Marking and Measuring Time : in grace and gratitude

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This summer I attended a course at college called The Meaning of the Sacraments – which I really enjoyed. Mostly we talked about what baptism and communion mean – the two common sacraments the church celebrates all over the world. However, one of the texts we read was For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann – who is an orthodox priest. His theology has a whole-of-the-cosmos-focus and he works hard to challenge the modern separation of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ realms of human life. After reading his chapter ‘The Time of Mission’, I felt invited to conduct my own reflections on the sacramental nature of time.

What followed was my major paper*. I followed the line that rather than seeing time as a wearisome burden, perhaps we are invited to understand the times and seasons given to us by God as gift. If so, perhaps there are ways we can ‘mark’ time regularly and cyclically – using repeated rhythms and rituals as well as moments of special attention and celebration.

These photos are of homemade lavender cake – a late birthday gift for a lovely (and patient!) friend. I know I have written about cake so many times but I after researching my paper a few years ago they seem so important as a way of marking a special day with special food. We put the best of our ingredients together to make something beyond basic fare because the people we have been given to walk with are gifts to us, we want to mark their milestones, to party with them, to be thankful for them.

Writing this paper was such a gift to me – I had always had a hunch that there was more to birthdays than what met the eye – the cake, the presents, the balloons – these matter because they are a way of delighting in God’s gifts to us – in particular, the person we love and are celebrating.

If you too would like a theological reason for partying – or if you have always felt called by the mountains on your horizon to look to God for help – this paper may also interest you.

*A pdf of my paper is below:
tomarknotmeasuretimeasagiftofgrace

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Erin’s Chocolate, Fig and Walnut cake

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Having moved southern hemisphere to northern hemisphere a few months ago, I understand the blessing of the ‘fall bounty’ more truly. Our local farmers market and grocery shops have been full of bright harvest for the last few months. Now, as both the birds and leaves migrate southwards, the abundance has begun to fade, now revolving, as it does late in the season, around squash and pumpkins. The fig trees around our new home fruited late too, we have been tripping over the fruit as it came thick and fast in the last few weeks. Unfortunately, I feel a little guilty admitting to it, but neither Asher or I love fresh figs terribly. On the other hand, I really do not like fruit going to waste and so I had been gathering it up ‘to cook’ at a later date. Perishable as tender fresh figs are, Asher began to get frustrated finding my bowls of slightly fermented figs which were good only for adding to the compost. Anyhow, with a little (negative!) encouragement from him, I started trying to cook them up. I made chilli fig jam – a very tasty accompaniment to buttered toast. Erin’s birthday seemed like a good excuse to have a go at incorporating the jam into some baking. I played around with a few recipes to come up with the one below – the almond meal makes the batter it more dense than an average butter cake. I might keep playing with the recipe – I will keep you updated with any break-throughs!

Base
½ cup butter, softened (115g)
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 cup yoghurt
¾ cup milk
1 cup wholemeal spelt flour
1 cup almond meal
½ cup coco powder
1 tsp cardamon
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
⅛ tsp salt

Crumblings
75g butter
2/3 cup wholemeal spelt flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup walnuts (roasted)

1 cup fig jam

Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 175oC.
2. Cream the butter and sugar together till light and fluffy.
3. Add the vanilla and eggs, beat till combined.
4. Combine the milk and yoghurt, and all the dry ingredients in two separate containers.
5. Begin adding a little of the milk mixture and a little of the flour mixture to the butter and sugar and mixing till combined, continue the cycle of adding the liquid and dry ingredients and the mixing till combined till all the ingredients are added.
6. Set aside.
7. Beat the butter and sugar for the ‘crumblings’, add in the flour till the mixture clumps together when you squeeze it with your hands.
8. Grease a bundt tin (or whatever tin you have decided to use!) and begin adding the batter, the crumblings, jam and walnuts to the tin, jam works better in the batter not at the edge near the tin. Spreading all the different components around equally will mean a more uniform result!
9. Bake it for about 50-55 minutes – just keep an eye on the browning – if it looks like its getting toasty round the edges and you want to let it go a little longer for the sake of a cooked centre – I use foil to protect it from over-browning-that-is-really-burning.
10. Serve with ice-cream or a little whipped cream – perhaps dusted with icing sugar.

