The Teacup Chronicles

Month: December, 2011

Beautiful 2011

The last hours of 2011 seem a perfect time to take a minute and look back and celebrate its beautiful moments. I got this idea from Shari who got the idea from Eireann, and perhaps you will get the idea from me and the celebration of beauty will continue on.

The warm air is turning the snow to mist today, which seems continuous with the clouds, giving one the impression that they are living in a cloud world. It seems fitting, as the hours of one year, with their ghosts and memories, laughter and tears slip away into the foggy visions of what is yet to come.

Here is a look back at my year:

January

Playing with citrus, playing with snow

February

Frosty window panes,  flowers, and love potions

March

Martha’s Vineyard, soups, seaweed and smoothies

April

Sprouts, wild greens, root beer and ramps

May

Flower essences, apple blossoms, wild spring eating, rhubarb

June

Birthday picnics and visits from old friends, walking barefoot, fresh radishes and jewelweed

July

Verdant salads, black raspberry malts, herbal waters and spoonfuls of sweetness

August

Home to Michigan, cloud gazing, meals outside

September

Harvesting apples and elderberries, off to Maine for the Common Ground Fair, mulled cider on cold nights

October

Caramel apples, squash, long walks in the woods, beautiful foliage, spicy breakfasts

November

Beautiful moon, beautiful light, first heavy snow, pomegranates and fisherman’s food

December

Lazy Sunday mornings, gift making, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

Here’s to another beautiful year!

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Winter Spice Granola

Today was very cold – cold as in, when I went for a walk, the hair sticking out from my hat accumulated a nice layer of silvery frost by the time I got home.  My breath came out in great plumes of smoke; inhaling was almost painful and the stairs on the porch creaked disconcertingly when I walked down them, as if they might snap in two.

I’m not complaining, though. I like the cold. Or maybe it isn’t so much that I like the cold, as I like being made aware of how nice it is to be warm. I like bundling in coats and scarves, hats and mittens;  I like the sensation of cold against my warm cheek; I like holding cups filled with warm things in my hands; I like the ability to huddle next to something that warms me to the core.  Warmth is so lovely.  But it couldn’t be so without the cold. The cold is what makes it that way.

So as today is particularly cold, it’s brought to mind how much this time of year is really a celebration of that warmth. We take the light and the warmth missing from the winter’s chill darkness, and we recreate it within. We fill our homes with light, with cheer, with the warmth of fires and ovens and bodies gathered together. We eat warming spices; we bake and roast and stew and fill the house with delicious aromas and the sensations of pure comfort. Therein is where all the sacredness of these days before the Solstice lies, holding the energy of the sun in our homes until it begins its slow return again.

And of course, the oven is the center of all of this activity, the place where all the sensations of merriment and sacredness are born – the wafting aromas and comforting flavors that weave the spell of Christmas over everything. It feels almost like a sacrilege to not have something baking or roasting in the sweet warm depths of the oven in these days leading up to the holidays.

So I’ve been baking. I like to make baskets of homemade goodies to give out for Christmas (an idea that I congratulate myself and curse myself on in equal measure as the days tick away), and you will find me in my every spare moment this time of year stirring pots of jam, baking cookies, melting chocolate and looking all together disheveled and somewhat frantic. But those days are just as much the celebration to me as the opening of presents and the Christmas dinners.

Today I made this granola, which I adapted from a recipe I quite like from Lucid Food by Louisa Shafia, and I would make it again even if it weren’t so delicious just for the aromas it filled the house with. Laced with orange zest, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and mace; chocked full of figs, cranberries and currants and sweetened with honey and a generous measure of brandy – it is the flavors and aromas of Christmas all tied into one – like figgy pudding with an oaty crunch. A perfect way to honor the sun God hibernating your oven, and fill your home with cheer.

Winter Spice Granola

Packaged into pretty bags and tied up with ribbon, this granola makes a wonderful present, but do save a little for yourself to munch on as you frantically run around in these hectic pre-Christmas days.  

  • 4 cups rolled oats
  • 2 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 2 cups almonds or hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1.5 teaspoons allspice
  • 1 teaspoon mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • zest and juice of 1 orange
  • salt
  • 1 cup honey or maple syrup
  • 1 cup unrefined sunflower oil
  • 1/8 cup apple brandy
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 cup dried black mission figs, chopped
  • 1 cup dried currants

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.

