Christmas is over but the tree is still standing as I attempt to retain some sparkle during the continuing dark days.
So far, this New Year is off to a rough start. The dear old dog died and I am still not over that. I catch glimmers of her dark form shuffling here and there in the shadowy corners at the edge of the back garden. My mind is playing tricks on me.
The weather this winter has not helped to cheer me. Here, it has been hovering around freezing, or a few degrees below, for the past month or so. We have been burning through an extraordinary amount of firewood. I find it quite tiresome.
Already it is time to start working on the year-end taxes, again. Next week, that idiot to the south will step into the driver’s seat. Chaos seems to reign everywhere on earth. I find myself waking up in the darkest hours, fighting off the blasted mid-night terrors!
What’s more, the loggers are back. I can hear the whining chainsaws up the hill behind our house as the fallers work, cutting a new stretch of right of way on either side of “our” lake in preparation for more road building, more clear-cutting. It is all rather depressing.
But slowly the days are stretching out; each day a little longer than the last. It is beginning to warm up ever so slightly. The shallow layer of snow covering the ground outside is slightly softer, the texture of brown sugar, under one’s boots.
This morning I took myself for a walk in the woods behind the house, trying to absorb some inspiration from the calming forest landscape.
Last Sunday our youngest daughter turned 21 years old. Next week she will fly off to warmer islands to spend the rest of the winter travelling and exploring. I miss her already, as I miss both of my girls when they are far away. It seems their growing up has passed so quickly.
F.’s birthday, for me, marks the real beginning of our new year. This celebration is the first in a series of family events whose unfolding will take us full circle, once again, back to the beginning of the next New Year.
We celebrated the day in our traditional way. Both of our daughters were here, home for a few days. I cooked a turkey (we had eaten sushi at Christmas) and the neighbours, invited to join us for supper, each brought a dish to contribute to the feast.
For twenty-five years we have been celebrating our family member’s birthdays together in this manner. Here or there, children’s and parent’s; this is a real multi-family tradition that has developed over the years. The celebration usually takes place around a meal; lunch when the kids were much younger, supper as everyone grew older.
There were, in the past, games as well, or a walk. Most often a treasure hunt with a series of fairly complicated written or drawn clues that gradually led the group on a rambling walk through the forest, around the garden, here and there, until finally the treasure (a bag full of leftover Christmas treats or specially bought or made goodies) was located.
Sometimes the celebration would simply revolve around tea and cake. Always cake! In our family tradition, the birthday cake has always been the highlight of the celebration and so it remains.
Each family seems to have its own traditional version or two of the perfect birthday cake. Our favourites, the ones most often made in our kitchen, were some version of a light sponge cake, either a roll or in layers, very light and flavoured with vanilla or lemon or else dark and chocolate-y. Filled and frosted with some form of fruit and whipped cream concoction, often with berries, harvested in the summer and preserved in the freezer for out of season use. (Recipes follow).
The final decorating of the birthday cake was always a unique and creative masterpiece, each one different than the last. Using whipped cream, flavoured or coloured with berry juice or cocoa, garnished with sliced berries or toasted almonds, dustings of confectioner’s sugar or cocoa powder, edible flowers (rose, pansy, marigold, nasturtium, salmon berry blossom, etc.) chocolate leaves (made by painting non-toxic, strong leaves such as salal or mint with melted semi-sweet chocolate, chilling the leaves, and finally peeling the green leaf away from the hardened chocolate to reveal a delicate chocolate replica). Each birthday cake’s final embellishment, the appropriate number of candles, whenever possible.
The celebration last week was, as always, an enjoyable one. We shared the hearty meal and spent the evening visiting with our neighbours. We sang “Happy Birthday” and raised a glass of bubbly to toast the birthday girl as we tucked into slices of chocolate birthday cake.
The children of our families are adults now, some with offspring of their own. Together we will get through the last of the winter’s darkness. Together we will head into the light, sipping tea and eating cake as we do, into the longer days of spring, coming soon, just around the corner.
