Tag Archives: Midlent

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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Bracellae, or Your April Book of Days

In our Lenten journey of 40 days, we have reached the midpoint. This past Sunday was Midlent, Laetare Sunday. In the UK, it was Mothering Sunday: Mother’s Day. A simnel cake is what’s traditional there for the occasion. But in our house, we made pretzels. Homemade, from scratch, from simple ingredients. The pretzels were delicious, and they are the cover stars for your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for April. The calendar is a PDF document, printable on standard US Letter size paper, and a fine companion to the Convivio Book of Days blog.

My family has been making pretzels each Lent for a couple of years now, for we enjoy projects like this, and, as luck would have it, the humble pretzel is the perfect Lenten food. At their most basic, pretzels are made with just three ingredients, all Lenten-friendly: flour, salt, and water. We add shortening, too, and ale to the water for boiling. What’s more, 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 chest: 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 perhaps to the 6th century. Some historians think pretzels may be even three centuries older yet. And so while Lent will still take up the better part of this month, take some time to make and enjoy some pretzels. It’s a fun and rewarding family project! At the end of this blog chapter you’ll find our recipe; plan ahead, for the dough needs to rest overnight in the refrigerator.

Oh and please come see us this Sunday, April 7, at the Springtide Festival & Makers Marketplace at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton! We’ll be there with all of our springtime offerings from the Convivio Bookworks Catalog––all our new handmade paper egg containers and handmade chenille chicks from Germany, handmade pysanky from Poland and the Ukraine, our Sabbathday Lake Shaker herbs and teas, Royal River Pottery by Seth Thompson, and more. Besides us, there’ll be about 18 other makers and small boutiques, plus live music all day by Rio Peterson (Smiths and New Order covers!) and by the Lubben Brothers, (our great local band of bluegrass/folk triplets), games and crafts (learn how to use natural dyes to color eggs), and the most amazing doughnuts. The market starts at 10 AM and runs through to 4:30 PM. Free admission and free easy parking… just follow the blue and white MAKERS MARKETPLACE signs that will be posted on FAU campus roads that day. It’s the last market at FAU until the fall. My mom will be there, my sister will be there, and did I mention amazing doughnuts? Some people come to the markets just for the doughnuts. Seriously. Plus they’re just great fun. You should come, and if you do, please say hello to me. For updates, here’s the Facebook event page for the market.

My suggestion for a perfect weekend for the locals? Make pretzels on Saturday, come to the Springtide Festival & Makers Marketplace on Sunday. Sure sounds good to me!

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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Ye Olde Simnel Cake

SimnelCake

The Simnel Cake is a tradition in England for Easter, but simnel cakes actually have their origin in traditions for Laetare Sunday, or Midlent… which also happens to be Mothering Sunday there. As Lent is a moveable time, so is Laetare Sunday and Mothering Sunday, but this year it is tomorrow, Sunday March 6. The day marks the midpoint in the Lenten journey, and it brings a change in attitude: We switch for this one day from solemn purple to joyful rose. And much like Mother’s Day here in the States, Mothering Sunday is a day to honor our mothers. Tradition would have you visit your mother and bring her a simnel cake.

And so here is a recipe for simnel cake from the BBC. For sure you will find many recipes to choose from online, but the idea is generally this: a light fruit cake made with layers of marzipan. And for those of you who like a little culinary history with your culinary creations, here’s the history of the simnel cake as recorded in 1869 in the Chambers Bros. Book of Days. Enjoy, and get baking:

 

Simnel

IT IS AN OLD CUSTOM in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and especially at Shrewsbury, to make during Lent and Easter, and also at Christmas, a sort of rich and expensive cakes, which are called Simnel Cakes. They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things. They are made up very stiff; tied up in a cloth, and boiled for several hours, after which they are brushed over with egg, and then baked. When ready for sale the crust is as hard as if made of wood, a circumstance which has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have at times been treated by persons to whom they were sent as presents, and who had never seen one before, one ordering his simnel to be boiled to soften it, and a lady taking hers for a footstool. They are made of different sizes, and, as may be supposed from the ingredients, are rather expensive, some large ones selling for as much as half-a-guinea, or even, we believe, a guinea, while smaller ones may be had for half-a-crown. Their form, which as well as the ornamentation is nearly uniform, will be best understood by the accompanying engraving, representing large and small cakes as now on sale in Shrewsbury.

The usage of these cakes is evidently one of great antiquity. It appears from one of the epigrams of the poet Herrick, that at the beginning of the seventeenth century it was the custom at Gloucester for young people to carry simnels as presents to their mothers on Midlent Sunday (or Mothering Sunday).

It appears also from some other writers of this age, that these simnels, like the modern ones, were boiled as well as baked. The name is found in early English and also in very old French, and it appears in mediæval Latin under the form simanellus or siminellus. It is considered to be derived from the Latin simila, fine flour, and is usually interpreted as meaning the finest quality of white bread made in the middle ages. It is evidently used, however, by the mediæval writers in the sense of a cake, which they called in Latin of that time artocopus, which is constantly explained by simnel in the Latin-English vocabularies. In three of these, printed in Mr. Wright’s Volume of Vocabularies, all belonging to the fifteenth century, we have ‘Hic artocopus, anglice symnelle,’ ‘Hic artocopus, a symnylle,’ and ‘artocopus, anglice a symnella;’ and in the latter place it is further explained by a contemporary pen-and-ink drawing in the margin, representing the simnel as seen from above and sideways, of which we give below a fac-simile. (N.B.: For Convivio Book of Days readers, that image is presented above.)

It is quite evident that it is a rude representation of a cake exactly like those still made in Shropshire…. It is curious that the use of these cakes should have been preserved so long in this locality, and still more curious are the tales which have arisen to explain the meaning of the name, which had been long forgotten. Some pretend that the father of Lambert Simnel, the well-known pretender in the reign of Henry VII, was a baker, and the first maker of simnels, and that in consequence of the celebrity he gained by the acts of his son, his cakes have retained his name. There is another story current in Shropshire, which is much more picturesque, and which we tell as nearly as possible in the words in which it was related to us. Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, but their surnames are not known. It was their custom at Easter to gather their children about them, and thus meet together once a year under the old homestead.

The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough which had been from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they should use the remains of the Lenten dough for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there were still some remains of their Christmas plum pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust. So far, all things went on harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose, Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked.

The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell, not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up, and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who on his part seized a besom, and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed as a compromise that the cake should be boiled first, and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom. Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name was alone pre-served and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel, or Simnel!

Images: Photo from the BBC; Simnel cakes engraving from the Chambers Bros. Book of Days, Edinburgh, 1869.

 

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