Category Archives: Lent

Halfway through Lent

It is Midlent on Sunday, Laetare Sunday. In the church, colors will switch, just for today, from somber purple to joyful rose: a reward, perhaps, for getting this far in the forty day journey that takes us from Ash Wednesday to Easter. In the UK, it is Mothering Sunday: Mother’s Day. In times past, this was the day to visit your mum and bring her a simnel cake; nowadays, the simnel cake seems more often transferred to Easter Sunday. It’s a beauty of a cake with a long history, hundreds of years, at least to the time of our favored Book of Days poet Robert Herrick, who was probably eating simnel cakes every spring in the 1600s.

It is a light fruit cake, decorated with eleven balls of marzipan: they represent the twelve apostles, minus Judas Iscariot. If you’re interested in making one, here’s a link to a Convivio Book of Days post about Midlent from the past; it includes a fascinating story about the cake’s origins and a link to a recipe from the BBC (which is also the source of the photo).

This time of Lent is known in Italy as la Quaresima, and I always look at the two words and think the Italian is so much more beautiful. It falls off the tongue like a dance, while the word “Lent” is so spare, so empty. Be that as it may, the Italians know it is a lean time. The symbol for la Quaresima is a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones, called la Quaresima Saggia… an old sage, known not for her beauty but for her wisdom. It is a wise person who understands that we must get through lean times, get through trials, to become better versions of ourselves. Back when food sources were less reliable than they are now, this period of late winter into early spring was always a lean time. A Lenten fast was pious to be sure, but it grew out of a matter of necessity.

While the restrictions of Lent in earlier times were stringent, the rules nowadays are much less so (and perhaps this comes as a result of the food of this earth being more plentiful). In times past, it was no meat for 40 days, no eggs for 40 days… pretty much not much of anything for 40 days. One of my favorite things to make each Lent, though, is perfectly acceptable no matter how strict the fast: pretzels. They are a perfect Lenten bread, made, at their most basic, with just three ingredients, all Lenten-friendly: flour, salt, and water. Our recipe adds leavening and shortening to the dough (all Lenten-friendly), plus ale to the water for boiling… and the Church never had a problem with ale, which, for most of our history, was safer to drink than water. As a bonus, there is symbolism, too (and I love symbolic foods), for the classic pretzel shape of this centuries-old bread evokes the prayer posture of early Christians, who prayed with their arms crossed over their chest. Go ahead, try it right now, then look down at your crossed arms: classic pretzel shape. In fact, the name “pretzel” is thought to be derived from the Latin bracellae: “little arms,” essentially. This penitential bread has a history that goes back much further than the simnel cakes mentioned above. People have been making pretzels since at least the 6th century, and some historians think pretzels may be three centuries older yet. Below, you’ll find our pretzel recipe. They’re fun and easy to make and a great project to tackle as a family, for who doesn’t love a warm, soft pretzel? We encourage you to give the recipe a try.

A reminder, too, about our Springtime Stock-Up Sale: at the Convivio Bookworks catalog, $10 off everything in the shop when you spend $65, plus free domestic shipping when you used the discount code BUNNY at checkout. New arrivals and other springtime offerings include handmade paper egg containers from Germany (perfect for your jelly beans and malted eggs come Easter!), handmade wooden bunnies from Germany to help welcome spring, as well as handpainted pysanky eggs from Poland and Ukraine, and handmade chenille chicks from Germany for your Easter basket. “Handmade” is the theme for almost everything we offer. Use the BUNNY discount code also toward all of our Shaker teas and culinary herbs, toward our selection of Ramadan and Eid cards from Hello Holy Days!, toward our beautiful triple layer face masks from Chiapas… everything we sell.

We’re halfway through Lent… enjoy the rosy day. Now go ahead, make some pretzels!

