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.

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).

IMG_0899

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!)

On Celebrating Love

valentines-day-2016-5699846440747008-hp2x

I was just tickled by that little Doodle yesterday for St. Valentines Day. Traditionally, I’ve not be a great celebrator of Valentine’s Day, and this year was no exception. Boyfriend and I had had plans to go out Saturday evening for dinner and a movie, but I was tired after going to aerials and a friend’s matinee, so we stayed in an ordered Chinese food.

Yesterday, we did go for our standing Sunday morning coffee date at a local coffee shop. The shop had recently renovated and it was fun to see the change. Plus they added this cute little table with two padded chairs that were still free for the taking. It felt a bit more special as we ate our kolaches and had our coffees. Despite not doing anything particularly out of the ordinary for the day, I prefer our standing coffee date.

Getting out of the house and out of our weekday routines has be a great way for us to reconnect with each other over a meal. Boyfriend doesn’t often eat breakfast, but will always have a cup of coffee, and I don’t often drink coffee, but will make an exception for the occasional, well-made cappuccino. And the ambiance of the shop is both quiet and not too quiet, if that makes sense. They play music that is enjoyable and unobtrusive enough that the rest of the patrons, many of whom are working, can focus.

We like watching the people and discussing the coffee, too. Boyfriend is surprisingly vehement about his coffee, despite being relatively unfussy elsewhere. And I appreciate that, should I desire a cup of tea instead, they do serve one of my favorite brands.

And so we wake on Sunday mornings, dress, drive to the shop, and find a place to park. The short walk and the lingering breakfast is the perfect amount of time to focus on just us, without the distraction of work or electronics or television, before we both head out back our lives.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

On Holiday Illness, plus Topics to Come

When I was a young child, I always fell ill on Christmas, usually while we were at my father’s family’s Christmas dinner celebration. It was a mixed blessing because I got to escape the clamor of a large Catholic family with many active boys and go have a lie-down in an empty room. But I was always really sick, often with something like strep throat, which had to wait until the doctor’s office opened again to be treated.

Since then, I’ve had a few Christmas colds, usually happening during years when I’d been rather overworked leading up to the holidays and finally had some time off the week between Christmas and New Year’s. This year, I had no such luck, but instead found myself having an unexpected holiday extension when I woke up with a low-grade fever and a raw throat yesterday. My throat had been feeling poorly for a couple of days, but I had thought I was getting better. Evidently I was wrong.

Today, I am back at work and feeling better, if not entirely well. And I will be previewing some posts to come:

  1. Of course I will want to post about my holidays. Our trip back from Boyfriend’s family’s house was almost an ethereal journey as the way was mostly bathed in thick, white fog. We did not indulge in quite so many radio plays this year, but instead largely were entertained by the second season of Serial. And of course, there were some fabulous gifts.
  2. I’ve been in rehearsals for a community theatre production of one of William Shakespeare’s best-known comedies, and I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy acting the Bard. This time, I’ve also got one of the standing best roles in most of his plays…
  3. Finally, while working on my vintage-inspired capsule wardrobe, I stumbled upon the site eShakti. Other bloggers have had mixed results with them, so I contacted them about a blogger sample. I honestly wasn’t expecting it before the middle of January, but it arrived yesterday. Once my health and the weather clear up, I’ll have to have a little photo shoot and share my thoughts.

So there are exciting things to come. Stay tuned and keep warm! I hope everyone had lovely holidays and are gliding into another wonderful new year.

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 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.