Winter Solstice

A Winter Solstice Star

In preparation for the June 21st Winter Solstice, I spent a weekend away at an eco-friendly sky pod in Victoria’s stunning Otways. Perched on a hill in a wildlife refuge property, the pod I chose featured floor to ceiling windows which look out onto the Southern Ocean.

During the day I watched as the changeable weather treated me to scenes of sunshine imbued surf, rain and storm clouds, and stunning rainbows. At night, with the lights turned off, the night sky was bewitching. I fell asleep with the gentle caress of starlight on my face.

Deep in the night I woke up and was amazed at the amount of starlight in the room. When I looked around I saw that it was the Southern Cross shining through the south facing window. I have seen this star pattern many times before but never so close. I felt as though I could reach out and touch the bright stars as they filled the room with translucent light. It was magical. I felt an immediate connection to the Southern Cross, something I have never felt before.

The Southern Cross star pattern is composed of four bright stars and one fainter star which form the shape of a cross, or more accurately, a kite. The Southern Cross is not a constellation but an asterism which is a group of stars that can be part of a constellation or span across multiple constellations. The Southern Cross is the brightest star pattern in the Crux constellation, the smallest constellation in the sky.

photo from Wikipedia

The Southern Cross asterism was once a feature of the northern skies and was an important celestial symbol for ancient cultures. The ancient Greeks considered it part of the Centaurus constellation. By Roman times it had sunk below the horizon and out of view for most of the Northern Hemisphere, although it is still visible in some southern parts of the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Cross was virtually forgotten in the Northern Hemisphere until it became an important asterism in navel navigations.

The Southern Cross has always been a powerful celestial symbol in the southern skies and features prominently in the mythology and stories of Southern Hemisphere cultures. The Southern Cross configuration is featured on the flags of Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. It is also mentioned in the national anthems of Australia and Brazil.

In my home country of Australia, the Southern Cross is an important part of indigenous and non-indigenous Australian culture. Australian indigenous culture is wide and diverse, and while there are many stories about the Southern Cross, it is regarded as one of many star patterns that grace the southern skies. However, for many non-indigenous Australians, this celestial symbol has almost mythic status and is considered one of the most important star patterns in the southern skies. Unfortunately, the Southern Cross has also been used as a symbol of nationalism, bigotry and rebellion, often in nasty ways. This association with the uglier parts of Australian culture has made me uncomfortable about getting to know the Southern Cross asterism. However, after seeing how beautiful it truly is, I’m now keen to form a relationship.

Happy Solstice!

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!

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.)

A Krampus Kind Of Christmas!

It’s been a tough year and it might be about to get tougher. Krampus Night is almost here! On this night nice children will be rewarded and naughty children will be well and truly punished. 

Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5th, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day. In fact, St Nick and Krampus usually team up for the night and do a type of “good Santa bad Santa” routine. St Nick rewards good children, but naughty children are handed over to Krampus for punishment. Krampus may give a naughty child a lump of coal, beat them with sticks or stuff them in a sack. No-one knows what happens to the children Krampus stuffs in his sack, but I’m assuming it’s not something Christmassy. 

Adults might think they escape punishment on Krampus Night, but don’t worry, the Icelandic Yule Cat is on its way. It’s ready to strip lazy adults of their possessions, their children and possibly their lives. To find out how to avoid the wrath of Jólakötturinn, click to my previous post Kitty Claws Is Coming To Town! It also includes a recipe for Creamy Catnip Cupcakes for extra feline appeasement.

Dark Moon Solstice

This weekend is Solstice weekend and many of us in the southern hemisphere will be celebrating the Winter Solstice. Also known as Midwinter, the Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. After the Winter Solstice, the nights get shorter and the days longer but the weather most definitely gets colder! This year Midwinter also coincides with a Dark Moon and an Eclipse, making it a very dark and powerful night!

