Further Adventures in Historical Baking: Fruitcake

IMG_1110

In the States, fruitcake is a seasonal joke, a punchline. I remember it on a children’s show I watched from my youth. But when I got older, I discovered that my mother actually enjoys fruitcake, so when I saw a recipe in my beloved Nigella Lawson cookbook, I started stirring up a Christmas cake the month before Christmas each year to share with her. I cared for it, feeding it brandy every week, and finding the perfect tin to match the shape and size of cake I made that year, so that it wouldn’t dry out or go bad. And then I would give my mother the cake at Christmas so she could eat it in very thin slices or share it with guests.

But I gradually fell out of the habit of my own little stir-up Sunday, and kept forgetting to make my fruitcake. This year, I had every intention of starting the tradition again, especially after finding myself fortuitously at an open liquor store the Sunday after Thanksgiving. But, alas, things kept coming up and I never made it before Christmas. But I used my holiday to stir up a fruitcake of sorts. Rather than making one that required feeding and maturing, I made one based on the historical recipe used on English Heritage’s “The Victorian Way” series from their inimitable Mrs. Crocombe, based on a recipe from Queen Victoria’s own cook.

Of course, I made a few changes. In particular, a move that some may label utter blasphemy, I did not top my cake with marzipan or royal icing, as I know my mother dislikes both of those things. I also made it in a loaf pan, and instead of soaking it in brandy as I usually do, I brushed on a modest amount of a mixture of orange syrup and brandy. Oh, and I candied my own peel this year.

I highly recommend you candy your own peel. Other than peeling an orange in more-or-less whole pieces, it’s hardly any work at all. And not only is the candied peel delicious, but you are left with a quantity of delicious orange syrup that you can use in other things (perhaps in a tea cocktail). The one piece of advice I would have is to make sure you cut the peel into thin strips before you candy it. I candied mine in larger pieces and found that not only did it have to cook for longer to go translucent, but it was also much more difficult to cut after candying. To candy your own peel, simple peel three washed,  thick-rinded oranges, like navels, slice the peel into strips, and boil them in a syrup made of sugar and water. I used a rich simple syrup of one part water to two parts sugar. Boil until the white part of the rind looks translucent, and then remove from the syrup and dry on a rack overnight (or longer, if you don’t worry about curious spouses or cat hair). I didn’t sugar my peel afterwards as it seemed foolish given that the sugaring would soak off in the brandy.

The other change I made was to soak my cut up dried fruit in brandy for… well, a few weeks. I had put together the fruit mixture right after candying my peel and got it soaking, intending to make the cake in a day or two, but it ended up sitting in the refrigerator for a while. I eventually opened it up to see if it had molded or smelled off, but as it just smelled of brandy and fruit, I decided it was still safe for use, and made the cake. The result is a very deep brandy flavor throughout the cake. I also used no raisins, as neither I nor my mother like them, and instead added chopped dried apricots and chopped prunes. I also used dark brown sugar in place of some of the caster sugar, and I cut the recipe in quarters to perfectly fit a standard 9″x5″ loaf pan, which was lined thoroughly with parchment. It took about two hours to bake through, until the temperature reached 190F inside and a skewer came out clean. I cooled it completely, brushed it with syrup and brandy, and wrapped it tightly in parchment and two layers of plastic, as I don’t have a tin to fit it.

I opened it up the other morning when I was hungry for a little something with my tea, and it is absolutely perfect. A little crumbly because the immense amount of fruit interferes with the structural integrity of the cake, but the flavor is incredible. Even Mr. Tweed enjoyed it, and he generally dislikes cherries. I have yet to share it with my mother, but I think I may have to have her over to tea soon so she can try some before I finish it myself.

Christmas Tea Tasting: Earl Grey from Lumbini Tea Valley

IMG_1016

Every year, on Christmas morning when I was a child, I would wake up as is traditional at an absurd hour of the morning. Now, my father was an early riser and did not much notice or care that I was up with the sun, but my mother appreciates her sleep. So in order to help her wake up, the rule was that we could only open gifts once someone made my mother a cup of tea. That usually fell to me, and I would make her favorite tea: Earl Grey with a quarter teaspoon of sugar. To this day, Earl Grey is one of my favorite comfort teas, and I love it in tea lattes or as a scent in things.

