Seasonal baking - Christmas Cake, Christmas Tree Biscuits, our daily bread of sourdough wholemeal, and Psomi, a Greek form of baguette that will be used to make croutons for Caesar Salad.
The origins and reasons for the dating of Christmas are contested, although it seems that it was not entirely coincidental that the period of the northern hemisphere winter solstice was chosen over other possible dates. (Such as March 25 – in itself a 'natural' date because it is close to the northern spring equinox). Be that as it may, in this part of the world the festival falls at the summer solstice, and the foods of the season are very different from those in cold northern latitudes.
I think the summer solstice is worth celebrating in its own right, for this is a special time of the year, when the earth is closest to the sun, and the delicious first summer fruits of garden and orchard have returned again. So now when I think about 'Christmas' food, I think about whatever is best in this season, and making the most of it.
I make an exception for rich fruit cake and spicy biscuits, which are good any time of the year. So on December 23 I baked some Christmas Tree Biscuits (flavoured with ground cardamom and almond essence) and my usual Christmas cake. This is Alison Holst's Easy Mix Christmas Cake from her Christmas baking book, and it really is easy and quick. It has no creaming of butter and sugar, no spices or essences, and yet it is the best as well as the easiest Christmas cake I have ever made, rich, moist and full of flavour from the kilogram of dried fruit it contains, which is soaked in a mixture of rum and sherry for 1-2 days before making the cake.
A summer solstice dinner - light, fresh and tasty
My other solstice food is much more seasonal. Now is the time of year to revel in raspberries, strawberries, currants, cherries and other first summer fruits. It is not the time for stodgy northern food, and so once again I look to lands bordering the Mediterranean for inspiration on what it is good to eat that suits our climate and our bodies. Hence we had a light Christmas dinner which owed much more to Greece, Lebanon and Morocco than it did to England at any time of the year. There was a salad of asparagus and avocado dressed with a lemon juice and olive oil dressing flavoured with the Moroccan herb and spice mix za'atar, a pâté of butter beans, tzatziki (grated cucumber and chopped dill in thick yoghurt), olives and a delicious Neudorf sheep cheese. The pâté and tzatziki were scooped up with pita bread which was crisped in the oven.
Dessert was the remains of the raspberry trifle (made with the first picking from our raspberry canes) which was served to guests on Christmas Eve. I put thin layers of fresh raspberries and raspberry jam made from last year's crop between the thick layers of sponge cake that has been well sprinkled with sherry, make a thick custard to go on top of that, and top it all with with a layer of whipped cream decorated with fresh berries. It never fails to please!
Christmas Tree Biscuits are so-called because (if they are cut into suitable shapes and have a hole made in them before they are baked) they make good tree decorations. I iced some, sprinkled them with silver cashous, and hung them on a branch of holly for a seasonal decoration.