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.

Garden of Plenty

courgettesThere are a series of landmarks in my gardening year and, however intemperate the weather, by late July, the croft vegetable garden has been transformed into a garden of abundance. The empty trugs of the hungry gap months become horns of plenty and we are sated with green comestibles. A pretentious little literary allegory which means that we have a fridge full of cucumbers, pallet loads of courgettes, enough lettuce to feed a bio-digester the size of a nuclear power station and our friends and neighbours are avoiding us. We can hardly get into the store for sacks of potatoes, the shelves are groaning with jars of preserves, and the freezers are FULL!
It seems churlish to complain, but my garden of plenty has become a garden of excess. If I wasn’t being engulfed in green fecundity, I could smile smugly and show off my green fingers. However, my fingers are green from picking tomatoes from dawn to dusk and the abundance of vegetables has more to do with the weather than my expertise.

We have had a perfect summer, calm, warm with just enough rain to minimise the need for irrigation. The spring was warm and the moisture in the soil from our very soggy winter was perfect for germinating seeds and nurturing young plants. However, the real bonus was the extension of the summer weather into August and beyond to mid-September. So at the very end of September I am still harvesting ripe tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, broad beans and courgettes, and wondering how we are going to eat the early winter broccoli which is ready at least a month ahead of schedule. By now we are usually preparing the vegetable garden for winter, hacking down the tomato vines and making green tomato chutney incorporating the last of the courgettes and defiantly green peppers.
Although I have reduced the quantity of vegetables I grow, I am still a just-in-case gardener and always sow a few extra seeds as an insurance policy again the plagues of Egypt. This would be fine, if I discarded the extra plants, But I always manage to squeeze the extras in somewhere. Hence four cucumber plants when two would be sufficient and an embarrassment of fruit! Although, I lost a third of my young celeriac plants to marauding slugs, the survivors are the size of small footballs so there will be no shortage of celeriac soup this winter.
It is rather comforting to know that we will have enough vegetables to keep us through the winter and next year I might even bridge the hungry gap! However, I still have to solve the problem of the vegetable mountain that is threatening to engulf the croft kitchen. My collection of vegetarian cookery books is getting well-thumbed and although the new Ottolenghi magnum opus arrived just in time to inspire me, once again it was the soup dragon who came to my rescue. So if you can’t face another cucumber salad or salsa, you might enjoy Plentiful Summer Soup.

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

Soup for Solace

spiced pumpkin soupThe season of the great darkness is upon us and the time of great hunger approaches. Whether the hunger pangs are caused by an empty vegetable garden after the December storms or the mortification of the flesh (January diet) after the seasonal indulgence, I prescribe soup. For those who have stretched the family budget or the waistline it is economical and a healthy option, if the cream and cheese are left in the fridge. After tea and toast it is the ultimate comfort food, warming the soul and soothing the stomach. There is nothing nicer than a steaming bowl of soup after a blustery walk or some winter gardening, it is also great for “man flu” nurturing both the afflicted and the suffering spouses.
Amongst my collection of witty, erudite and informative posts, strangely it is the recipe for celeriac soup which stands head and shoulders above the intellectual elite in the popularity poll. I doubt if I can produce another soup recipe which will be as popular, but the latest version pumpkin and chickpea had a good reception in the croft kitchen. There’s a pot on the hob if you’d like to give it a try.
This post was originally called “Soup for the Solstice” but it missed the deadline, and was left to languish in the drafty corner to evolve. As soup is for sharing, like all good leftovers it was resurrected and served in a new form with parable as a garnish.
The reciting of the heroic sagas, in the intervals between the feasting and general mayhem is an integral part of the winter solstice celebrations. Unfortunately bards have a bad habit of not realising that snores are not always a sound of appreciation, after all too many iambic pentameters in rhyming couplets can be soporific after a few horns of mead. So to lighten the mood, if not the moral tone, there is always time to squeeze in a wee folk tale.
There are many tales involving soup and I particularly like stone soup – a universal story involving either faerie folk, wandering soldiers or itinerant charlatans and a wealth of interpretations. However, I recently came across this Chinese parable which I like even more and is warming and comforting, just like soup:
“When a man asked God about heaven and hell, God first shows him a land where all the people have a delicious meat soup. But they have spoons longer than their arms, so they go hungry and suffer in hell.
Then God shows the man another place where everyone has the same wonderful soup and same long spoons. But here they use the spoons to feed each other. This is heaven.”