So, while Earl Grey tea will always remind me of my mother, it has a particularly special meaning on Christmas. This made it seem like a fitting tasting for Christmas Eve’s Tasting Tuesday. I received this as part of my pack of free samples from Lumbini Tea Valley, of which I started posting notes last week. This is a Ceylon tea based Earl Grey, which is interesting because originally Earl Grey was said to be a scented Chinese tea, gifted to the second Earl Grey in the early 19th century, before the beginning of large-scale tea cultivation in Sri Lanka, but the origin story of the tea is largely believed to be apocryphal, and the first published references to the tea were in the late 19th century, though one tea blender claims to have been blending Earl Grey since 1830. Who knows which is right? All that said, Earl Grey is a well-known blend these days and is based on a variety of black teas from all over the tea-cultivating world.

I used 1.4 g of tea leaves for 105 ml of water for my tasting, in a small ceramic teapot. The dry leaf smelled lightly of bergamot, but with a strong white floral note. After steeping for the first time with boiling water for two minutes, the floral was stronger and was more identifiable as gardenia or lily. The liquor was a medium apricot color with a distinct floral aroma. The flavor was not overpowered by bergamot. This definitely had the feel of a tea to which bergamot was added to enhance the natural flavors of the tea, rather than to mask them. The citrus notes of bergamot almost feel like another note of the tea’s aroma and flavor itself rather than an added scent. It’s quite floral with a sweet, malty aftertaste. It had no astringency with a creamy, medium-dry mouthfeel and a lingering light peach or apricot aftertaste.

I got two additional steepings from the tea, both lighter in flavor and color than the first. The second steeping was again for two minutes with boiling water. It had a lighter flavor, with more floral than citrus. The third steeping, done for three minutes in boiling water, was lighter still. I added a twist of lemon peel to augment the citrus flavor, which was delicious without adding the acidity of lemon juice

NB: I was sent these samples free of charge from Lumbini Tea Valley in exchange for giving my honest thoughts about them. For more information about my tea tasting posts, read why I’ve switched from reviewing to tasting notes. Please contact me if you are interested in collaboration or sponsorship.

Yuletide Celebrations

Now that winter and Christmas are officially upon us, I thought I’d muse a little bit about my winter holiday. While I was raise Christian and celebrate Christmas with my family, I’ve always maintained a slightly more pagan point of view, and to my mind Yule is one of my favorite holidays to celebrate. Now, I know the official solstice passed a few days ago, although it was so gloomy I hardly noted the difference between light and dark during the longest night. But I like to wrap my solstice celebration into my Christmas festivities with my family. We don’t attend church, but we indulge in the trappings of the holiday that largely derive from the pagan festivals anyway.

Oh, my interest in the winter solstice predates any official interest in pagan beliefs. As a runner, I celebrated the return of the sun, when in a few weeks it might be light enough in the morning to safely run in the local, un-lit parks. Nowadays, Yule marks the time when I can see the sun on the horizon earlier in the morning. Over the next couple of months I will go from “getting up at night,” as the old poem goes, to finding more and more dawn light coming in my window when I need to rise.

So as I rise on this holiday to celebrate around a tree and consider symbols of the Christmas holiday, my thoughts hearken back to an older practice, the practice of noting this darkest day and longest night not with fear of the dark, but with the hope of the return of the sun. Blessed Yule and happy holiday season to all!

A Holiday Gift Guide for the Excess-Adverse

Ever since I was a child, my least favorite day of the holidays was the day after Christmas. We would have descended on our piles of gifts, flinging wrapping everywhere, only to be left with a few discarded bits of paper, the candy in the toe of the stocking that we didn’t insist on eating right away, and piles of new gifts that had to be cleaned up and put away.

It was this feeling of letdown that ultimately led to my adult experiments with minimalism, even convincing my mother for a few years to have very frugal Christmases. It made me realize that my favorite parts of Christmas had nothing to do with gifts, except the enjoyment of choosing small gifts for others. One year, we exchanged our few gifts and then baked cookies for the rest of the morning. And the Christmas visits were always far more enjoyable than the debauchery of present-opening.

So I present my little gift guide, based on what I plan to give this holiday season. Rather than assuming I had to spend a certain amount or give a certain amount of things, I decided on something quieter and simpler.

