Further Adventures in Historical Baking: Fruitcake

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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.

Festive Tea Cocktails for the Winter, Featuring Tea Sparrow

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While I am not typically a big drinker, I do love the occasional cocktail. I often have them out at one of the wonderful bars or distilleries in DC, but once in a while I like to make my own. Now, I like classic cocktails, so when I found out that Daly’s Bartenders’ Encyclopedia from 1903 was available in its entirety on Google Books, I had to take a look. It’s commonly believed that cocktails were popularized in the 1920s when Prohibition led bartenders to mix lower-quality, homemade booze with other ingredients to disguise the flavor, but this book, released more than 15 years before the beginning of Prohibition, contains a multitude of recipes, including some familiar favorites.

In exploring the recipes, I learned that tea was actually part of some traditional cocktail recipes, and it was a common ingredient in punches, so I reached out to Tea Sparrow again to see if they were interested in providing me some teas to work into my Edwardian-era cocktails. Rather than just sticking straight to the recipe, here I’ve decided to take three recipes and play with them a little. One is a tea-based cocktail on its own, but I’ve given it my own twist, and the other two did not originally include tea, but they work with it well.

The teas for these cocktails are from Tea Sparrow, who previously sent me their subscription box and who make some of the only flavored teas that I’ve actually liked recently. They’ve generously offered my readers a discount, which is at the bottom of this post.

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Tea Cobbler with Ruby Oolong

This was the original recipe that started the idea. Originally, a tea cobbler likely would have been made with black tea, but I decided to make a version with Ruby Oolong, since the flavor is interesting and refreshing, with a depth that suits colder weather. Despite being a cold cocktail, the combination of fruit, tea, and rum would make a nice pick-me-up at a holiday brunch.

I cold brewed my oolong for this cocktail to bring out the complex flavors and avoid melting the ice. I also decided to use the juice of half an orange instead of the juice of a lemon, which meant I didn’t need the sugar. So I put six ice cubes in a glass, added the juice of half an orange, filled it halfway with cold-brewed tea, and then topped with an ounce of rum and an orange peel twist. I used a rum from Maryland instead of Jamaica rum.

The whole effect is absolutely perfect, the sweetness of the oolong marrying with the sweetness of the rum and orange juice, with just a little fragrance to offset the bitterness of the orange peel and the smoky oakiness of the rum.

Hot Whiskey Cocktail with Cardamom Cream Tea

This one came to mind when Dan got a nasty cold and we were talking about a hot toddy, and Daly’s Hot Whiskey Cocktail is like a fancy hot toddy. I realized that any of the hot water cocktails from Daly’s guide could be made with tea in place of the hot water for a lovely hot tea cocktail. When I saw the Cardamom Cream tea on Tea Sparrow’s website, I knew it was perfect for this classic cocktail. The Cardamom Cream is based on Earl Grey tea, with rose, vanilla, and cardamom, making this a delightful twist on an Earl Grey cocktail.

And, oh boy, was I right! Daly suggests serving this in a hot whiskey glass (which is similar to an Irish coffee glass), but as I lack one of those, I served it in a Turkish tea cup because the combination of rose and cardamom in the tea made it seem appropriate. I put one teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of the cup, topped it with tea to about halfway full, added a dash of Angostura bitters, and then 1.5 oz. of bourbon whiskey. I garnished it with an orange twist rather than a lemon twist because I love orange and cardamom. This was probably my favorite of the three — it was the perfect blend of flavors, sweetness, and warmth.

Daly suggests that it is perfect to warm up after driving or automobiling in chilly weather, but I think it’s perfect for after shoveling show or taking a winter morning walk. Or just for relaxing inside with your nutcracker.

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Hot Egg Nog with Cacao Tea

The Hot Egg Nog was an interesting recipe because I had just been playing with adding store-bought egg nog to my tea. I blended the recipe for hot egg nog and brandy egg nog, and added cacao shell tea to give it a chocolate-y kick. The original recipe called for two ounces of liquor, but I cut it down to an ounce and a half, which was the perfect amount.

First I heated a cup of whole milk with a rounded tablespoon of cacao shell tea on the stove over medium-high heat until it reached about 180F (when tiny bubbles appear around the edges). I turned off the heat and let it steep for five more minutes, and then returned it to 180F. In a small bowl, I whisked together two teaspoons of sugar with an egg yolk and an ounce and a half of brandy until well-mixed and slightly lighter in color. Then, I slowly strained in the hot milk while whisking constantly (it helps to have a friend to hold the strainer). This was poured into a mug and garnished with a grating of nutmeg.

This packs a kick, probably from the hot milk vaporizing the alcohol above the surface of the drink, but I love the combination of milk, brandy, and the light chocolate flavor of the cacao tea. It reminds me a little of the Swiss chocolate ice cream at a local ice cream parlor we went to when I was a child, which was a very light chocolate ice cream. And having it warm makes it feel cozy and comforting. It’s perfect for an evening in, especially since the cacao shell tea has no caffeine to speak of.