Gifts given

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“… What do you have that you did not receive? … ” (1 Corinthians 4:7b)

Not much really! I have been musing about the idea of sacrament, ceremony and celebration recently. Thinking about the way that God made a good world, full of good things that should remind us to turn our gaze to Him in gratitude. About formalising our thanks in ceremony. About expressing and sharing our thanks in celebration.

I have been thinking about creation and Eucharist, about feasting and joy, about thankfulness. About a good world, about bread. About cake and friends to share it with. About delight and welcome. These are the threads I am beginning to trace as I learn God’s word. I am beginning to see the story about a world made in love, about good gifts given. About a King and a feast, about coming home to dinner. About fullness of life, about joy, not fear. Oh, I want to be able to tell that story. I want to tell it with loaves of bread baked in precious new pots. I want to tell it with Funfetti cake topped with butter cream frosting and sprinkles.  I want to tell it slowly and carefully and with great joy.

The psalmist tells us that “He withholds no good thing …” Psalm 84:11 and I know it to be true. Sometimes the gifts are extra special though. This last week I was given a beautiful blue le Creuset pot, heavy with the hope of bread to break and dinners to share. Newly arrived in Vancouver, only few months ago, I had also been given an preloved Kitchenaid mixer and then, last week, the bowl finally arrived. Talk about stuff being sacred – my heart and my kitchen are full! So I baked in thanks. I baked basic-bread and a party-cake. The stuff of life and the stuff of celebration. I think we need both. We need the reminder that our earthy bodies are nourished both by the earth, and by the One who offers us Himself, the true Bread of Life. And once we have remembered, we need to gather and celebrate His Goodness and His abundant welcome.

Piece of cake, anyone?!

Happy Birthday Jonno Round 2: or another cake

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an honest picture of all the trimming and extra ingredients

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Turning twenty one seems like a good enough reason to have two birthday cakes. After celebrating on the day with Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolate (but the vanilla version), Jonno’s 21st party seemed a good reason to pull out the faithful white chocolate mud cake recipe that we’ve used and adapted from the Women’s Weekly Wicked Desserts Recipe book for several 21st-and-special-occasion-cakes. We made the 8x recipe (yep, you heard right, 8x the original recipe!) and this did for a large rectangular cake and two trays of small cup cakes (plus off-cuts). Enough to feed to a smallish sort of party gathered in celebration. I say ‘we’ because in our family, birthday cake baking has long been considered a team sport. When we were tiny, it was our grandparents who would come and help mum and dad pull off amazing feats of icing and butter cake inspired by the infamous Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday cake books. While it is no longer “Minnie and Brown* and the eleventh hour [the night before the party]”, we still like to make something special to mark milestones and I have more or less stepped into the role of Birthday cake project manager. A project-manager-come-baker who ropes in all the helpful apprentices I can get; mum, Asher, dad, even my talented-baker-friend Kate if she’s around. I love cooking but I am definitely not a solo flyer in the kitchen – perhaps too many cooks do intensify the kitchen experience, but I think that mostly you get more done and stay more sane if you cook in community.

Family history and philosophy of kitchen comradery aside, with this particular cake, you cook it very long and slow with the cake tin wrapped up in newspaper to ensure it cooks as evenly as possible. It is so large that you really don’t want to start cooking this baby too late at night – you may well be waiting up till the wee small hours if you do (don’t worry, its been done!). Attempting a cake this large is less of a risk if you trust your oven. This particular cake was the first one to be cooked in the new oven at home and possibly one of the last – the oven proved itself rather unpredictable and, although we managed fine in the end, the larger cake could have safely been labelled a caramel mud cake while the smaller cup cakes turned out more successfully – tiny white mud cup-cakes as expected. In the end, it is really all about how you sell a thing isn’t it?! Once the cake had (finally) cooked, I then set to work stressing over the decorating. Jonno is a keen muso so we had decided to create an edible version of his Nord synthesiser. With some cutting, puzzle work, ganache spreading, a bit of nifty fondant icing work and some chocolate and lollies – I managed to pull it off with a tonne of support from Mum and Asher (in particular).