  1. Homemade gifts: Never underestimate the appeal of a homemade gift. I like to make bath and body products and crocheted gifts. I think my absolute favorite gift experience in recent memory was one of the first years I joined Boyfriend’s family on Christmas Day. They had a family friend with them who had had a singularly rough year and I had not realized she would be with us until a day or two before Christmas. I spent the next day crocheting a very simple, quick beret-style hat with a flower motif. She was so touched that not only had I thought of her at all, but that I had made her something by hand, even though it was neither expensive nor particularly time-consuming compared to the other gifts I’d made. This year, I have an immense stash of soaps, lip balms, and a few scarves that I’ve amassed over the months. Handmade gifts transcend monetary value and are about as close as you can get to actually a physical representation of love and care.
  2. Local craft fairs: I am fortunate in that a nearby town has a two-day craft fair early every December where I can pick up any last-minute gifts. I also showed Boyfriend the joy of the craft fair this year. While it may not be the place to go to save money (although some of the crafters had very reasonable prices) I thoroughly enjoy handing my money to the person who either made the item I’m buying or is related to the crafter. Plus you can strike up all sorts of fun conversations. It’s where I met my friend who makes soap several years ago. Now she’s giving me advice about my own soap!
  3. Etsy: When I can’t make what I need myself and I can’t find it at a local fair, I turn to Etsy to find something handmade. I love that I can search within a given geographical area to save on shipping fuel, and I can communicate with a seller before buying. I buy much of my own accessories and clothing on Etsy, and this year, I bought a lot of handmade wooden soap dishes to make gift bundles with my homemade soaps.
  4. Gifts of time: They seem cheesy, but I love the idea of giving someone a coupon for something to do, either a walk or a hike or just a day where you do the cleaning. In fact, that would be a brilliant gift for me to give Boyfriend…
  5. Visits and (optional) Edibles: As I said before, one of my favorite parts of Christmas is paying visits to family and friends. Just spending time with someone who is often too busy or too far away to see often is a gift itself. And when I do visit, I bring homemade cookies or cake! I also have cookies and cakes on hand when others come to visit over the holiday season. I like to take assortments of cookies and freeze them so I can pop out a couple at a time and thaw or bake them fresh for company.

So there you have it: a gift guide for those who wish to be moderate in their giving. A few small, well-thought-out gifts will touch your friends and family far deeper than holiday excess.

A Day at the Opera

Yesterday I had a treat. Boyfriend’s family friend has a box at the Metropolitan Opera and invited us to join her at a matinee of La Traviata. Although I’d seen teaser performances as a child and went to a performance of La Boheme at my university, I’d never been to a full-length, professional opera, much less at the Met. I was extremely excited.

IMG_0143I was certainly excited to dress up for the opera. I had found a great late-50s green brocade jacket the week before while out shopping, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring it out. We had lunch at the opera house restaurant first, which was delicious. I had a lobster pasta dish, and shared some of Boyfriend’s octopus starter, and the plate of cookies the table ordered. The waiter did try to mess with my tea (Earl Grey) before it was done steeping, but I fixed it.

And then, the opera. It was not a traditional staging, but a new one, first premiered in 2010. The stage is almost completely blank, with a huge clock that serves as a focal point, and a man who started the performance sitting on the stage the whole time we took our seats. Boyfriend and I spent a little time with the opera glasses trying to decide if he was real. He was. He was ostensibly the performer who sang the role of the doctor, but he stayed on stage silent throughout most of the play, to represent death. The clock and the death character highlighted that the play is not really about a romance, but about a death.

The singing was amazing. Obviously, I’d never seen a full-length professional opera before, but I was amazed at how pure Marina Rebeka, the soprano playing the role of Violetta, sounded. And the baritone Quinn Kelsey as Germont was fantastic as well. And Rebeka’s acting was great as well. I saw that the director really wanted to bring out the pain she was in from the beginning, to make both her facade as a courtesan and her seeming-recovery while in love with Alfredo more poignant.

The technical aspect of the play really drove home the vision. Above the curving upper level of the plain white set was a black screen that was replaced with a cheerful floral pattern at the beginning of the second act. When Giorgio Germont comes in to tell Violetta that she must give up Alfredo, and she realizes that he is right, the floral pattern’s colors started to fade to almost completely black and white, highlighting the third-act line about the flowers fading from her cheeks toward the end of her illness. The floral returns again at the end of the third act, as Alfredo returns and she has her illusion, but goes completely red just as she dies at the end of the show. It was very moving.

All in all, I so enjoyed my first excursion to the opera. It was a wonderful show, and a fantastic experience. I might have liked to have seen a more traditionally staged opera, but hopefully I will have my chance in years to come!

 

Christmas Festivities

My Christmas was lovely. It started the evening before, with dinner at my grandparents’ home. Classic appetizers of summer sausage, cheese, crackers, and a platter of shrimp cocktail led into a lovely traditional dinner of roast beef, scalloped potatoes, and a homemade pie for dessert.

