Tag Archives: feast day

Cattern cakes for St Catherine’s day

Cattern cakes

November 25 is the feast day of St Catherine of Alexander. Chances are, St Catherine isn’t someone you’ve heard of, beyond having a firework named after her, or more accurately after her mode of martyrdom – on a wheel. In my childhood, St Catherine was quite a well known figure. Well, not the saint herself exactly, but a hill named after her.

I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. It was the city that was the capital of the great Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and arguably the capital of England before London. Earlier than this, however, it was a Roman city. And even earlier than this, there was an Iron Age settlement (around 500BC), on a hilltop just outside the city. This hill is known as St Catherine’s and there was a 12th century chapel on the top of the same name, until it was demolished in 1537, I believe at the behest of that great money-grubbing vandal Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,  in his massive pope-won’t-let-me-divorce royal hissy fit.

Mazes and wheels
When I was young and fitter and my knees worked properly I used to love running up there. It’s a wonderful place, and very much worth a visit. The views are good, there are orchids and other wild flowers, and there’s even a mizmaze, carved into the turf, with the winding path in exposed chalk. The form of such mazes is to an ancient, mysterious pattern, but this one is most likely from the second half of the 17th century. A local legend involves its creation being punishment for a pupil of the nearby privileged seat of learning and abject arrogance, Winchester College.

St Catherine’s martyrdom in 310AD in Egypt on a wheel may also be the reason the hill is named after her, with the Iron Age ramparts forming a circular shape. Or it may just be because she is, among other things – wheels, obviously, librarians, knife sharpeners, hat makers, lacemakers, spinsters, etc etc – patron saint of hilltops. Or something. Such hagiography is a right shambles.

Another Catherine
Anyway, her feast day is 24 or 25 November. The date was also used to honour Catherine of Aragon, first wife of the abovementioned Henry, and the first victim of his desperation for a male heir. After 24 years of marriage, he blamed her for the lack of a living son, and changed the course of history to get shot of her. He had her imprisoned in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, 1531-1533. She became a patron of local lacemakers, and they began to celebrate her support on, naturally enough, St Catherine’s day.

One feast day treat for St Catherine’s day is Cattern cakes. These are closer to what we’d consider a cookie or biscuit today, and are flavoured with cinnamon and dried fruit. I’ve got recipes in a couple of books: Cattern Cakes and Lace by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer and Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff. Only one includes the peel, while the other includes caraway seeds. I like the idea of both, so here’s my version.

I’m only using self-raising flour here as I’ve got a lot in the cupboard. You could use plain instead, but use around 340g and 10g of baking powder.

350g self-raising flour
2g mixed spice
4g cinnamon powder
2g fine sea salt
50g ground almonds
350g caster sugar
50g currants
50g candied peel
4g caraway seeds
280g butter
1 egg, beaten
Extra sugar and cinnamon
1 more egg and 25g milk, beaten together, for a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a mixing bowl.
3. Add the sugar, ground almonds, dried fruit and caraway seeds.
4. Add the melted butter and beaten egg.
5. Bring together to form a dough.
6. Bring the dough together, form a ball then cover with plastic and allow to rest in the fridge for about half an hour. This will firm the butter content up again.
7. Roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12mm thick.
8. Brush the top with a little water, then sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon.
9. Roll the dough up like a Swiss roll to form a cylinder. It’s a pretty crumbly paste, but don’t worry: just squish it back together.

Space out well on baking sheets

10. Cut into slices about 10mm thick. As above squish back together as necessary. Place the slices on a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone.
11. Brush the tops with the glaze.
12. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned.

Cattern cakes

Despite the slightly fiddly dough, I like the results. They’re slightly unusual. One friend says “Christmassy” – but really, most feast day baked sweet treats involve similar spices and ingredients, such as peel, it’s just that we’ve lost so many of the other traditions, with most people’s only relationship with feast day foods being Christmas cake and plum pudding.

