Wheel of the Year

Solstice Gingerbread

The Summer Solstice is almost here and this year it falls on Wednesday the 22nd of December. On this day, the Sun reaches its zenith, its highest point in the sky. The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year. After the Summer Solstice, the days start to get shorter as we wind our way toward Lammas.

The Summer Solstice in the southern hemisphere is mirrored by the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere. It also occurs near Xmas which in many ways is a Midwinter festival. To celebrate this hemispherical duality, I thought I would make a gingerbread cake which is perfect for the Winter Solstice. I’m also going to show you how to use this cake for a Summer Solstice treat!

The recipe I’m using is from A Gothic Cookbook by Ella Buchan and Alessandra Pino. A Gothic Cookbook is being crowdsourced through Unbound so hopefully it gets fully funded because I want a copy! The book is beautifully illustrated by Lee Henry and features recipes inspired by classic and contemporary Gothic novels such as Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Rosemary’s Baby, Frankenstein and one of my favourites – Dracula. You might assume I’d be making a recipe inspired by Dracula, but the gingerbread cake recipe is actually inspired by Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.

That Very Special Gingerbread
I followed the recipe below without making any of my customary tweaks. I was briefly tempted to try a different icing, but I’m glad I didn’t. The lemon icing was tart and refreshing and complimented the deep treacle flavour of the cake beautifully.
(You can use molasses or blackstrap molasses if you don’t have black treacle)

My partner and I tried our best to eat all the cake but it was looking like we would fail. I was planning to freeze the leftovers, but then realised I could use the leftover cake to make a quick and easy Summer Solstice treat – Gingerbread Ice Cream!

Gingerbread Ice Cream

Ingredients
Roughly chopped pieces of gingerbread cake, including the bits with icing
Good quality vanilla ice cream, softened slightly

Instructions
Mix the cake and ice cream together in a bowl.
Place in a container and freeze.
That’s it!
There are no measurements for the ingredients so you can make as much or as little as you want. You can also add as much cake to the ice cream as you like.

Happy Solstice!

Make It A Double!

Did you know that there are two days a year dedicated to honouring bartenders?

World Bartender Appreciation Day is an international celebration for bartenders and is held on the 24th of February, while Bartender Appreciation Day is a US national celebration held on the 1st Friday in December. Bartender Appreciation Day was founded by Sailor Jerry Rum in 2011. This year it will be celebrated on Friday the 3rd.

As the name suggests, Bartender Appreciation Day is a day to honour those who tend our drinks, and often our emotions. As someone who has spent a lot of time in bars, I’d like to say thank you to all those bartenders who mixed me awesome drinks, listened to my drunken stories, commiserated with me when I was sad, and celebrated my happy times.

A great way to celebrate a day dedicated to mixologists is to experiment with your favourite cocktail recipes. I like playing around with the ratio of ingredients, so I was happily surprised when I discovered reverse cocktails! To make one, you simply reverse the proportions of the main alcohol ingredients. For example, a Lone Tree Cocktail (one of my favourites) is 2 parts gin to 1 part sweet vermouth. To reverse it you’d do 1 part gin to 2 parts sweet vermouth. Reversing a cocktail can have a dramatic effect on the flavour, and sometimes on the alcohol content as well.

An extension of this concept is to play around with the ingredients themselves. So with the Lone Tree example you could do 1 part gin, 1 part sweet vermouth, 1 part dry vermouth. You could also use a blood orange gin to add an orange flavour. With all the different gins and vermouths available, your combinations could be endless!

Reverse Lone Tree Cocktail

Cheers!

Dining With Dracula

November 8th is Bram Stoker’s birthday. Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1847, Bram’s most famous work is his 1897 novel Dracula. It’s one of my favourite books, and not just because it has vampires.

One of the many things I love about Dracula is that is an epistolary novel, meaning it is written as a series of documents. In Dracula, the narrative unfolds through letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, ship logs, telegrams and even translated phonograph recordings. There is no main narrator in Dracula, as many of the characters use the medium of writing to tell their own stories. This allows us to form an intimate connection to them, and offers us insight into the characters they interact with. It also means there are multiple viewpoints and interlacing narratives. Part of the pleasure of reading Dracula is trying to piece together all the different narratives and their timeframes.

The first chapter of the novel is written like a travelogue, as Jonathan Harker writes about his journey from England to Castle Dracula. One of the things Jonathan describes in detail in his journal is the food he has eaten along the way. His descriptions of the exotic dishes, such as paprika hendl, mamaliga and impletata, fascinated me, while his description of robber steak made my mouth water – until I got to the last bit!

“I dined on what they called “robber steak”—bits of bacon, onion, and beef, seasoned with red pepper, and strung on sticks and roasted over the fire, in the simple style of the London cat’s meat!”