P R E T Z E L S
2 cups warm water
6 teaspoons yeast (two 1/4 ounce packages––we recommend rapid-rise yeast)
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
6 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons course salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter (or shortening), cut in pieces, plus more butter for the pan (or vegetable oil cooking spray)
1 bottle ale or beer
1/2 cup baking soda
Course salt for topping, plus poppy seeds & caraway seeds (optional)

Take note, this recipe is best begun the night before you intend to make the pretzels. First, add yeast and 1/2 cup brown sugar to a bowl, then add the warm water. Let yeast mixture get foamy (about 10 minutes).

Next, mix the dough. Mix the flour and course salt in a bowl, then add the butter; mix until crumbly. Add yeast mixture and combine until the water is absorbed. Next, knead the dough on a board (or use a mixer with a dough hook attachment for this step, which makes things a lot easier). Once the dough is smooth and elastic, let it rise in a bowl (it will grow considerably, so use a large one). Wrap the bowl in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 8 hours.

When you’re ready to shape the pretzels, roll the dough out into a rectangle; it should be about 14 inches in one dimension and 12 inches in the other, which is important if you want pretzels that are uniform in size (and if you don’t care about uniformity, make them any size you wish, which is what we did on Sunday). Cut the dough into twelve 14″ strips. Roll each into a rope double in size (so, at least 28″ long), then form into whatever shape you like. For a classic pretzel shape, form each long rope into a U, twisting the two ends in the middle twice, then fold the twisted portion down and press the ends of the ropes into the circular part of the pretzel to seal. Set each pretzel on the baking board or on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450º F. In a large pot, heat 8 cups water, ale (feel free to have a sip or two, so long as most of the ale ends up in the pot), baking soda, and remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar to a slow boil. Simmer pretzels, one at a time, for about 30 seconds, holding each below the surface with a slotted spoon, if necessary. This step is what gives the pretzels that delicious combination of crusty exterior and soft, chewiness inside. Transfer each simmered pretzel to a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle pretzels with salt, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, or some combination of toppings. Bake in the upper half of the oven for 5 minutes, then rotate baking sheet and bake 4 to 6 minutes longer, until the pretzels are dark brown. When done, cool on a wire rack… but these are best served warm, so let them cool for just a few minutes. You’ll get 12 large pretzels from this recipe. If that’s too many, the finished pretzels freeze really well. To enjoy them later, thaw and reheat in a 300º F oven until crisp.

 

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Pancakes Tonight!

It’s a bit sobering to think that Carnevale, at this time last year, was probably the last large gathering of people on a grand scale on this planet since February of 2020. Health concerns keep us keeping our distance. This year’s Carnevale festivities in Italy have been much more subdued… probably just as they were in times of plague in ages past.

Carnevale, or Carnival, began on the 30th of January this year in Venice. In English speaking countries, the season is better known as Shrovetide: the time of merry making before Lent begins. And Shrove Tuesday is today: the very last of it, capping off the celebration. Tomorrow will bring Ash Wednesday and a decidedly more solemn time: Lent, forty days of fasting and penance and reflection. Which is perhaps something we need every now and then. Certainly once a year, it was thought, and why not now, when the larders were getting empty. Back in the days when food was not as plentiful and easily procured as it is now, Lent was not just a season in the church calendar; it was a crucial time of fasting to help get everyone through until fresh food could be gathered again in the spring.

There are many traditions in foodways for Shrove Tuesday, known also as Mardi Gras. I’m not so crazy about the King Cakes that are in bakeries and grocery stores this time of year––they’re a bit too sweet for my tastes, with all that purple and green and yellow sugar. But the Polish bakeries will have pączki today, a rich filled doughnut, and the Swedish bakeries will have cream filled buns called semla. If they’re doing things right they’ll be selling them today but definitely not tomorrow and not again until next Shrovetide. In Germany, it is Fasnacht, and folks will be making doughnuts for the occasion this night (nacht) before the fast.

Seth and I, we’ll be making pancakes for our supper, and that is an old delicious tradition, one designed for times when Lent was much more restrictive than it is now. Nowadays all that the church asks of you is to pass up on meat on Fridays, but in ages past, folks had to give up meat for all forty days, and also eggs and all kinds of things we take for granted now. Making pancakes for supper on Shrove Tuesday was a way to use up all the eggs, all the milk, and all the sugar before the next day’s dawning brought Lent. We eat our pancakes with festivity and celebration. (Pancakes for supper? Of course they’ll be eaten with festivity and celebration!)