Combine the nuts, oats, spices, orange zest and salt in a large bowl and stir well. Add the sweetener, oil, orange juice, brandy and vanilla extract and combine well.

Spread the granola evenly onto two baking sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, stir well, and return, rotating the pans. Bake for another 20 minutes, at which point he granola should be nearly dry. If it isn’t, return to the oven for 5 minute intervals until it is.

Add the dried fruit to the pans and stir to mix, and then return to the oven for an additional 5-7 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let cool completely for packaging into airtight containers.

Evergreen Shortbread and Tea

For me, the holidays are like a collection of  aromas and flavors, each with their own warm associations and awakening sense of sacredness to the season. Orange, cloves, ginger and cinnamon; the alcoholic perfume of brandy; the heady smoke of frankincense and myrrh. But I think there is nothing that smells more like Christmas than the earthy perfume of the evergreen – like a deep breath of forest on a crisp and frosty morning.

Perhaps it is because, for me, this time of year is all about the evergreen. It takes me back to the ancient days when we celebrated the movements of the sun and the moon and gave thanks for the simplicity of things that reminded us of life when days were dark and cold. Then, it was the evergreen that was the star of the festivities – the sacred tree that filled our hearts with the hope and joy that only green things can.

Throughout the winter, I find myself drawn to them. I instinctively walk up to the hemlock forest behind my house, slipping their green fronds between my fingers, inhaling their mysterious perfume, getting my hands sticky with their fragrant resin. I remember a teacher once telling me that the evergreens, with all their many fine needles, were like the nervous system of the earth – connecting us to all the subtle vibrations of the stars and the universe. She asked us all to place our backs against a mammoth white pine we were gathered around, and it was as though you could feel some strange and wonderful energy flowing through you, moving from earth to heaven and back again. “When you feel disconnected from yourself, ungrounded, cut off from the heavens – you only need visit a pine,” she said.

Trees have often been likened to the lungs of the world and I think evergreens especially so. Their needles and branches are filled with a sticky sap like resin whose volatile oils are clearing and antiseptic to our own lungs, helping us to breath. They are warming and moving and even the smell alone seems to clear one’s head, allowing one to awaken, to be more present – as though a fog were suddenly cleared away.

While I have always admired the evergreens – the spruces, the hemlocks, the firs, the pines – and always especially loved the tradition of honoring them, bringing one indoors and making my house feel alive with the spirits of the forest – I have never done much playing with them for medicine or food. I’m not sure how I missed such an opportunity. Their perfume has so much potential to brighten up the kitchen, their medicine so much potential to heal.

Yesterday, I made my first amends towards remedying such an awful oversight: a sprue and pine needle tea, simple and fresh and lovely – with a plate of spruce needle and sea salt shortbread. I sat by my tree and enjoyed them in the fading afternoon light, feeling grateful on so many levels, for the many gifts of our beautiful needled friends.

Evergreen Tea

  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped evergreen needles (spruce, pine, fir, hemlock are all fine)
  • 1 quart water

Place your water and evergreen needles into a saucepan over high heat with a lid on. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn off the flame and let the tea infuse for 20 – 30 minutes. Pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove the needles and enjoy, sweetened with a touch of honey if you wish.

Evergreen and Sea Salt Shortbread Cookies

Adapted from the shortbread recipe in River Cottage Everyday, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Placed in a little bag and tied with a green ribbon, these would make a lovely holiday gift. Makes about 12 cookies.

  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter, cut into small chunks and softened
  • 1/4 cup unrefined organic cane sugar
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped evergreen needles (I used spruce, but pine would be nice too)
  • 1/2 teaspoon course sea salt
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2/3 cup organic corn starch

Beat the butter, sugar until pale and creamy. Add in the evergreen needles and sea salt and mix well. Sift in the flours and cornstarch, using a fork to stir together into a smooth dough. (You can also do all this in a food processor using a dough blade).

Place the dough between two sheets of parchment paper, and roll to about 1/4 inch thickness. Transfer to the fridge and chill for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Use a cookie cutter dipped in flour to cut cookies into desired shapes. Any flour left over should be re-rolled between parchment and chilled for an additional 20 minutes before cutting and baking. Place cookies on a parchment paper lined baking tray and bake until just lightly colored and firm to the touch.

Remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little extra sugar and salt and let cool for a few minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.  These can also be frozen for later use and keep splendidly that way.