Thankfully cat’s meat refers to meat classed as unfit for human consumption which was sold as meat for pets, and not actual cat meat. It was sold by street vendors known as cat’s meat men and women.

To celebrate Bram’s birthday I thought I would share my version of Robber Steak, or as I like to think of it, Robbed Steak, as I’ve robbed it of everything but the beef! Basically it’s my recipe for Beef Skewers. As I’m allergic to the chilli family, which includes paprika and red peppers, I’ve used cumin, cinnamon and white pepper as my spices. Feel free to replace them with paprika. I think Hungarian paprika would be most appropriate. 🙂

Beef Skewers aka Robbed Steak

Special Equipment:
metal skewers or bamboo skewers (if using wooden skewers, pre-soak them for at least 30 minutes to prevent them from burning)

Ingredients
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
500g beef, cut into 2cm cubes
extra virgin olive oil

Ingredients
Make the marinade by placing all the ingredients, except the meat, in a bowl and stir until combined.
Add the meat, making sure it is fully coated in marinade.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight if possible.
Preheat the grill to high.
Thread cubes of beef onto the skewers.
Lightly brush with olive oil.
Grill, turning occasionally, for 10-15 minutes or until cooked to your liking.

The Dracula Tarot

A Duality Of Holidays

Halloween is my favourite time of the year – especially now that Australia has finally gotten into the spirit of things. Halloween candy and decorations compete for shelf space with xmas paraphernalia in stores, making it one of the rare times that I love to go shopping. As I go for walks around my neighbourhood, I’m rapt to see so many houses proudly showcasing ghoulish displays. The signs of Halloween are all around me, but so too are the signs of Beltane, the Spring festival that many southern hemisphere Pagans will be celebrating on October 31st.

On one of my morning walks, I was reminded that Spring is here when I saw an adorable tiger snake on the footpath. I watched, spellbound, and then took photos and video, from a very safe distance! I kept watch as the graceful creature slithered onto the road, making sure it made it safely across. The little snake found a nice place to rest and sun-bake while I continued on my walk. While a snake is a perfect symbol for Halloween, it’s also a perfect symbol for Beltane.

To celebrate northern hemisphere Halloween and southern hemisphere Beltane, I’d like to share a recipe that utilises apples, a fruit appropriate for both festivals. I found this recipe in a cozy mystery novel, appropriately called The Uninvited Corpse, from the Food Blogger Mystery series by Debra Sennefelder. All the recipes included in the book sounded divine, but it was the Cinnamon Apple Bread that had me heading to the kitchen.

The first time I made it I used a sweet red apple. The cake was very sweet and very delicious. The second time I used a green granny smith apple and it was perfect. To add a touch of Halloween to the recipe, I substituted pumpkin pie spice for the cinnamon. Pumpkin pie spice mix is a combination of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and sometimes allspice. I’ve made a few pumpkin pie spice mixes, but my favourite combination is:
4 parts ground cinnamon
2 parts ground ginger
1 part ground cloves
1 part ground nutmeg

Spiced Apple Bread

Ingredients
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice
1 + 1/2 cups flour
1 + 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
125g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 + 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped

Instructions
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a loaf pan with baking paper. (I used a 22cmx12cm / 9x5inch pan).
Mix together the brown sugar and spice. Set aside.
Sift together the flour and baking powder. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and white sugar until smooth.
Beat in the eggs one at a time until combined.
Add the vanilla extract and mix until combined.
Mix in half of the flour mix followed by half of the milk and mix until combined.
Repeat with the other half.
Pour half the mixture into prepared pan.
Add half the apple and half the brown sugar. Press lightly into the batter.
Repeat with remaining ingredients.
Bake for 55-65 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Allow to sit in the pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

Happy Beltane and Happy Halloween!

Baking For The Equinox

Thursday the 23rd is the September Equinox. On the Equinox, the hours of day and night are roughly equal. Following the Equinox, the days will become longer than the nights or the nights longer than the days, depending on where you live. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you’ll be celebrating the Autumn/Fall Equinox so your daylight hours will slowly decrease as nights become longer. For those of us in the southern hemisphere, we are celebrating the Spring Equinox so our hours of daylight will slowly increase and the days become longer as we head towards the Summer Solstice.

After grating too much carrot for a recipe, I decided to use the extra carrot to make something for the Spring Equinox. I’ve always wanted to make carrot cornbread or a cornmeal carrot cake so I decided to play around with some of my cornbread recipes and my previous Easter Bunny Cupcake recipe. With some trepidation I baked my carrot and cornmeal concoction in a loaf pan and hoped for the best. Thankfully the cake turned out to be sweet and moreish – perfect for the Spring Equinox!

