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Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Feed Your Fruitcake

Now is about the time of year I like to make my Christmas cake, which I’ll now call  my Yule cake as I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I thought I’d start out calling it that so we all know what I’m talking about!

I know it seems a long way off yet but I think all the best fruit cakes are fed with alcohol for a few months before being decorated.  Yule, or the winter solstice, is on the 21st of December, and happily many pagan customs for Yule, like decorating houses with evergreens, yule logs and hanging mistletoe have been incorporated into the Christian celebration of Christmas.  So, whether you’ll be eating yours on the 21st or the 25th of December now is the time to make your cake!

The hardest part of the whole process is deciding whether to feed your cake with brandy, whisky or rum.  I opted for brandy this year, but as soon as I’d made it I remembered the bottle of  black cherry flavoured Jim Beam bourbon that’s been in my fridge since the summer. I wish I’d remembered it before (it’s hidden at the back of fridge by a fortress of various opened home-made jams and if I can't see it, I forget all about it) I think it would have been lovely in this cake. At the rate I’m (not) drinking it there’ll be lots left for next year’s cake!

Here’s how I make my cake.  Start two days before you want to bake.  Add all the dried fruit and clementine juice and zest to a big bowl and pour in the alcohol of your choice.  Stir then cover and leave to soak for two days, give it a stir now and then.  It’s fine to substitute any of the dried fruits for another as long as you use the same weight. I often swap currants for more cranberries or sultanas because I’m not overly keen on currants. You could use dates, candied peel… the combinations are endless
125g glace cherries, cut in half
100g dried apricots, quartered
200g currants
200g sultanas
200g raisins
100g dried sour cherries
100g dried cranberries
Grated zest and juice of four clementines
150ml brandy, whisky, rum… whatever takes your fancy

Two days later…
You’ll need a 20cm round (or 18cm square) loose bottomed or spring form cake tin. Butter the tin and double line it with baking parchment. I know double lining sounds like a hassle, but it’s important because the cake needs long slow cooking and you don’t want any of the fruit on the outside burning as it’ll taste bitter. To make it a bit more of a chore, brown paper also needs to be tied around the outside of the tin and secured with string. As it happened I’d forgotten about this part this year and didn’t have any brown paper, so I improvised with some aluminium foil turned shiny side in. It worked fine, but brown paper is better. You’ll also need a circle of baking parchment to add as a lid for the cake during the second part of baking.

That’s the boring bit done. I really hate lining tins, so if you're getting bored or annoyed while lining yours, I feel your pain.  Here are the ingredients for the next exciting bit:

Pre-heat the oven to 160c/325f
250g unsalted butter, softened a little
250g light soft brown sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
4 medium eggs
200g plain flour
2 tsp. mixed spice
50g flaked almonds
50g chopped hazelnuts

Beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl until they are creamy (hoorah for my Kitchen Aid which leaves me free to have a cup of tea while that’s going on! If only it came with a "line my cake tin attachment)  Add the vanilla extract and then the eggs one at a time, beating between well each one. Add the flour and mixed spice, mix to combine, then add all the fruit and any dribbles of the booze at the bottom of the bowl. Mix well again then pour into the prepared baking tin.  Make a little dent using a spoon in the middle of the cake, then put in the oven for 80 minutes.  Reduce the oven temperature to 140c/275f, pop a circle of baking parchment on as a lid for another 40-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.  Cool the cake in the tin, then wrap in parchment and keep in an airtight container in a cool dark place. Feed it with a spoonful of alcohol every couple of weeks.  Reward yourself with a spoonful while you’re at it, for being so organised.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Autumn Equinox Hedgerow Looting

I am back after a year-long sojourn to the world of commercial blog writing. It was an ill-fated trip, suffice to say that I am not cut-out for having to chase, cajole and threaten to get my invoices paid.  The upside of this realisation is that I can now return to this blog without fear of infringing on anything I was writing commercially. Now that I’m back, I’ve decided to expand my original remit to include more about my life as a hedgewitch. I had initially promised to keep religion out of my blog, but as so much of what I do has a connection to my pagan belief that it felt rather restrictive. And frankly, silly.

Mabon seems like a good place to resume.  Mabon is the autumn equinox, usually around the 21st or 22nd of September and comes pretty much at “harvest home” or the time when the last of the crops of been gathered in. At the equinox the planet is tilted at the right angle to give the same amount of daylight as dark. After the autumn equinox the daylight gets shorter than the darkness (assuming you’re in the southern hemisphere, but let’s not complicate things).   It’s a time for giving thanks for the harvest that’s just been completed and any other blessings you have in your life.  The equinox is also about balance, as the day and night become balanced by equal length, we balance the joy of an abundant harvest with the knowledge that the fields are now empty and cold days are coming.  The hedgerow harvest is usually at its most abundant around Mabon. Crab apples, rose hips, elderberries and hawthorns are all virtually bending the hedgerow branches over to the floor with their fruit near my home.  I celebrated Mabon by going for a tramp about the fields where I live collecting crab apples and haws (the berry of the hawthorn bush)  Hawthorne trees  were called Hag trees in Old English, which must be why I’ve always loved them so much!  The white blossom in May looks so pretty and traditionally May Queens were crowned with a wreath of it.  Most of the ancient hedges where I lived are dotted with these trees, and after I’ve appreciated the beautiful blossom in the spring, I like to plunder the bright red berries to make jams and jellies in the autumn.



Here’s my picking basket early on in the foraging mission. The tiny crab apples have the perfect amount of pectin to help set a jelly made with berries that don’t have much themselves, like haws. Don’t be put off by the crab apples appearance; they’re like the Cinderella of the hedge.  Misshapen and usually scabby on the outside, they are transformed into things of delicious beauty when made into jams or jellies.

I used 600g of hawthorn berries and 1400g of crab apples.   Wash your fruit and berries, and then put the haws in a large pan. The crab apples need to be cut in half and added to the pan and then add just enough water to cover them. Bring it to a simmer, and then cook gently until the fruit is all soft and pulpy.  I give the haws a quick mash with the back of a wooden spoon if they look like they need some more breaking up. Then tip the whole lot into a jelly bag and leave to drip through the muslin of the jelly bag into a large bowl overnight. Don’t be tempted to move it, touch it or otherwise hurry the process in any way or you will end up with a cloudy jelly.
The next day, sterilise your jam jars. Measure the amount of juice that has dripped through your muslin jelly bag. The fruit I picked this time yielded about 450ml.  For every 600ml of juice, add 450g of granulated sugar (if you’re as mathematically challenged as I am, you can get the calculator out to scale this up/down! Add the juice and the sugar to your preserving pan, and bring gently to a boil, stirring all the time to dissolve the sugar. Once boiling, put your sugar thermometer into the mixture and bring it to the setting point, which is 104-106ºc (220-222ºF). Then pour into your sterilised jars straight away, don’t let it start to cool in the pan or it will start to set in there.  As you can see here, my 450ml of juice yielded two jars of jelly.  Yum.