To warm up after the evening festivities, I’m going to indulge in a seasonal treat – gingerbread in the form of cupcakes! I love the warm, spicy taste of ginger in anything, but particularly in sweets. Ginger cakes, cookies, candies and sodas are treats I regularly indulge in, as is ginger tea.

To truly get into the spirit of culinary indulgence that is Midwinter, I’ll be topping my gingerbread cupcakes with a rich brown butter frosting.

Gingerbread Cupcakes with Brown Butter Frosting
(makes 10)

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Ingredients
for the gingerbread cupcakes
1 + 1/3 cups plain flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
115g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup caster (superfine) sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 + 1/2 tablespoons golden syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

for the brown butter frosting
115g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, roughly chopped
170g (6oz) cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 + 1/2 cups icing (powdered) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 10 paper cases.
Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and ginger in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until creamy.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add the golden syrup and vanilla and beat until combined.
Add the flour mix and beat until combined.
Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon the batter evenly into 10 paper cases.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cupcake comes out clean.
Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the brown butter frosting, place the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stirring constantly, cook until the butter becomes tan in colour. Do not allow to go dark brown or black.
Once tan, remove saucepan from heat and pour butter into a heatproof bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or until it reaches a soft butter consistency.
Place the butter and cream cheese into a bowl and, using an electric mixer, beat until smooth and creamy.
Add the salt, sugar and vanilla and beat until fluffy and combined.
Spoon frosting into a piping bag and pipe onto cupcakes.

Spiders For Xmas

I have to thank Sheila Renee Parker for sharing a post about the Legend of the Xmas Spider. I mean how did I not know that spiders were a part of xmas!

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The Eastern European folktale tells the story of a poor family who cannot afford to decorate their xmas tree. During the night, spiders spin webs, weaving them around the tree branches. When the family awake on xmas day, their tree is shimmering with sliver webs. The story has a few variations but the basic theme is of a poor family whose xmas tree is decorated by helpful spiders.

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In honour of the spiders it is traditional in some parts of the world to hang spider ornaments on the xmas tree which serve as reminders of the act of charity performed by the spiders. Spiders on your tree – whether real or ornamental – are also symbols of good luck. Decorating your tree with tinsel is supposedly inspired by the Legend of the Xmas Spider with the sparkling tinsel taking the place of gossamer spider webs. Will you be adding a little arachnid touch to your xmas tree?

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Even though I’ll be celebrating the Summer Solstice, I will pay tribute to the xmas spiders by mixing up one of my favourite summertime drinks – a Spider! Similar to an Ice Cream Float or Ice Cream Soda, you simply add a scoop or scoops of your favourite ice cream into a large glass. Pour over any flavours like syrups, juices or alcohol then top with a carbonated beverage that can be non-alcoholic or alcoholic. The drink will bubble over so it can be messy. The bubbles are supposed to look like spiderwebs. Have fun experimenting with different flavour combinations for your Spiders.

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A Rosy Midsummer

The Summer Solstice occurs near xmas in Australia, so while I’m getting ready to celebrate the longest day of the year and the shortest night, most of the stores are selling produce geared towards a winter feast day. I don’t mind, as I always look forward to the range of new shortbreads that are only available during xmas.

One of the other winter treats I used to enjoy at Summer Solstice was a Persian fruitcake filled with plump fruits and crunchy nuts and delicately flavoured with rose water. It was one of the most delicious fruitcakes I had ever tried. Every xmas I eagerly waited for the fruitcake’s arrival at the store until one year it wasn’t there and it never returned. That was almost two decades ago.

A few months ago I went for a country drive to Malmsbury Bakery, famous for its homemade Dundee cake. I was keen to try to this Scottish fruitcake as it was rumoured to be a favourite of Mary Queen of Scots. Queen Elizabeth II is also reported to enjoy Dundee cake at teatime. A cake fit for royalty was something I just had to have!