They spread as they bake, and come out somewhat wrinkly, like cooled lava. You can see a swirl or spiral from the rolling up, especially underneath. The caraway, or Persian cumin (Carum carvi) is a bit of a divisive flavour though, faintly medicinal and almost medieval. It’s perhaps most commonly found in rye breads these days, but for a long time a great British classic was seed cake – a sweet, teatime cake flavoured with caraway. It’s one of those flavours that’s arguably gone out of fashion somewhat for the British palette. If you don’t like it, just leave it out.

I’ll be in Winchester just after St Catherine’s day, so maybe we can go for a walk up the hill and take some of these for sustenance. Even if number one child, T-rex, has already rejected them, probably because of the caraway (unfamiliar flavour trumps sugary treat). Number two child, Stingray, is rather partial at least.

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Barm brack for St Brigid’s Day, or Imbolc

Barmbrack

Also called barmbrack, barnbreak, bairín breac or bairínbreac, this is the Irish cousin of the Welsh bara brith, with both names meaning “speckled bread” – bread dotted with speckles of dried fruit.

It’s traditionally eaten on Halloween as well as on 1 February, the feast day of one of Ireland’s patron saints: Brigid or Brigit of Kaldare.* This is one of those Christian feast days, in combination with Candlemas on 2 February, that was a rebranding of an older, pagan festival: Imbolc, the mid-point between winter and spring equinoxes. Indeed, although Brigid was nominally a historical figure who lived in the 5th-5th centuries, there was also an older, Irish, or Celtic goddess of the same name and the feast effectively amalgamates the two.

It’s not a big feast day for us Brits, but as Fran and myself both have Irish great-grandparents, it’s a good excuse to try a recipe.

Barm brack is one of the breads that originally would have been made with yeast from brewing, but these days you can either make a yeasted version, ie more an enriched bread, or a chemically leavened one, ie more a fruit cake. Several months ago I accidentally bought an 8kg sack of self-raising flour, so as much as I like yeasted breads, I made the latter, as part of my efforts to use it up.

If it’s not St Brigid’s Day or Imbolc or Halloween, don’t worry – you can still make this brack, and just call it a tea brack, a relative of the other similar baked goods known as tea breads in English.

Oh, and while researching recipes, I found some that were adamant you had to bake in a round tin, some that were free-form (yeasted) loaves, though the consensus seems to be to bake in a loaf tin, which makes sense as you can then slice it and spread it with butter and eat it for afternoon tea.

250g dried fruit – currants, raisins, sultanas or a mixture
300g black tea. We used Earl Grey for that citrus tang from the bergamot
1 medium egg
50g butter, melted
150g sugar, soft brown
270g self-raising flour, or 260g plain/all-purpose flour sifted together with 2 tsp baking powder
Some spice, to taste
Pinch salt
50g candied peel

1. Put the currants/raisins/sultanas in a bowl and pour over the hot tea. Leave it for a few hours, or overnight, so the fruit plumps up a bit.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C, or 160 if you have a fan. That said, my fan oven is pretty puny, so 170C seemed OK. Basically, a medium oven.
3. Grease and line a 900g/2lb loaf tin.
4. Put the flour in a large bowl, add a bit of spice if you like (I used cinnamon, a few grates of nutmeg and a pinch of black pepper, which is probably unconventional, but seemed appropriate) and the salt.
5. Add the sugar. I used soft brown and a bit of dark muscovado that was hanging around.
6. Add all the rest of the ingredients, and stir to combine. The resulting batter will be pretty sloppy.
7. Pour into the tin and bake for about one and a quarter hours, turning down the heat slightly and covering the loaf with foil if the top is browning too much.
8. When it comes out of the oven, you can brush it with a simple sugar syrup made from a few tablespoons of water and a few of sugar, dissolved then boiled quickly.
9. Turn out, allow to cool and serve.

Funny, I never much liked fruit breads and cakes, but I’m increasingly enjoying them, and this was lovely. We ate several slices, sitting around with our friend Liv, drinking gallons of tea. I was tempted to open an ale, as one source I read insists you have it with ale; which would make sense, but only a rich, malty ale, without too much newfangled hoppiness.