Easy Chocolate Cake (egg and dairy-free)
3 cups flour (unbleached, all-purpose or gluten-free)
1 ½ cups granulated sugar (or less)
2/3 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 cups cold coffee or water
1 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 Tbsp cider vinegar
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk in coffee, oil and vanilla extract. Stir in vinegar. Spoon into greased and floured or parchment lined rectangular baking tin, 13x9x2 inch; 2 or 3 round layer tins, 8 inch; or paper lined or greased and floured muffin tins (for cupcakes). Bake in a 350*F oven for 20-25 minutes or until a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean. Place tin on a rack until cool enough to handle then turn cake out onto a rack to cool completely before decorating. Rectangular cake may be split horizontally to form two or more layers. Fill and frost as desired or use cream and fruit filling recipes below before decorating as desired.
Sponge Cake Roll
¾ cup flour (unbleached, all-purpose, or gluten-free)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
6 egg yolks
¾ tsp vanilla extract (or almond extract or grated lemon rind)
1 cup sugar, divided
6 egg whites
Sifted powdered confectioner’s sugar
Combine and whisk or sift together flour and baking powder; set aside. In a mixing bowl beat egg yolks and vanilla (or other flavouring) with an electric mixer on high speed for 5 minutes or until thick and lemon coloured. Gradually add 1/2 cup sugar, beating on high speed until sugar is nearly dissolved. Thoroughly wash and dry beaters.
In another bowl beat egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form (tips curl). Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar, beating until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Fold yolk mixture into beaten egg whites. Sprinkle flour mixture over egg mixture. Fold in gently, using a spatula, until just combined.
Spread batter evenly into a greased and floured (or parchment lined) jelly roll pan, 15 or 17 inch rectangular. Bake in a 350*F oven for 12-15 minutes, or until cake springs back when lightly touched near the centre.
Immediately loosen edges of cake from the pan and turn cake out onto a towel that has been sprinkled with powdered sugar. Roll up towel and cake, jelly roll fashion, starting with either side, depending on how long you want the finished cake to be. Cool completely on a rack.
To finish, unroll cake, remove towel, and spread the cake with the filling of your choice to within 1 inch of the edges. Roll up (or gently fold) cake, and place it seam side down on a serving plate or tray. Dust with powdered sugar or cocoa, or drizzle with melted chocolate or ganache, or icing of your choice. Decorate with fruit, toasted nuts, edible flowers and leaves, or chocolate leaves.
This cake can also be baked in two or three 8 inch layer cake tins that have been greased and floured or lined with parchment paper, if you prefer a layer cake.
Chocolate Cake Roll
Prepare as above, except reduce flour to 1/3 cup and omit baking powder. Add ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder and ¼ tsp baking soda to the flour before whisking together to combine thoroughly. Fill with Chantilly Cream or Chocolate Cream Icing alone or in combination with fresh fruit or fruit filling (recipes below).
Fresh raspberries and other berries or soft fruits can be used as they are, slightly sweetened if desired, but if all you have are frozen berries, the following recipe makes a good filling for a roll or layer cake.
2 litres frozen raspberries
2-3 Tbsp granulated or berry sugar
3 Tbsp cornstarch
Sprinkle berries with sugar and partially thaw in a non-reactive sieve placed over a bowl to collect the juice. Mix a small amount of juice with the cornstarch to dissolve. Heat the remaining juice in a small saucepan and stir in the cornstarch mixture, stirring all the while. Bring to the boil while stirring and cook gently for a minute. Remove from heat and cool. Gently fold this thickened mixture into the remaining, drained, berries. It is okay if the berries are still a bit frozen. Use this mixture to fill the jelly roll sponge or between layers of cake, as is, or mixed or layered with Chantilly Cream or Chocolate Cream Icing (recipes below).
Olive’s Chocolate Cream Icing
1 cup powdered confectioner’s (icing) sugar
6 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Sift together or gently whisk together sugar and cocoa. Stir in cream and vanilla. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before whipping until stiff. Use to fill and/or frost cake layers or roll.
2 cups chilled whipping cream
2-3 Tbsp powdered (icing) sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Whip cream, gradually adding sugar and vanilla extract until mixture is stiff. Do not over-whip. Use alone or with fruit to fill and/or frost cake layers or roll.