The cake was quite large, but I was assured that once opened, it would keep for months in an airtight container. I wasn’t sure how long it would last but I was happy to take a chance. As I cut a generous slice I noticed how large and plump the glazed cherries were, which immediately brought back memories of my cherished Persian fruitcake. I took a bite and was rewarded with the flavour and texture of one of the best fruitcakes I had ever tasted. This was as good as the Persian fruitcake.

The cake lasted weeks and I enjoyed every slice. With only a few slices left I decided to make a bold experiment. Could I add a rose water element to a slice without ruining it? I had to try. At first I was going to sprinkle rose water over a slice but I decided to make a rose water icing instead. I simply mixed icing (powdered) sugar with rose water until it was thick enough to drizzle and then drizzled it over my slice of fruitcake. While it wasn’t my coveted Persian fruitcake, it was floral and delicious and brought back many happy memories of solstices past.

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In keeping with the xmas spirit I also dunked a few pieces of shortbread into the rose water icing and then let them set. Happily they were a delicious success as well.

Happy Solstice!

Midwinter Morsels

The solstices are upon us and here in Australia we’re about to celebrate the longest night of the year. After the winter solstice the nights will get shorter and the days longer but the weather will get colder! Midwinter always reminds me of fruitcake and pinecones so I just had to add a sprinkling of pine nuts to my fruitcake recipe.

Fruitcake Cupcakes

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Ingredients
3/4 cup (170g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 + 1/2 cups plain flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup sultanas
1/4 cup mixed peel, chopped
1/4 cup pine nuts
24 maraschino cherries, cut in half

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 150C / 300F.
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 12 paper cases.
In a large bowl cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Beat in eggs one at a time.
Add flour, salt, mixed spice and ginger and mix until combined.
Stir in the dried fruit, mixed peel and pine nuts until just combined.
Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon the batter evenly into paper cases.
Push four half maraschino cherries into the top of each cupcake. 
Bake for 30 – 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean.
Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

A Piggy New Year

I’ve seen a few unusual Xmas decorations in Australia before, but this season I noticed a new character on the block – a Xmas pig! Seeing pink inflatable Xmas pigs in gardens and in stores put a big smile on my face. 

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I had never heard of a Xmas pig so I had to get investigating. What I discovered is that the pig is a popular character in European Xmas traditions.

The role of the pig as a Xmas character is related to their role as sacrificial animals and symbols of luck and prosperity. Roast pork and baked ham are traditional Xmas fare, but happily there are also symbolic foods that don’t require the death of the pig, such as pig shaped gingerbread cookies and marzipan pigs. Giving someone a marzipan pig as a gift means that you are wishing them good luck for the new year.

Similar to a marzipan pig is the Peppermint Pig™, a hard candy created in Saratoga Springs, New York, by the Saratoga Candy Co. The Peppermint Pig™ comes with its own little pouch and a small metal hammer. After Xmas dinner, the candy pig is placed in the pouch and passed around the table. Everyone takes a turn tapping the pouch whilst recounting the good things that have happened to them in the last year. The broken pieces of candy are then shared with the diners.

Why am I telling you about Xmas pig traditions when Xmas is over? Because pigs aren’t just for Xmas – they are also for Chinese New Year!

This year Chinese New Year falls on February 5th and we will be saying goodbye to The Year of the Yang Earth Dog and hello to The Year of the Yin Earth Pig. The pig is the last animal in the zodiac so a pig year symbolises the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. A pig year is also associated with Luck, Health, Prosperity and a whole lot more!

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Happy Year of the Pig!

Horsey Xmas Traditions

I’m winding up my posts of Xmas past with the fabulous Mari Lwyd aka the Zombie Horse! This spooky hobby horse visits homes during the Xmas and New Year period. Is that the sound of a hoof knocking on your door? Find out what to expect in A Horsey New Year! 

Wishing you a Happy Winter and Summer Solstice 🙂

 

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