In the morning we awake to Ash Wednesday. I think a lot of us will choose to stay home this year, but typically, the churches are open, and if we have it in us, we go, and we approach that altar to have ashes smeared on our foreheads with the spoken reminder: Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return. Something we’ve pondered, in one way or another, most all of this past circle around the sun. We are made of the stuff of this earth and we shall return to it. But the stuff of this earth is made of the stuff of the stars, too, and that is something greater to ponder. If nothing else, these forty days that follow tonight’s pancake supper will hopefully remind us that life is short, and we would do well to live the time we have with compassion and kindness for our fellow human beings (and all sentient beings, as Seth’s mom says), and to love each day, and, as we like to say here, to live the ceremony of each day, too.

Image: “Shrovetide,” a painting by Igor Novikov, 2013. No pancakes or semla or pączki to be found in the picture, but it’s ok; I do love the painting. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

MASK UP SALE! We’ve begun a brand new sale at Convivio Bookworks today! Buy any four or more of our beautiful triple layer embroidered face masks and you’ll automatically save 24% plus free shipping! It’s practically like getting one mask free (and all of them shipped to you for free, too). And if you need us to ship to destinations outside the US, email us first and we can make arrangements to ship for just $1 per mask. These triple layer masks are made by an extended family of artisans in Chiapas, Mexico, who truly appreciate every sale. So please throw a little transactional support their way if you can, while helping to keep yourself and those around you safe so we can gather again someday without thinking twice about it. We’re calling this one the Mask Up Sale. Click here to start shopping!

Click on the picture to see a full size version of it! The masks pictured here are the floral ones, but we also have other designs featuring calaveras, Frida Kahlo, Maria Bonita, Our Lady of Guadalupe, sugar skulls, Otomi-inspired flora and fauna, mandalas, and maybe even another one or two that I can’t remember off the top of my head.

 

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Waffles & the Measuring of Days

Who knew, when it began, that 2020 would become the year of small pleasures? With the 25th of March, I can offer you a small pleasure we can all rally around: waffles. The 25th is Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation. And through a matter of linguistic misunderstanding, the day has become known as Waffle Day. That part I’ll explain later. For now, though:

W A F F L E S !

Waffles have a very long culinary history. If we’re being loose about definitions, we can take their provenance all the way back to Ancient Greece, where savory flat cakes were cooked between heated plates. There is a connexion, too, to the communion wafers that nuns make for churches (and certainly some shared etymology in the words wafer and waffle). But the classic cake that we think of when we hear the word waffle was a staple in many parts of Europe for centuries, and especially in the Netherlands, where waffles developed their distinctive honeycomb pattern in the 13th century. The Dutch cooked waffles quickly on heated patterned irons… and still we cook waffles this way today.

The “Belgian” that we so associate with waffles today is not so much an origin story as it was clever marketing: one of the food vendors at an early 20th century World’s Fair was a waffle maker who made and sold his waffles and rather than offer his customers forks and knives, he showed them how to eat them the same way his Belgian mother taught him: out of hand. It was a bit of a novelty, so he gave them a new name: Belgian Waffles. Clever guy.

Now, back to Waffle Day. The 25th of March brings an important religious celebration––the Feast of the Annunciation, also known as Lady Day––and in a strange twist of linguistic fascination, it has become a traditional day for waffles. For this tradition, we traipse from the Netherlands across Germany and Denmark, bound for Sweden, where Lady Day becomes Our Lady Day, or Vårfrudagen. Which, as luck would have it, is awfully close in both spelling and pronunciation in some Swedish dialects to Våffeldagen, which means “Waffle Day.” As a result, Swedes, for centuries, have been eating waffles on the Feast of the Annunciation, which marks the day that the angel Gabriel came to Mary to deliver the news that she was to bear a child, a son, and that that child would be the light of the world, the son of God.

