Winter Solstice

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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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!

Grand Xmas Traditions

Over the last few years I’ve become the proud Grand Aunt to three wonderful Grand Nieces. I was dubbed a Grand rather than a Great Aunt because my family think of me as the Grand High Witch from Roald Dahl’s The Witches – and I love it! My three Grand Nieces’ birthdays each have a gothic connection, making them very Grand indeed!

To celebrate the coming holidays, I’ll be reblogging posts from Xmases past and introducing my Grand Nieces to the darker sides of Midwinter. Their first lesson begins with La Befana the Xmas Witch. 

The Legend Of La Befana

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Bites & Pieces

I celebrated the Winter Solstice weekend by launching my first travelogue cookbook!

It’s called Bites and Pieces of America: Exploring food and friendship in Whidbey Island, Salem, Boothbay Harbour and Boston. It’s filled with pieces from my trip last year from Australia to the USA where I got to visit a dear friend on Whidbey Island, celebrate July the 4th in Salem the Witch City, visit puffins in Maine and meet a baby sloth in Boston. There are also many bites of recipes from the foods that inspired me along the way.

While I’m hoping you’ll rush out and buy the book 🙂 I will share parts of the journey here. I’ll also include recipes that nearly made it into the book but just missed out like my Stout Pancakes (below). These are perfect for Winter in Australia. If you’d like pancake recipes that are more in tune with Summer – like Blueberry Pancakes or Carrot Cake Pancakes – you can find them in my book!

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Bites and Pieces is currently available from Lulu. An ebook is on the way and it will be in other online stores soon 🙂

Stout Pancakes

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Ingredients
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons maple sugar*
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup stout**
butter for frying

Instructions
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar into a large bowl. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, milk and stout.
Add to the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
Heat a small amount of butter in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat.
Pour some batter into the pan. Remember that the bigger the pancakes, the harder they are to flip, so don’t make them too big.
Cook until bubbles start to form.
Flip and cook for a further 1 – 3 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.
Repeat with remaining batter.
Serve with your choice of toppings.
I like them with a good drizzle of pure maple syrup, golden syrup or honey.

*You can substitute brown sugar for the maple sugar.
**Try different flavoured stouts like chocolate or coffee ones. I used a maple flavoured stout.

Solstice Baked Potatoes

As the wheel spins towards another Midwinter in Melbourne, I am enjoying the cool weather and the need to wrap myself up in warm blankets and comfy dressing gowns. The sun is still warm during the day, but as it begins to set, the cold seeps in and the need to stop work, make a hot drink and retire to the couch sinks in.

On Wednesday June 21st, many of us will be celebrating the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. I’m not sure what I will be doing, but I am tempted to go to the Queen Victoria Night Market. This weekly winter market just happens to fall on the Winter Solstice. Although I’ve been many times before, I never get tired of it. I love the unusual stalls that pop up and make shopping a real treat. The food stalls are a real highlight! But what I love most is just being outdoors, surrounded by life, colour, sound and the smell of good food.

The food I enjoy most in winter is roast vegetables such as pumpkin, carrots and potatoes. The sweetness of the pumpkins and carrots goes beautifully with the crispness of well baked potatoes. Thinking of myself all wrapped up in blankets and gowns made me think of jacket potatoes – and taking them a step further – so I experimented with a recipe for potatoes baked in a salt crust. For me they are a perfect union between crispy roast potatoes and moist steamed potatoes.

Salt Crust Potatoes

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Ingredients
1kg cocktail potatoes
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 cup fine salt

Method
Preheat oven to 220C / 430F.
Wash and dry the potatoes.
Prick each potato several times with a fork.
Coat each potato with egg white.
Coat each potato completely with salt.
Bake for 1 hour or until tender when pierced with a skewer or fork.
Crack off the salt crust and serve with your favourite potato toppers.

Kitty Claws Is Coming To Town!

Did you survive Krampus night? Well don’t rest easy, because there is another scary xmas monster coming your way! I am happy to introduce you to Jólakötturinn – Iceland’s Yule Cat. Steeped in the mythology of countries that have long, cold, dark and deadly winters, rises the giant black cat of xmas. Jólakötturinn is monstrously huge, has glowing eyes, whiskers as sharp as nails and razor sharp claws. As if cats weren’t scary enough, Jólakötturinn takes feline fear to a new level.

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Jólakötturinn prowls the night of xmas eve, looking in windows for a Yule offering. But what offering could subdue such a terrifying beast? If you’re thinking food you’d be wrong. Your soul? Luckily nothing so dramatic. This fashionista feline desires an offering of new clothes. Bizarrely, the clothes are not necessarily for the cat – I mean cats aren’t known for their love of being dressed up! No, the new clothes are for you and your children. If there are no new clothes to be seen, the feisty Jólakötturinn may take all your gifts, eat all your food, eat you or take away your children and eat them. What better incentive do you need for new xmas threads!

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In some ways the scary kitty myth brilliantly mirrors our capitalist and consumerist approach to xmas with its emphasis on buying new clothes. Some say the myth of Jólakötturinn was used by farmers to frighten workers into finishing processing all the sheared wool before xmas so that new clothes could be made. Others say that the threat of a visit by Jólakötturinn was used to encourage people to work hard all year so they could have the money to buy new clothes for xmas.

It’s not clear when Jólakötturinn joined the cast of Icelandic monsters but the creepy cat’s popularity surged when Icelandic bard Jóhannes úr Kötlum wrote a poem about Jólakötturinn. Interestingly, the poem suggests that we should make sure that the needy, particularly poor children, are given a special piece of clothing at xmas. The basic theme in the poem is that if those who have give to those who don’t, Jólakötturinn will be thwarted. It is actually a beautiful xmas message clothed in a scary cat tale!

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I enjoyed reading about Jólakötturinn but the Yule Cat really came alive to me when I heard Icelandic singer Björk’s version of Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s poem. My favourite link is one that features animation with a written English translation of the poem and Bjork’s haunting voice singing the poem in Icelandic. So before I share my catty recipe for xmas, sit back and enjoy this powerful myth in images and song: Jólakötturinn – The Yule Cat.

We know the Yule Cat wants new clothes rather than food, but I can’t resist trying to tempt the scary kitty with a black bottom cupcake – a chocolate cupcake with a cheesecake filling. Will Jólakötturinn be the cat that got the cream? If creamy cheese isn’t enough, there’s also catnip! Catnip is part of the mint family so you can use any mint you like for this recipe. Chia is also part of the mint family but I’m not sure if cats would be tempted by chia seeds 🙂

Creamy Catnip Cupcakes

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Ingredients
for the cheesecake filling
8 ounces (225g) cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg, room temperature

for the chocolate cupcakes
1 + 1/2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon peppermint essence, or to taste

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 12 paper cases.
Make the cream cheese filling by beating the cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the sugar and egg and beat until smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Make the chocolate cupcakes by sifting the flour, baking powder, cocoa, salt and sugar into a jug. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the water, oil, cider vinegar, vanilla extract and peppermint essence.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and stir in the wet ingredients until smooth.
Evenly pour the batter between the 12 paper cases.
Spoon the cream cheese mixture evenly into the center of each cupcake.
Bake for 10 – 25 minutes or until the cupcakes feel springy and the cream cheese filling has set. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

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