Carrot and Cornmeal Cake

Ingredients
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder, sifted
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 egg, room temperature
30g (2 tablespoons) butter, melted
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 cup grated carrot

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a medium sized loaf pan with baking paper.
Mix together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, melted butter and maple syrup.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.
Stir in the grated carrot.
Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for 30 – 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Remove from pan and place on a wire rack to cool completely.

A Day For Red Pandas And Bamboo

International Red Panda Day was created by the Red Panda Network to promote the red panda and to find ways to fight for its survival. It is celebrated on the third Saturday in September. This year it falls on the 18th of September which is also World Bamboo Day. What a happy coincidence as bamboo is something red pandas love!

World Bamboo Day was created in the hopes it would increase global awareness about the importance of bamboo. The World Bamboo Organization encourages the use of bamboo in a sustainable fashion. They hope to introduce bamboo to new industries across the world and also protect traditional uses within local communities. The World Bamboo Organization is passionate about growing more bamboo around the world and have created the hashtag #PlantBamboo for this year’s celebrations.

Red pandas are all for planting more bamboo because they can’t survive without it. About 95% of their diet consists of bamboo. While the giant panda eats nearly every part of the bamboo, like the woody stem, the red panda is very selective and only eats the more nutritious leaf tips. They also eat tender bamboo shoots when they are available.

Thinking of red pandas enjoying nutritious bamboo tips reminded me of the bamboo leaf tea I bought a while ago. Bamboo tea is becoming popular as it is supposed to boost the immune system. It is good for the skin and can improve bone density. Bamboo tea also promotes healthy nail and hair growth, which may explain why red pandas have such beautiful, thick fur!

Bamboo tea has a subtle flavour, so you may need to experiment to find the right brew for you. I decided to pump up the flavour by using bamboo tea to make a spiced apple tea. This tasty tea can be served hot or enjoyed chilled as an iced tea. You can also make ice cubes with it and pop them into a gin or vodka cocktail. I mean why should pandas be the only ones having fun with bamboo! 🙂

Bamboo and Apple Tea

Ingredients
2 cups bamboo tea brewed to your liking
1 apple
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
1 teaspoon brown sugar

Instructions
Strain the tea into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
Cut the apple into thick slices crosswise so you can see the star shaped core.
Add the apple slices, cinnamon, cloves and sugar to the boiling water.
Simmer for 15 minutes.
Strain and serve with a slice of apple if desired.

Two Times A Blue Moon

This weekend I’ll be celebrating a very special Blue Moon. Not only is it a Seasonal Blue Moon, it is also an Astrological Blue Moon, making it a very rare double Blue Moon!

There are three types of Blue Moon: a Calendar Blue Moon, a Seasonal Blue Moon, and an Astrological Blue Moon.

A Calendar Blue Moon occurs when there are two Full Moons in the same calendar month. The second Full Moon is the Blue Moon. While this is now the commonly accepted interpretation, it is actually the newest way to calculate a Blue Moon and is the least celebrated in the esoteric realms.

A Seasonal Blue Moon occurs when there are four Full Moons in a season. A seasonal cycle is measured from Equinox to Solstice, or from Solstice to Equinox. Each season lasts roughly three months and normally has three Full Moons. These Full Moons often have names associated with seasonal attributes which vary from place to place and hemisphere to hemisphere. Occasionally a seasonal cycle will have four Full Moons. When this happens it is the third Full Moon which is the Blue Moon, not the fourth as you might expect. By naming the third Full Moon a Blue Moon (rather than the fourth), the names and attributes of the usual seasonal Moons aren’t disrupted by the appearance of an extra Full Moon.

An Astrological Blue Moon occurs when there are two Full Moons in the same Astrological sign in the same Astrological month. Astrological months are approximately four weeks in length. When an Astrological month has two Full Moons in the same star sign, it is the second moon which is the Blue Moon.

So what season and sign is the August Blue Moon in? Well that depends on where you live. In Melbourne (Australia), the seasonal Blue Moon will be the third Full Moon in the Winter season and the Astrological Blue Moon is in the sign of Aquarius.

Personally I’ll be celebrating the Aquarius Blue Moon as Astrological Blue Moons are my favourite!

A Blanket Of Winter

This weekend is Imbolc, the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Imbolc heralds the promise of spring, but cold weather is still abundant. The days have occasional bursts of sunlight but the nights are cold and dark.

For me it’s a time of in-betweens. One part of me wants to go out and enjoy the brief rays of sunshine while the other part hasn’t had enough winter down-time. I still want to spend a little bit more time snuggled under my cosy blankets and indulging in warm drinks and comfort foods.

One comfort food I love is potsticker dumplings. These delicious parcels of yumminess are filled with a meat or vegetable filling. They are fried and steamed so the bottoms become crispy as the tops steam, producing a flavour and textual taste sensation.

I recently discovered an interesting twist to the classic recipe where a flour and water mix is added during the cooking process to produce an extra crispy crust. The dumplings are served inverted on the plate so they are covered with the crust which is called a skirt or lace.