Ingredients:
2 kg butter
1.2kg white chocolate melts
3.52kg caster sugar
2 lts milk
2.4kg plain flour
8 tsp baking powder
8 tsp vanilla essence
16 eggs
8 tbsp malted milk extract (or powder)

Decorations:
red fondant icing
chocolates of various sizes and shapes (for keys and buttons)
white icing in a tube for the piano key divisions

Ganache Ratio:
1 cup white chocolate
1/3 cup cream
cocoa to taste (for the brown icing on the cup cakes)

Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 160oC.
2. Grease and line the large rectangular cake pan with baking paper. Wrap the outside of the tin in a thick layer of news paper to protect the cake while it cooks. The cup cakes were baked in free standing cardboard cup cake wrappers which were laid out on a baking tray.
3. Heat the butter, white chocolate and sugar milk together in a very large saucepan  (or two medium sized ones) till the butter, sugar and chocolate melt into a shiny, slightly thickened liquid.
4. Sift the flour, baking powder and malted milk powder over the cooled butter mixture and mix to combine. Continue to mix till the flour has been distributed evenly throughout the mixture and any lumps have been smoothed out.
5. Beat the eggs and vanilla in a separate bowl to combine, add these to the mixture, ensuring the residual heat from the melting is not high enough to ‘cook’ the eggs on contact with the mixture.
6. Pour mixture into the large cake tin and bake for several hours until done all the way through. The small cup cakes took much less time to cook – more like 20-30 minutes. The time taken for each will vary with the oven used.
7. Make the ganache by slowly melting the chocolate and cream together in a saucepan (if you have an induction stove top, if you have a regular one, try a glass bowl over the saucepan – French name ‘bain marie’ – so the chocolate doesn’t cook). Refrigerate till it reaches spreading consistency.
8. The large rectangular cake was then trimmed (the hard crust is removed) and the pieces cut to construct a longer thinner rectangle. This was then iced with white chocolate ganache and the red fondant icing, rolled out to resemble the red sections of the Nord.
9. The keys (KITKAT chocolate bars cut to size), buttons, dials and knobs were added using a variety of different chocolate pieces and icing as cement. Bought ‘white fudge icing’ in a tube was used to define the keys (a pre-prepared food compromise I was so willing to make at about 10am on the morning of Jonno’s 2pm-start-time-party!)
10. The crotchet cup cakes were iced with the remaining white chocolate ganache turned brown with cocoa. Peppermint sticks were used as the stem.
11. Finally we sang, celebrated and shared this symbol of Jonno, his musicality and his birthday.

*[pet names for my grandparents]

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Holiday Baking Revisited 3/3 – Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat

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A few months ago Asher took me out on a date. Apart from the treat of having time together, he wanted to show me a newly released Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Having already enjoyed his version of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, we were again delighted by his quirky storytelling style. For me especially it was the dessert-like visuals that were a significant part of the attraction. In it’s early 20th Century heyday the hotel itself was styled like a chocolate box and the pastries produced by the lovely Agatha at Mendl’s patisserie almost claim a staring role. We bought a copy of the dvd later and, on watching it again with family, were treated to an ‘extras’ video clip to warm the heart of any baker. Agatha herself demonstrates how to make the signature pastry of the movie – the Courtesan au Chocolat! After receiving some very inspirational baking cookbooks for Christmas and my birthday I was very keen to have a go at baking something beautiful and my brother Jonno obliged by having a birthday, providing me with the perfect excuse to try the recipe out. He isn’t much of a fan of super rich chocolate desserts but loves crème pâtissière so I substituted this SBS crème pâtissière recipe as the filling. I also did a little bit of chocolate piping instead of just using buttercream for the swirls on each puff and used icing flowers rather than the coco beans I did not have at home. Although they took a concerted effort for most of the morning and a few extra hands to make, I loved creating this dainty dessert. It was also lovely that they were very well received by family and friends alike! Thanks to Rachel Sanders from BuzzFeed who wrote out the instructions from the video clip to make it easier to write this method … which I changed a little.