I’ll make a yeasted version come Halloween, but we’ve got spring and summer first, so I’m not wishing the year away on this cold late winter day.

Barmbrack 2

 

 

* Her name is also spelled Bride, and some suggest Saint Bride’s Well, and Bridewell Palace (mostly destroyed in the Great Fire of London) and St Bride’s Church in the City of London take their name from her too, possibly via Irish monks who came to England to convert the heathens.

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Galette des rois and celebrating the end of Christmas with Epiphany

Crowned galette des rois

I love the Christmas season, but one thing I loathe about its modern British incarnation is how it begins in the middle of October. People start stressing, hurry to put up their trees at the start of December, then run out of steam by about Boxing Day, with some even taking down their decorations. Yet Boxing Day, the 26th, is only the Second Day of Christmas.1

We all know the song that starts “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…” but miss the significance. Formerly, Christmas was celebrated from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself, when the feasting started and was sustained until Twelfth Night, 5 January, the eve of Epiphany. This ending of the season on 6 January is still celebrated in some cultures with king cakes, or kings cake. The kings in question? Why that would be the Three Kings, the Magi.

This is all perhaps a bit confusing for those who grew up with formalised Nativity plays and scenes that pack in the whole cast of characters – holy family, kings, shepherds, sheep, oxen, camels – for the actual birth of Christ. But alternative names for Epiphany are Three Kings Day, or simply the Day of the Kings, as it’s when they arrive at the famed Bethlehem farm outbuilding and give their gifts. Indeed, some cultures still do their main gift-giving on Epiphany. It’s an important Christian feast day, hence the feast foods: the king cakes.

The end of Christmas
Not only are variations on king cakes served on Epiphany, they can be served repeatedly through Carnival season right up until Lent, with the New Orleans version, for example, being essential for Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday.

The northern French king cake – galette des rois – isn’t the richest concoction, but I still love how this tradition is one in the eye for all the hackneyed dogma that gets trotted out with the British New Year celebrations about how you have to stop indulging and embrace self-denial. Indeed, one of the things I loved during our two years living in Rome was how Carnevale brought with it uniquely indulgent seasonal sweets soon after New Year.

Before our time in Italy, the biggest connection to another European country and culture in our household came with Fran’s Francophilia. She’d made a connection with France when she was young, studied French, and spent several years living in Brittany and Paris when she was in her late teens and twenties. It was Fran who first told me about the galette des rois five years ago.

While southern French, parts of the US South and some Spanish and Latin cultures do a more cake-like king cake made with enriched dough, and decorated with coloured icings and candied fruits2, the northern French galette des rois is a more modest concoction. It’s a sweet pie, made with puff pastry (pâtes feuilletées) and filled with almond paste, frangipane; essentially a pithivier.

Slice

Cake, round and flat
What is a galette? Well, it’s defined as an “espèce de gâteau rond et plat” – “a type of cake, round and flat”. From what we can work out, it’s the diminutive of gale, again meaning a round, flat cake but also used to describe a small round stone, worn flat by water3. Alan Davidson says, “the word being derived from galet, a pebble perfect for skipping”. The word is perhaps best known from galettes brettonne, Breton galettes – pancakes made with buckwheat flour found in that region of northwest France. It also refers to certain types of biscuits and cookies, also round and flat.

Charming
Anyway, as well as being a modest treat, the fun thing about galette des rois is the inclusion of a fève – literally a dried bean (like the Italian word fava, broad bean). This is hidden in the frangipane mixture and bestows good luck on the person who finds it in their portion. As I noted in my earlier blog about galette des rois, this is not unlike the old British tradition of hiding a coin in Christmas pudding, and indeed lots of cultures have festive baked goods that include a charm of some form: it’s common to other king cakes, the Bulgarian banitsa contains a kusmeti charm, etc.

