Sun & Seasons

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.

A Tale Of A Felted Koala

Since discovering the Pagan wheel of the year over thirty years ago, I’ve celebrated the harvest festival of Halloween (Samhain) on April 30th. I still remember that first, long ago Halloween held in a Victorian forest on a bitterly cold night. After the ritual we warmed ourselves by an open fire. We watched the smoke rise in waves and patterns, trying to scry for messages in the fiery air. As the logs burned, the bright red embers turned to charcoal, making strange shapes as they transformed. We drank, laughed and talked through the night. We told jokes and shared stories until the sun rose and May Day dawned.

This Halloween I would like to share a story of a tiny felted koala, an idea forged during the horrifying Australian bushfires, and created by my dear artist friend Anne Belov as a symbol of comfort, hope and rebirth – perfect symbols for a Halloween tale.

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Many of you know Anne Belov as the creator of The Panda Chronicles. Anne is also a multi-talented professional artist (an incredible painter) who has recently branched out into the field of felted creations. Most of her creations are, not surprisingly, pandas, but in the mix there is a very special critter, Kevin the Koala, or as he is now affectionately known – Kevin the Scorched Koala. Before Kevin was born in felt he was introduced to the world in ink in a very special cartoon in The Panda Chronicles.

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Kevin was a huge hit and when Anne toyed with the idea of making a felted version of him we all said “Yes!” When she suggested adding scorch marks to her creation the more diabolical among us said “Hell Yes!” It wasn’t long before Kevin, complete with scorch marks, moved from the world of ink into the world of felt. I’m happy to say that I am the proud caretaker of the very first Kevin the Scorched Koala.

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To honour Kevin’s arrival to his ancestral homeland I created a special recipe that blends some Aussie ingredients (eucalyptus honey and macadamia nuts) with an imaginary cookie bar – the Binky Bar! If you’re a fan of The Panda Chronicles you’ll know that the pandas love eating and drinking and Binky Bars are one of their favourite treats. But what are they? No-one knows as it’s been left to our imaginations to visualise these tasty treats. When a Kevin fan suggested a Kevin Binky Bar would be fun I naturally volunteered to create one. Kevin’s Binky Bars feature a shortbread base topped with a sweet and chocolatey filling.

In honour of Kevin’s adorable scorch marks, I’ve served my Binky Bars with scorched macadamias. Scorched nuts are an Australian and New Zealand name for roasted nuts that are covered in layers of chocolate. Don’t worry if you can’t get them, or any other ingredients, just experiment and have fun. After all, nobody really knows what a Binky Bar looks like – or tastes like. 🙂

Kevin The Scorched Koala’s Honey & Macadamia Binky Bars

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Special Note:
These bars need to set overnight.

Ingredients
for the shortbread base
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
125g unsalted butter, cut into pieces

for the chocolate topping
50g unsalted butter
1/3 cup double cream
1 tablespoon eucalyptus honey*
50g dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
100g Anzac biscuits (cookies), broken into various small and medium sized pieces**
1/3 cup macadamia nuts, chopped into various small and medium sized pieces

Instructions
For the shortbread base:
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a baking pan (approximately 23cm x 17cm / 9” x 7”) with baking paper.
Place the flour, sugar and butter in a food processor.
Process until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Spread mixture into the prepared pan, pressing it down with fingers or the back of a spoon to compress it slightly.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until lightly browned.
Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before adding the topping.

For the chocolate topping:
Heat the butter and cream in a medium sized saucepan over low heat.
Stir in the honey.
Add the chocolate pieces and stir until the chocolate melts.
Allow to cool for a few minutes. (You have to allow it to cool long enough so that the biscuits don’t turn to mush when added, but not too long or the chocolate will set.)
Add the broken biscuits and chopped macadamias to the chocolate mixture and stir until combined.
Spread over the shortbread base.
Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Cut into bars.
Serve with scorched macadamias.

*koalas love eucalyptus but you can use any honey you like or any other syrup such as agave, maple or golden.
**if you can’t find Anzac biscuits you can make your own or use my recipe here!

A Balance Of Pandas

March 16 is International Panda Day – not to be confused with International Red Panda Day which is celebrated in September. International Panda Day is a day to celebrate the beloved black and white clowns of the bear world.

Pandas have meant a lot to me for many, many years. The first time I saw giant pandas in Australia was at Melbourne Zoo in 1988 when Fei Fei and Xiao Xiao toured Australia. I was so excited to see these almost mythical animals and they did not disappoint. They were much smaller than I expected but as cute and playful as I thought they’d be. The next time I saw giant pandas was at Adelaide Zoo in 2010 when I did a VIP tour to meet Fu Ni and Wang Wang. I got to pat them on their heads and feed them fruit, vegetables and panda cake through the bars of their enclosures. I then got to go into their outdoor enclosures and hide treats for them. It was an awesome experience! Happily I’ve been able to visit these fluff balls a few more times over the years. The cuddly pair are the first and only giant pandas (so far) to be loaned to an Australian zoo. 