IMG_0131

 

My grandmother had received a some lovely flowers and put them in her sun room, along with all her other flowers. The whole effect was lovely and reminded me of old British TV shows where there are always flowers.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/9d0/80693568/files/2014/12/img_0132.jpgThe next morning, we rose late for us, though still early by many standards. Boyfriend and my mother made coffee while I made a cup of tea. Earl Grey with lemon, in a mug my mother was given by a friend who went for a trip on the Queen Elizabeth II.

IMG_0134

We opened our gifts and enjoyed the displays of thoughtful generosity. I appreciate that my family does not offer excessive amounts of gifts. It’s just enough for each person to feel thought-of, without too much clutter. After opening gifts, I made scones while my mother cleaned fruit and cooked bacon.

IMG_0135

We had a lovely breakfast of fruit, bacon, and scones with cream, jam, and lemon curd. By noon, we were ready to get cleaned up and go visiting. We stopped at a dear friend’s house, where she and her family were opening their gifts. After that stop, Boyfriend and I made the trip up to his family’s house in another city. On the trip, we had the chance to listen to two Christmas radio plays airing on the various local stations we passed along the drive. We arrived, tired but still feeling festive, and wrapped up our Christmas day with a pot roast dinner with his family.

 

Christmas Memories

Merry Christmas!

IMG_0130

When I was a child, my mother and father would wait until we had gone to bed, and then transform the living room, where we had our tree. They would set out packages, wrapped in brightly colored paper, and fill the stockings. My father would rise early to turn on the lights on the tree so that when we came downstairs, it really seemed magical.

The whole room looked different, as though Santa really had visited and brought Christmas with him. And we would spend the morning opening packages and spending time together as a family. One of us always had to make a cup of tea for my mother, Earl Grey with just a pinch of sugar. It was tradition.

I hope you all have your own holiday traditions and are enjoying the day!

My Most Obscure Christmas Tradition: Christmas Cake

Fruitcake is the butt of many jokes in the United States. One of my earliest memories of TV was of an episode of a show that was making fun of fruitcake. But I’ve discovered that properly made fruitcake is not only delicious, it’s one of my mother’s favorite things. So for years now, I’ve endeavored to make her a Christmas cake.

IMG_0103

Proper Christmas cake does not involve any dyed cherries. And it involves a lot of brandy. And time. I make my Christmas cake the weekend after Thanksgiving and mature it for a month before consumption, at least. Some years, I’m remiss and forget to make the cake until closer to Christmas, in which case it becomes more of a mid-to-late January cake, rather than a Christmas cake.

But one thing is always the same: no raisins. And no dyed fruit.

I often use the recipe in Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book How to Be a Domestic Goddess, but this year I decided to try something different. I used this recipe from the BBC, and used my own blend of dried fruit. I used mostly currants, with some dried cherries, apricots, and bits of minced candied ginger. I often include dried sugared pineapple, but I forgot it this year.

The house smelled like Christmas as I simmered the fruit, brandy, butter, sugar, and spices, and then baked the cake for two hours. Then, I fed the cake with a bit more brandy and wrapped it tightly with paper and string. That whole thing went into a sealed zipper bag, although an airtight, decorative tin would be more aesthetically pleasing. Every so often, two or three times before Christmas, I would unwrap it, feed it a bit more brandy, and rewrap it until the big day.

One thing I’ve learned is to eat homemade fruitcake in very thin slices. The flavors are strong and the brandy is potent. But it makes a lovely addition to a tray of holiday sweets, either on Christmas Eve, or as friends and relatives pop by throughout the season.

A Little Bit of Christmas

This past weekend, I made a decision. I’ve put up my first Christmas tree of my own. I should say, “of our own,” as Boyfriend helped me pick it out and decorate it. We decided on a fake tree to appease our housemate, and reduce the maintenance a real tree can require. We found this little guy, really an outdoor tree, at the Home Depot. He’s just big enough to hold a few of my favorite keepsake ornaments.

IMG_0101

Then, Boyfriend and I went to my mother’s house to pick through her Christmas box and take the ornaments with particular sentimental value, mostly ones that I was given as gifts over the years. There are the stuffed animals, such as the cat a good friend in grammar school made me, and the little bear I shoplifted when I was 2. And there are the animals, mostly cats for me and reptiles for my sister. There are my ballet slippers, from the few years I danced ballet, badly, as a young child. It has “To our best ballerina” written on the back, but that was before my sister came along and bested me in all forms of rhythmic movement.

Since we don’t yet have a topper, my mom tucked a roll of repurposed red ribbon into the box with the ornaments and I used it to fashion a makeshift tree topper. And my nutcracker, given to me not by Santa, but by Godpapa Drosselmeyer when I was a girl, stood watch over the whole thing. With cocoa and port and Christmas music, it made for a lovely holiday evening.