The modern form of the fève is a small ceramic or plastic figure of the baby Jesus. Last time I made one, I debated using a Monopoly piece but opted instead for a marble. This time, however, I decided to use something edible, so chose half a walnut. No danger of choking! The French tradition is for the youngest child of the gathering to sit under the table and call our names as the slices are served, for an added layer of chance. Whoever wins the fève gets to wear the paper crown you place on top of the galette des rois when you serve it and be the family king or queen for the rest of the day. Or nominate someone else if they’re not feeling the lure of such absolute authority.

The inclusion of a bean is likely a pre-Christian Roman tradition, when for one day in winter slaves and masters would eat together, and even the slave could be king of the feast, or at least the magister bibendum, “master of the drinks” or toastmaster. As Davidson points out, when the pagan Roman empire was Christianised, it made sense to declare 25 December Christ’s birthday, “co-opting these immensely popular holidays” and midwinter ceremonies, notably Saturnalia.

Recipe
This time round I also made my own puff pastry, using a recipe from the new 2011 translation of Ginette Mathiot’s The Art of French Baking (originally Je Sai Faire La Patisserie, “I Know How to Make Pastries”, 1932). It was okay, not great. Partly it didn’t puff well as I messed up the edge of the galette; that’s a tricky bit, as you need to seal it well to contain the frangipane, but not to the point of preventing any rising and puffing of the pastry. Anyway, most people will probably prefer to just use bought puff pastry – if so, make sure it’s all-butter as the richness and flavour is essential.

400-500g all butter puff pastry

Frangipane filling:
85g ground almonds
85g caster sugar
Pinch salt
85g unsalted butter, softened butter
2 medium eggs, beaten (that is, about 100g of beaten egg)
A dash of rum (optional)
One fève charm (optional)

Wash:
1 egg yolk
1 tsp milk

1. First make the frangipane. Combine the almonds, sugar and pinch of salt.

Add butter
2. Add the softened butter and squash it in, then cream it in fully. Keep creaming until the mixture becomes a paler colour.

Cream
3. Add the beaten egg, a little at a time, and the rum (if using) and beat to combine. Cover and put in the fridge while you prepare the pastry.

Beat till pale
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
5. Roll out the pastry then, using something round that fits your baking sheet, cut two discs. Mine were 230mm (9 inches) in diameter.

Cut out discs
6. Put both circles on the baking sheet with another piece of parchment in between, cover with plastic to stop them drying out and rest (them, not you) in the fridge.
7. Whisk together the egg yolk and milk for the wash.
8. Take the pastry and filling out of the fridge again and separate the discs.
9. Put the almond filling in the middle of the bottom piece of pastry, leaving about 25mm all the way around the edge.

Add filling
10. Put a fève in the mix, making sure no one sees where it’s hidden.
11. Brush the exposed edge of pastry with water, put the other disc of pastry on the top then seal together tightly.
12. You can chill again now, leaving it until ready, even overnight. Again, cover or put in a plastic bag to stop it drying out.
13. Preheat the oven to 200C.
14. Brush the glaze all over the top.

Glaze and incise top
15. With a sharp paring knife, cut a pattern on the top. Traditionally, this involves diagonal lines or curving sunrays, but you can be as creative as you want. Stab a few holes too, to allow steam to escape. You can scallop or crimp the edge too, but see the above note.
16. Bake for about 30 minutes or until crisp and golden. (As soon as it’s out of the oven, you can also give it an extra glaze with sugar syrup.)

Baked 1
17. Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with the paper crown.

And forget about those silly New Year’s pronouncements to punish yourself for overeating over Christmas. Just moderate! So, for example, don’t eat an entire galette des rois on your own, greedily trying to win that crown. Fran got it – or half of it at least, a flaw in the plan of using a walnut – in her first slice.

Fran as the Epiphany galette des rois queen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Most count Christmas Day as the First Day of Christmas, though some start with 26th December, St Stephen’s Day, the British Boxing Day. If you follow the Julian calendar, you have to wait until 6 January to start the Twelve Days of Christmas. Thanks Alex and Nick for informing me of that with your Ukrainian Christmas celebrations on our Epiphany, yesterday.

2 Called variously gâteau des rois or royaume or reiaume, roscón de reyes or rosca de reyes, corona dels reis, tortell de reis and bolo de reis.