For this recipe you can make your own dumplings or use frozen ones. Try not to crowd the pan too much as they will take longer to cook. Having said that, I crammed 15 into my frying pan because I didn’t want to cook them in batches! They did take a while to cook but they were delicious. If you do cook them in batches, just repeat the lace recipe for each batch.

Dumplings with Lace

Ingredients
for the dumplings
About 15 homemade or frozen dumplings
2 tablespoons peanut or other vegetable oil

for the lace
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons flour
pinch of sea salt (optional)

Instructions
Heat oil in a large, lidded, non-stick frying pan.
Place the dumplings close together and fry for 3 – 5 minutes or until golden on the bottom.
While dumplings are frying, make the lace by whisking together the water, flour and salt.
Once dumplings are golden, slowly pour the lace mix into the frying pan. Be careful as it may splatter.
Cover and steam for 5 minutes.
Remove lid and cook for a few more minutes until the water has evaporated and the lace is crisp and golden. Move the pan around to make sure the lace browns evenly.
Cover pan with a plate and carefully flip so the lace is now on top of the dumplings.
Serve dumplings with your favourite dipping sauce on the side.

A Game For Snakes

July 16th is World Snake Day! To celebrate this serpentine day, I want to explore one of my favourite childhood games – Snakes and Ladders.

Snakes and Ladders is a board game which features squares numbered 1 to100. Played by two or more players, each player rolls a dice in turn and travels along the numbered squares. Some of the squares have the bottom of ladders which help you move up (to the top of the ladder), while other squares feature the heads of snakes which send you back down (to the tail of the snake). The snakes and ladders vary in length, so you can rise and fall vast or small amounts depending on where you land. The first player to reach the final square is the winner!

Snakes and Ladders is the English version of an ancient Indian game. There are a number of names and variations of the Indian game such as Gyan Chauper, Leela, Mokshapat and Moksha Patam. The games were originally used to impart moral and karmic lessons to children. The ladders represent a virtue which allows you to rise while the snakes represent a vice which causes you to fall. In the Indian version there are more snakes than ladders, probably because it’s easier to fall victim to vice than to be virtuous. 🙂

When the game came to England, a few changes were made. The number of snakes was reduced so there were equal numbers of snakes and ladders. The karmic lessons of the original were also replaced with moral lessons relevant to the Victorian era of the time. Eventually the moral lessons were left out or replaced by cartoon pictures that had no real link to virtues or vices.

The American version is called Chutes and Ladders. In a move that would make Saint Patrick proud, Chutes and Ladders has driven all the snakes off the board and replaced them with chutes. Interestingly, most of these versions still retain the moral lessons of the original games.

When I think of playing Snakes and Ladders as a child, I can’t remember any moral lessons being imparted. All I remember is my desperate desire to win and to avoid the snake boldly waiting at the top, ready to turn my impending victory into defeat! I actually loved the drawings of the snakes, with their cute tongues poking out, but I was annoyed that it was a punishment to land on them.

Snakes are one of the oldest, richest and most widespread mythological symbols. While they are seen as symbols of negativity in some cultures, they are more often associated with positive traits such as creativity, fertility, healing, rebirth, sexuality and wisdom. I’m glad Snakes and Ladders didn’t teach me to see snakes solely as a symbol of negativity.

Happy World Snake Day!

Midwinter Custard

As the wheel spins towards the winter solstice, I find myself craving the drinks of xmases past. Growing up, spiced eggnog was one of my favourite xmas drinks, especially if it had a good slug of rum or whiskey. Xmas is celebrated in summer down under, so a cool drink was the perfect tonic for the often warm weather typical for December.

As an Aussie Pagan, I celebrate the winter solstice in June, which in Melbourne is usually very cold. While I craved the creamy and boozy pleasures of an eggnog, I wasn’t too keen on sipping a chilled drink.

As I researched warm eggnog recipes, I discovered a drink called Southern Boiled Custard. Despite the name, the custard is not boiled but gently simmered and is usually served chilled like eggnog. While I loved the idea of drinking custard, I was still keen to find a warm drink for the winter solstice. After a bit more research I found a few recipes that suggested serving drinking custard warm!

I’ve added a good splash of bourbon to my recipe, making it a perfect festive drink for midwinter. 🙂

Warm Drinking Custard

Ingredients
2 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of sea salt
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
60ml bourbon

Instructions
Whisk together the eggs, sugar and salt in a heatproof bowl.
Bring the milk to a simmer in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
Slowly pour the hot milk mix into the egg mixture, whisking continually.
Pour the mixture back into the saucepan.
Whisk until the custard begins to thicken.
Remove from heat.
Whisk in the vanilla extract and bourbon.
Pour the custard into heatproof glasses or mugs.
(Makes two generous serves.)