NB: Tea Sparrow sent these teas for free in exchange for being featured in this post. You can use the code “TeaLeavesandTweed” for 20% off your first order, or 20% off your first month if you purchase a subscription. If you are interested in collaboration or sponsorship, please contact me.

How to Buy a Gift for a Tea Lover

It’s a major gift-giving season, so I thought I’d write a post about gifts for tea lovers. Note that this isn’t a “gift guide” or a “buyer’s guide” of specific things that I think you should buy. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, along with some recommendations of good companies from which to buy things, check out Nazanin’s gift guide on Tea Thoughts. But one thing that I think doesn’t get addressed nearly often enough in “gift guides” is the idea that gift-giving is about choosing a gift, not buying a gift. Choosing a gift for someone requires a set of skills that is tricky for some people (including some people I dearly love), so I thought that going through my gift-choice thought process might be helpful. I’m focusing on tea because I know a little bit about being a tea lover, and in particular, I know a little bit about being a very particular person to shop for sometimes (although I appreciate all thoughtful gifts).

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The first thing you need to choose a gift is a certain knowledge about how a person likes their tea. I think this is more important than what kind of teas they like because someone who loves tea can often enjoy new flavors, and in fact would rather have new flavors than the same old thing all the time, but how a person makes and enjoys their tea will inform a lot about what kinds of teas you’re looking for. Does your recipient like their tea British-style in a cup and saucer with milk, sugar, and/or lemon? Or do they prefer to brew in an Asian style, such as gongfu or grandpa-style? Or are they a matcha fanatic? You wouldn’t get the same gift for all three of these, even though they could all be called “tea lovers.”

It is also important to think about what kind of brewing they are comfortable with. A person who usually puts a tea bag in a mug of water will probably not have the equipment to get the most out of gyokuro, just as a person who brews all of their tea gongfu style probably won’t be able to appreciate a CTC Assam, since it often does poorly in gongfucha. Remember that a gift is first and foremost meant to enrich the life of the person receiving it, and giving them something they can’t or won’t use isn’t terribly enriching, even if it’s a very nice thing. So the person who drinks mostly teabag tea might like a selection of bagged teas from a company that takes care to use high-quality tea. And the person who drinks everything gongfu style will prefer a loose-leaf tea, probably from China or Korea.

The next thing to think about is whether or not you know that the person is interested in trying a new method. My first gaiwan was a gift from my mother because she knew I was interested in expanding my knowledge of tea brewing methods. Similarly, I bought a friend a matcha set because she expressed an interest in matcha. If you have that friend that drinks tea from a tea bag every day, but has expressed that they wished they could try something better and they just don’t know where to start, it might be appropriate to get them a simple infuser and some loose leaf tea. Or the person who drinks loose leaf and has expressed an interest in different tea cultures might appreciate being gifted teaware and tea that are associated with those cultures. I think the trick here is to know if you will need to get them the tools as well as the tea, since getting one without the other wouldn’t be very helpful.

In my tea primer, I go through different “levels” of tea (so called because they follow my own personal progression of tea practice, not because some practices are inherently superior than others) and what tools and teas might be appropriate for people at different points in their tea journey, so taking a look at that might be helpful in deciding what kind of tools you might want to get. Plus, there is something to be said for getting something that someone wants (and people rarely keep things like this a very private secret, if you listen), but thinks is too silly to buy for themself. One of my favorite recent tea gifts was a set of Turkish tea cups and tea from Rize that I got from two friends. I would never have thought to get it for myself, but I’m always interested in learning about new tea cultures, so it was like getting a tea set, tea, and a new research rabbit hole to dive down all in one!

At this point, it’s time to think about what kind of teas your recipient likes. It helps to know dislikes more than likes, since dislikes are often non-negotiable, but likes can evolve. For example, I wouldn’t get my mother a green tea because she generally dislikes green teas, but just because I know Earl Grey is her favorite doesn’t mean that I would only ever buy her Earl Grey. If you don’t have a strong knowledge of different styles of tea, it might help to see if there is a tea shop near you where the staff might be able to discuss similarities among different types of teas. For example, if your friend likes green tea, they might also enjoy a less-oxidized oolong, or if they love black teas, a roasted oolong might be an interesting new thing for them to try.

And don’t forget that tea lovers love teaware! Never underestimate the allure of even a very inexpensive tea cup, either from a Chinese gift shop or a thrift store with vintage finds. Some of my favorite teacups in my collection were purchased for under $5 from a thrift shop. I wish everyone a joyful holiday season and hope this helps take some of the stress out of gift shopping!

(Also, I know this isn’t a buyer’s guide, but if you’re looking for a beautiful gift for someone who enjoys teas from the Wuyi region of China, the photo above is how my recent purchase from Old Ways Tea came packaged and I think any tea-lover would be tickled by opening such a pretty box!)

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.