Pastry Ingredients (Choux pastry):
1 cup plain flour
1 cup fresh water
113g butter
4 eggs beaten in a bowl
A pinch of salt
A larger pinch of sugar

Pastry Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 180oC.
2. Bring the water, butter salt and sugar to a boil.
3. Remove from the fire (stove top) and quickly mix in the sifted flour.
4. Return to heat for a few minutes, stirring, and cook until the dough forms a single lump.
5. Allow to cool just enough to keep the eggs from cooking and stir in very gradually with a strong wooden spoon.
6. Cover your tray in parchment and pipe the dough into spoon size dollops. You will need small, medium, and large size pastry balls (large tablespoon, teaspoon and hazelnut size dollops) to make a courtesan.
7. Bake in the oven at (180oC) for about 25-35 minutes. The smaller pastries are best put on a separate tray as they will cook more quickly.
8. Remove from the oven and discreetly make a small piercing in the choux to allow the steam to escape.

Alternate Vanilla Filling (Crème pâtissière):
1 litre milk
250 g white sugar (65g and then 185g)
2 tsp of vanilla been paste (or to taste)
50 g unsalted butter
2 eggs plus 4 egg yolks
120 g cornflour

Filling Method:
1. Combine the milk, 65g of the sugar, the vanilla been paste and butter in a large saucepan. The mixture needs to be heated gently till quite hot and then removed from the heat.
2. While the milk mixture is heating, the rest of the sugar needs to be whisked (or beaten with lovely old fashioned eggbeaters like I got for my birthday, another post to come soon!) through the both the eggs and egg yolks. The mixture will become thicker and pale as it is whisked.
3. A little of the cornflour is added to the egg mixture, which is then beaten again to combine, along with some of the hot milk (the cornflour is more easily incorporated into a cold mixture).
4. The hot milk needs to be returned to the stove top at a medium heat once the egg mixture has been added and whisked through it.
5. The whole custard now needs to be stirred constantly till the whole custard thickens. It will probably take about three minutes for the cornflour and eggs to work their magic on the milk after which you will have a beautiful thick, glossy custard.
6. The custard needs to be cooled in a clean bowl before it can be used in the pastry.

Pastel Icing:
This needs to be made in three different colours and is a simple mixture of icing sugar and milk made up to a ratio of your own choosing – it does however, need to be thick enough to stick to the pastry puffs but runny enough to drizzle artistically down the sides of each puff pleasingly. One day I will meticulously develop a recipe for the perfect ratio of milk to icing sugar and until then I will continue to guess and inevitably make a runny mess up every so often! In the movie the bottom layer is iced with purple, the middle is green and the top is pink – with the smaller balls requiring less icing.

Buttercream Icing:
I chose to make this in a soft yellow, in the movie they seem to use a cream coloured buttercream icing and a pastel blue. Made of icing sugar, butter and a touch of milk I have provided a recipe that the Women’s Weekly use in their cake decorating books but feel free to use this as a start and play with the consistency to suit your needs. The ingredients need to be beaten together before being piped onto the cake.

125g butter
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
2 tablespoons of milk
yellow and/or blue colouring

To Assemble:
1. Firstly, the puffs of pastry need to be filled with crème pâtissière using a piping bag and smallish (0.5-1cm wide) nozzle poked into the ‘cooling vent’ – the hole you cut earlier.
2. Ice the pastry puffs with colours that correspond to the picture and instructions above (… or come up with your own colour scheme).
3. Allow the pastry to set before piping decorations with the yellow butter cream (I also did some chocolate piping – although managing the temperature and runny-ness of the chocolate made this more difficult) … this could also be done after layering with less risk to the pretty filigree piping but more difficulty in maouvering around a constructed pastry.
4. Use the blue buttercream (if desired) to ‘glue’ the pastry puffs on top of each other, largest ball first, followed by the medium and the smallest (we also used kebab stick cut to size to prevent collapsing).
5. Top with a small rosette of buttercream (or chocolate in my case) and either a cocobean (as per the movie) or pretty icing flower.

Holiday Baking Revisited 2/3 – Cherry Cake

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 Cherries are one of my favourite things about summer – there is something very special about the short-lived summer stone fruit season. With a birthday that shortly follows Christmas, and a similar love of the tiny dark fruit, they seemed an apt addition to my mother’s birthday dessert this year. Early in the cherry season she had talked to a lady at the green grocers with restraint enough not just to eat the cherries straight from the bag on the way home from doing the shopping (admirable indeed, in our family’s books!) – instead using them in a delicious cherry cake. Mum’s ears pricked up, and I have to admit, my interest was piqued as well. We were on a beach holiday by the time her birthday rolled around and I decided to make a first attempt at creating a baked something that was cherry inspired. Without a fully equipped kitchen I relied heavily on this simple recipe that did not require the use of electric beaters – adding the cherries and changing the oil to butter à la Julie Powell (“… is there anything better than butter?”).