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Being panda mad, I dreamed of going to China to visit pandas in their homeland. Finally my dream came true in 2013 when I went to China and met a one year old baby panda called Miao Miao. As I sat on a bench Miao Miao was placed next to me and I got to give her a cuddle and a couple of pats. The little panda seemed happy to meet her smiling fans – probably because she was rewarded with bamboo, apples and honey! I got to tour a few panda centres and enjoyed seeing the black and white bears in their homeland. It really was a trip of a lifetime.

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Coincidentally, International Panda Day falls close to the Autumn Equinox in the southern hemisphere and the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere. The equinoxes symbolise balance as do the black and white colours of the giant panda. So while the world goes mad, grab some balancing vibes and stay calm by thinking of pandas. 🙂

Blueberry Soup For The Uncertain Soul

This weekend is the celebration of Lammas or Lughnasadh in Australia. It is the midpoint between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. It is supposed to bring with it the promise of autumn, but with the temperature soaring, autumn seems so far away.

Bread is traditionally baked for Lammas but with such hot weather enveloping me, putting the oven on is the last thing I want to do. So instead of making bread, I thought I would make something that goes really well with bread – soup!

I know what you are thinking – hot soup on a hot day? Well this refreshing sweet blueberry soup can be served hot or cold. In Australia we can have a dramatic drop or rise in temperature in just one day so this soup is perfect for celebrating in uncertain weather.

While this soup isn’t traditionally served with bread, you can bring a bit of “loaf mass” spirit to the dish by pairing it with toast or a sandwich. For hot soup I serve it with a slice of buttered fruit toast or a dark bread. I serve cold soup with panettone, plain bread and butter, or jam sandwiches.

I’d love to know what breads you would serve with your blueberry soup!

Hot or Cold Blueberry Soup

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Ingredients
2 cups blueberries
2 cups water
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons cornflour
2 tablespoons water
cream for serving (optional)

Instructions
Bring the blueberries, water and honey to a boil in a saucepan.
Simmer for 10 minutes or until the blueberries are beginning to soften.
Mix the cornflour and water to make a smooth paste.
Add a spoon of hot soup to the paste and mix to combine.
Add the cornflour to the soup and stir until combined.
Continue stirring until the soup thickens.
Ladle into bowls or cups and serve warm, or chill in the refrigerator and serve cold.
Serve with a drizzle of cream if desired.

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!

A Haunting Beltane

It has taken a long time for Australians to embrace Halloween and there are still many Aussies who loathe what they believe is an American holiday. Those of us who understand the history of Halloween, or Samhain, know that the tendrils of this ghostly and haunting night are rooted in the deep, dark past of many cultures. A night when the veils between the world of the living and the dead are thin, and the dead may walk amongst us again, is an ancient belief as old as time. It’s my favourite night of the year but, unfortunately for me, Halloween is six months away!

In the upside down world of the southern hemisphere, many Australian Pagans have chosen to celebrate seasonal festivals during the appropriate season. As Halloween is an autumnal festival, we celebrate it in April. But don’t worry, I won’t be missing out. I’ll be honouring Beltane, the spring festival that is the companion to Halloween. While Halloween focusses on death, Beltane celebrates life, fertility and regeneration. Life down under has started to wake. Plants are blooming, magpies are swooping and snakes are becoming (a lot) more active. Yet, amidst this noisy and colourful cacophony of life, I still see dead things, as the spectre of Halloween has finally arrived in Australia. I can think of no better way to celebrate life than with Halloween iconography and ghoulish children trick-or-treating.

Only one thing can make this night even better and that’s a drink featuring a Pagan favourite – mead. I added cloudy apple to the drink in tribute to The Wicker Man, my favourite Beltane/May Day film. The dash of ginger is a nod to the end of the film which does get very heated. 😉 With lines like “killing me won’t bring back your apples!” The Wicker Man is a great film suited to both Halloween and Beltane.

Wicker Man Mead

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Ingredients
1 teaspoon ginger cordial
1/4 cup cloudy apple juice
1 cup spiced mead
soda water
slices of cucumber
slices of lime

Instructions
Add the ginger cordial, apple juice and mead to a glass.
Pour in as much soda water as you like.
Top with cucumber and lime slices.