3 Fran also conjectures that the word relates to the Gaelic gall, which means “stranger”, but also “rock, stone” but it all gets a bit confusing when you learn the Breton language name for Breton galettes is Krampouezhenn gwinizh du.

 

Addendum

My folks visited at the weekend, and brought with them something given to them by some friends who live in Normandy, who bought it in their local patisserie – it’s a brioche des rois, another variation on the kings cake theme. None of us were sure what the red slices of candied fruit were – apple perhaps?

Brioche des rois

 

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Fornacalia, Fornax and burnt spelt

Bakery of Modestus, Pompeii

Today, I’m thanking Fornax for the batch of granola I’ve just baked.

Although calendars have changed a tad over the millennia, February 17 is apparently – more or less – Fornacalia, the feast day of Fornax. Fornax was one of ancient Rome’s divinities, specifically a goddess associated with the oven.

Although I’m not religious, neither as a follower of living religions or (presumably) defunct ancient Roman practises, I’m interested in religious and mythological stories. And as my oven works so hard for me, it seems only right to at least stop and acknowledge Fornax and Fornacalia. Never mind the act of stopping to acknowledge how fortunate I am to have a working oven, ready fuel and enough food.

The name Fornax is connected with the modern English word “furnace” as well as the modern Italian word forno, which you’ll often see on bakeries*. Fornax was both the name of the oven, kiln or furnace and the name of the personification of these pieces of equipment that were, and are, so fundamentally important for baking bread, cooking, heating, metal working and pottery.

An oven specifically for making bread was called a clibanus. The modern English word focus, meanwhile, is actually the Latin for hearth, fireplace. The picture above is of ancient Roman bakery, with the oven on the left and lava grindstones on the right. It’s the bakery of Modestus in Pompeii, and when it was unearthed, the oven had iron doors in place still with the remains of 81 carbonised loaves of bread behind.

My charred spelt offering

Apparently ancient Romans draped their ovens with garlands and made an offering of spelt, which was itself carbonised in the oven. The former doesn’t seem entirely safe with a modern (-ish) electric and gas affair, but burning I’ve burned a handful of spelt (a suitably ancient form of wheat) while the oven is still hot from the granola. Thanks for all the baked goods Fornax!

Ovid, Fasti
This is from book 2 (February) of Ovid’s six book poem published in 8AD:
“The earth of old was tilled by men unlearned:
war’s hardships wearied their active frames. More
glory was to be won by the sword than by the curved
plough; the neglected farm yielded its master but
a small return. Yet spelt the ancients sowed, and
spelt they reaped; of the cut spelt they offered the
first-fruits to Ceres. Taught by experience they
toasted the spelt on the fire, and many losses they
incurred through their own fault. For at one time
they would sweep up black ashes instead of spelt,
and at another time the fire caught the huts them-
selves. So they made the oven into a goddess of
that name (Fornax) ; delighted with her, the farmers
prayed that she would temper the heat to the corn
committed to her charge. At the present day the
Prime Warden (Curio Maximus) proclaims in a set
form of words the time for holding the Feast of Ovens
(Fornacalia)…”

Fornacalia granola

* There’s some suggestion, like here, that fornax was also related to the word “fornication”. But “Fornacalia” seems to be commonly misspelled “Fornicalia” – by, among others, that blog, and me. But etymolgy of the word “fornication” is in the Latin root fornix, meaning arches, vaults, basements, and brothels situated in such places, not the word fornax. Though they may be related, as fornus is Latin for “oven of arched or domed shape.” I can’t find any info about the roof “forn-“.

Of course, baking, sex, fertility and pregnancy have long been connected, with fertility goddesses often having purview over both crops and human reproduction. And you could say that the proving and expansion of a beautiful ball of real bread dough makes a suitable figurative comparison with the swelling of a pregnant human belly, I’ve yet to find a satisfactory explanation of the origin of the phrase “to have a bun in the oven”. Various suggestions are knocking about online if you care to google.

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