Ingredients:
2 large eggs
200g caster sugar
the finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsp lemon juice
280g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped, pitted fresh cherries
1/2 cup chopped dried cherries (optional)
250ml plain yoghurt
120g butter, melted

Cream cheese icing:
a heaped 1/3 cup of cream cheese
2 tbsp soft butter
1 cup icing sugar

Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 180oC.
2. Begin by whisking the egg and sugar together till they become thick and creamy, this will take about 3 or 4 minutes.
3. To this add the lemon zest and juice, beating till the whole mixture is combined.
4. Sift the flour and baking powder over the egg and sugar mixture, gently fold though before mixing in the yoghurt and (slightly cooled) melted butter.
5. Lastly, stir through the cherries and pour into a lined cake tin (mine was a circle about 25cm in diameter but I am sure other shapes and sizes would work with some adjustment of cooking time).
6. Bake for 35-45 minutes or till ‘done’ when tested with a skewer. Allow to rest in the tin a little before removing it and setting it on a cake rack to cool completely.
7. Blend the icing ingredients together till smooth, adjust the quantities to taste – the icing for the cake pictured was very (very) loosely measured (my only excuse is that I was on a beach holiday when I was baking it!) but I think that these quantities will give you something to go off!
8. Spread the cooled cake with this icing, decorate with fresh cherries and candles, sing and share!

Carrot Cake

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This recipe was originally given to my mum by a Canadian friend of hers. The clippings of recipes from Canadian Life magazines she gave to mum all those years ago (even before us kids came along!) had a subtle but significant influence on mum and her desire to bake things, which in turn modelled baking at home for me. Anyhow, back to the recipe at hand. The recipe specified one cup of oil as the main source of liquid in the mixture – I like moist cakes but felt that this was a lot of oil. So we tried it out with buttermilk instead. It is best not to completely replace the oil with buttermilk (the texture gets a little rubbery), but a ratio of 3:1, buttermilk to oil works to produce a deliciously light and moist cake. I had been lamenting the lack of a carrot cake in my recipe repertoire – so it was especially fun to work with mum over the holidays to modify this recipe – especially when it turned out so beautifully! So far it has surfaced as a weekly treat for lunch boxes, a birthday cake and a thankyou-and-thinking-of-you everyday type present. It is versatile and yummy and we hope you enjoy this lighter version of the classic carrot cake!

Ingredients:
… these ones go straight in the food processor … 
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup light flavoured cooking oil (sunflower or light olive oil work well)
3 eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar (I’ve yet to try one with brown sugar but think that next time I will see how this works!)
2 cups roughly chopped raw carrots
1/2 cup currents (or sultanas, I just like currents better!)

… dry mix … 
1 1/3 cup wholewheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup roughly chopped pecans (or other nuts if you prefer them)

Cream Cheese Frosting:
125mL cream cheese (I tend to use the lower fat versions, this does however make the mixture softer I think … requiring more icing sugar!)
2 tbsp softened butter
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups icing sugar (this depends on the thickness of icing you desire!)

Method:
1. Add the buttermilk, oil, eggs, sugar, carrots and currents to the food processor bowl and blend till combined and uniform in texture.
2. Mix dry ingredients with wet ones in a large bowl till all the flour is incorporated into the mixture.
3. Line a cake tin with baking paper or grease well and flour tin – I used a square one for these photographs but a lamington tin works well too and I imagine other shapes would also work well.
4. Pour mixture into the tin and bake at 180oC for about 45 minutes or till cooked through.
5. Make the icing while the cake is cooking by placing all the ingredients in a small bowl and using a hand held electric mixer to combine them. I would start by adding 1 cup of icing sugar, then adding more to adjust the texture till it reaches the thickness desired.
6. Once the cake has cooled, icing with the frosting and enjoy!