipes including what my mother refers to as “the posh fancy bits” but I must confess that it is often made in a food processor and “resting” tends to be minimal. So I was probably in need of a “back to basics refresher course” with a chef pâtissier. My style of cooking tends to be more Prue Leith than Roux brothers, rustic with no frills. However, when it comes to bread and pastry techniques, it could only be Richard Bertinet who could sort out a lifetime’s bad habits. So in a clean apron, ingredients assembled and the kitchen surgically scrubbed, book in hand and a steely glint in the eye, I was ready. Two days later, I had produced 8 prune and almond tarts and not a soggy bottom amongst them. With a combination of almond paste and prunes soaked in brandy the filling had to be delicious. As for the pastry, it was crisp and buttery, but perhaps a little too sweet for me. Certainly worth the time and effort for something special, it is just a case of being sufficiently organised to allow time for the resting. There is also something very satisfying about making pastry by hand.
CouronneNow for the Kringle. I decided to rest on my laurels and let my own personal chef give me a masterclass. From panettonne to stollen, there are a number of enriched breads which are a traditional part of European Christmas cooking. So I didn’t get a kringle but a couronne, which is the French version. The magic combination of dried fruit, muscovado sugar and almonds is sublime and wrapped in a light buttery case is gourmande heaven. Not sure if I’m ready for this level of technical baking yet, so I’ll stick to perfecting the perfect pastry.
This year my sister declared that civilisation was coming to an end when I confessed I’d not made a Christmas cake, pudding or mincemeat. I have been experimenting with slightly lighter cakes and puddings, still involving the traditional mixtures of Christmas spices and fruit but more prima ballerina than sumo wrestler. Tarte amandine aux pruneaux is delicious, but it can’t really compete with an old-fashioned mince pie.

Slice apricot couronne

A slice of apricot couronne