This makes enough for one drink but you can scale up the amounts to make a punch for a large crowd or if you are particularly thirsty. 🙂

Red Panda Equinox

This year International Red Panda Day (IRPD) will be celebrated on Saturday, September 21st. IRPD was created by the Red Panda Network (RPN) and is celebrated every year on the third Saturday in September. RPN was created to promote the red panda and to find ways to fight for their survival, which is endangered due to habitat loss and illegal poaching. IRPD is part of this awareness campaign and is celebrated by zoos and individuals around the world with special events and red panda themed fun. Some zoos celebrate on different days, so check with your local zoo to see if they are doing anything and on what day. This year is the tenth celebration of IRPD.

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Depending on where you live, you also have an opportunity to celebrate either the Spring or Autumn Equinox. 

I’ll be celebrating the Spring or Vernal Equinox, which is a night of balance in which day and night are relatively equal. After the Spring Equinox the day wins ascendancy as longer nights are overtaken by longer days. The coming Spring brings a riot of colour, bird song and warmer weather. The return of bright hot days reminds me of the stunning colours of the red panda. The red panda boasts a striking mix of black, hot red, burning brown and bright white fur which are a great symbol for an Australian Spring and emerging Summer. Happily they are also the colours of Autumn. So whichever part of the world you are in, you can celebrate both red pandas and the Equinox!

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Some fun facts about red pandas:

  • Red pandas were discovered 50 years before giant pandas.
  • The name “panda” was given to the red panda first and then later to the black and white panda. The word “panda” may be derived from a Nepalese word meaning “bamboo eater.”
  • Red pandas are sometimes referred to as the “lesser panda” in relation to the giant panda but there is a movement afoot – or apaw – that is calling for them to be called “the first panda” in acknowledgement that they were discovered and named first.
  • Red Pandas were once thought to be related to giant pandas but they are actually in a family of their own called Ailuridae. 
  • A nickname for the red panda is “firefox” which inspired the Firefox web browser to use them as their name and symbol.
  • They are solitary except during breeding season.
  • Red pandas are crepuscular meaning they are active in the early morning and late afternoon and are arboreal meaning they spend most of their time in trees.
  • Although they are classified as a carnivore, red pandas mainly eat bamboo, though they will occasionally eat fruit, berries, eggs, insects and small animals. Like the giant panda, red pandas have an extra thumb used for grabbing bamboo.
  • Red pandas have retractable claws like a cat and the soles of their paws are covered in fur.
  • They have “tear track” markings on their face which may protect their eyes from the sun.
  • When it gets really cold, red pandas can use their bushy tail as a blanket.
  • Red pandas are one of only a few animals that can climb down a tree head first.

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Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus
The colours of this sunny hummus remind me of red pandas!

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Ingredients
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup tahini
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 + 1/2 cups rinsed and drained canned chickpeas
1/4 cup olive oil, more may be needed
1/4 cup drained sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
sea salt to taste
extra olive oil for serving
paprika for serving

Instructions
Process the garlic, tahini and lemon juice in a blender or food processor until smooth.
Add the chickpeas and oil and process until smooth.
Add the sun-dried tomatoes and process until just combined. (You may need to add more oil to reach your desired consistency.)
Season with salt to taste.
To serve, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with paprika.

To symbolise the balance reflected in the Equinox, I sprinkle paprika only over half of the hummus.

Dressing For Spring

Imbolc, the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, is celebrated on August 1st in Australia. Imbolc celebrates the return of Persephone as she begins her ascent from the Underworld, slowly transforming from our Queen of the Dead into our Goddess of Spring.

To celebrate Persephone’s journey, I bought a bottle of pomegranate vinegar. I was really excited, as I have tried lots of different vinegars but never a pomegranate one. I couldn’t wait to start experimenting with this new ingredient. My mind was reeling with ideas for an Imbolc recipe and I became fixated on using the vinegar in a cocktail. After much thought, I experimented with a gin and elderberry cocktail, which was interesting, but not something I would try again. As Imbolc neared, I almost panicked as I couldn’t think of what to make.

Today is the eve of Imbolc and the night of a Dark Moon. The sun is streaming through my windows and the birds are singing outside. I stare at the bottle of pomegranate vinegar, hoping for inspiration. Finally I am gifted with a memory of being served a platter with bread and three dunking bowls containing extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sea salt. I remember dipping pieces of bread into the oil, vinegar and finally the salt. I also remember how much I loved it. At last I have a recipe idea for Imbolc! 

Rather than serve three individual bowls for bread dunking, I decided to make a dressing. I began by mixing equal parts of oil and vinegar, but I couldn’t taste the pomegranate, so I went with a 1 part oil to 2 parts vinegar ratio. I liked it, as it was fruity and almost unbearably tart. Happy with my decision, I sprinkled salt on top and grabbed a slice of sourdough bread. I sat outside dunking my bread into a flavoursome dressing while birds flitted through my bamboo heralding the coming of spring and the return of Persephone.

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The fun thing about this dressing is that you can choose what ratios suit you. You can also use it as a salad dressing or as a marinade.

Happy Imbolc!

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.