It was a day of high significance in ages past: For centuries, throughout Catholic Europe, the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 was considered the start of the new year. Even Ancient Rome celebrated the new year at the spring equinox. But eventually the original Roman calendar, used for centuries, fell out of sync with realtime astronomical events. Time is a tricky thing. We know it’s there and that it spirals on and yet its measurement in hours and days and years is a construct that we invented. And so Julius Caesar, when he instituted the Julian calendar that was designed to correct the original Roman calendar, set January 1 as New Year’s Day. This he did in honor of Janus, the Roman god who looked backward and forward, into the past and into the future. Things continued on this way for many more centuries until the medieval Church, which saw things differently from Rome, moved New Year’s Day back to March 25, in concert with Lady Day.

But even the Julian calendar was flawed and as the centuries passed, this became strikingly apparent. Easter was falling out of sync with spring. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, which reformed the Julian calendar and corrected its miscalculations. It is the calendar we use to this day, much more accurate and in sync with the sun, although it still drifts a bit with meanderings that are corrected by complex rules (for instance, only millenia years that are divisible by 400 include leap year).

With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, October 4, 1582 was followed by October 15, 1582 (a necessary step to put the calendar back in its proper season). Pope Gregory also moved New Year’s Day back to January 1. It seems folks were still celebrating the old Roman date anyway, at least popularly if not officially, and this move made New Year’s Day official.

But all this reform, coming from a Catholic pope, was not welcome in Protestant England; Queen Elizabeth was not about to take orders from Rome about how her days were to be measured. England (and her colonies in America and elsewhere) continued with the old Julian calendar and continued marking March 25 as the start of the new year for nearly 200 years more, until Parliament passed the Calendar Act of 1750, and in 1752, January 1 became the official new year and Wednesday, September 2, 1752, was followed by Thursday September 14, and we begin at this point and for a long while after to see British and American almanacs listing the dates of holidays and including their Old Style dates, as well.

It all gets very muddy and confusing. And, to be honest, much more than I ever cared to tell you about. But hey, here we are, confined to our homes with time on our hands. Calendars seem almost unimportant these days, no? I suspect most people felt the same way in earlier, simpler times. As long as the church in town rang its bells to help us keep track of our days, what matter was it to the rest of us what time it was or what day?

Aside from the waffles and aside from the Christian celebration of the Annunciation, the traditional March 25 date of this holiday has long held significance in the calendar. The 25th came on the heels of the Vernal Equinox: a time of new beginnings. The equinox still today brings the traditional Persian new year, Nowruz, a celebration that has only ended but a few days ago. But the 25th of March has long been considered a mystical day in Judeo Christian tradition. It was considered by many through history as the first day of creation, the day of the expulsion from Eden, the day the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, the day of the beheading of John the Baptist, and the day of Christ’s crucifixion.

All this in the midst of lent, our annual season of penance and reflection. It was Laetare Sunday this past Sunday. Clergy were saying mass to cameras in most places, not people, but if you saw them they were dressed in rose vestments. Laetare Sunday marks the midpoint of lent, a pause in the somberness. Purple, the color of lent, is replaced by rose. In the UK, it was Mother’s Day. Midlent there is traditionally a Sunday to visit your mum and bring her a simnel cake. Again, a pause for joy.

Lady Day offers us a bit of that, too. We may be nine months to the Nativity but we are nine months, as well, to the Winter Solstice. In the cyclical year, this is the season of opening and rebirth. The open earth receives the seeds that burst forth into new growth. Mary conceives her child at this season magically, having “known not a man,” just as the earth goddess of the old ways did at this same time of year. And so the Vernal Equinox brings both rebirth (the Green Man, leafing out in plants across the landscape) and conception (the Sun Child, who will be born at the Winter Solstice). The connections between Pagan and Christian roots are deep indeed and this, perhaps, is just as it should be: all our history, bound up together into one very long, fascinating spiraling story. Sometimes that story says, “Here: stop, have a waffle.” No need for forks or knives.

Image: “Vrouw met een wafel bij een raam” (Woman with a Waffle by a Window) by Godfried Schalcken. Oil on panel, circa 1668. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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