"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." -- Annie Dillard

Friday, November 8, 2013

My Little Chickadee

I see these little guys on the bird feeder outside my kitchen window everyday now!

Happy Fall.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Apple Cake ... and Avalon

This time of year there are always apples in my kitchen, and the cooler weather makes me want to bake... here's an easy recipe for an apple cake!  Not sure where I got this recipe, but it's always quick and yummy.

1.5 cups sugar
.5 cup vegetable oil
.5 applesauce (natural unsweetened)
3 eggs
2 cups flour (white or whole wheat or a mix)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
.5 teaspoon ground cloves
.25 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
.5 teaspoon salt
3 cups chopped apples -- 3-5 medium apples
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts or other nuts, toasted

Notes on ingredients:
  • The nuts are optional but delish!  Toasting them is also optional but really does make them more flavorful in any recipe:  Spread them on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast in 350 degree oven 8-10 minutes or until wonderfully fragrant.  
  • I like lots of spice -- I am heavy-handed with the cinnamon and cloves and probably put even more than listed here -- adjust to your own preferences.
  • You can use all applesauce (1 cup) and no oil -- it will work and reduces the calories.
  • You can also substitute a "Splenda"type baking blend for part of the sugar to reduce calories and sugar, but if you use only Splenda your cake will be dry.
  • What type of apples?  I use Fuji or Gala for most things, but any that would be good in a pie would be good for a cake, in my experience!  (Red Delicious, not so much).

OK, recipe is easy:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease and flour a 13x9x2 baking pan/dish.

Mix the sugar, oil/applesauce, and eggs, and beat until very smooth, about one minute.  Stir in all the other ingredients except the apples and nuts.  Stir until well blended.  Then fold in the apples and nuts.  Pour into pan and bake about 40 minutes (more or less depending on your oven).

You know to poke a cake with a toothpick to see if it's done, right?  If the toothpick comes out clean, your cake is done.  Start checking a few minutes before the time is up, b/c you don't want to overbake and dry it out!

This cake is delicious and moist without frosting, but if you want you can frost it with cream cheese or caramel frosting, or just dust it with powdered sugar.  Ummm, the little chunks of apple in it are wonderful!

This cake freezes well, but the way, to warm up for another day for snacks or even put in lunch boxes.  Happy baking!

While we're thinking of apples... did you know that Avalon means Apple Isle?  The magical land where ExCalibur was forged was the blessed island of souls in the far western sea, Innis Afallon, bathed in the golden light of the setting sun.  The west was the realm of magic to the ancient British -- the direction where the sun descended into darkness and there was nothing but miles of sea.

The apple is a talisman.  Why is the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden an apple in our minds?  Europeans imagined their magical apple, the fruit of the blessed Avalon, although peaches and oranges were more likely in the Fertile Crescent!  (In the Middle East they do have quince, a relative of our apple that is sometimes called a "golden apple.")  In old Europe, chopping down an apple tree was a crime punishable by death.

In Greek mythology, The Garden of the Hesperides was the goddess Hera's orchard in the far western corner of the world, where trees bearing immortality-giving golden apples grew.  A guardian serpent twined around the tree... hold that thought...

In Norse mythology, the goddess Idunna (IĆ°unn) guards a grove of golden apples that are the source of the eternal youthfulness and immortality of the Norse deities.  Many other mythologies reflect this image of a guardian goddess, a giver of life or immortality, beside her fruit tree in a garden.  She is the distant version of Eve, beside the Tree of Knowledge, offering the apple that grants knowledge/consciousness... Apples are a symbol not only of fertility, but also of knowledge... and the serpent was to most cultures a symbol of wisdom and eternity, not deceit...

Long ago, when I was taking my first mythology class at Millsaps College, I was walking with my teacher in late afternoon, as an autumn sunset approached.  As we crossed a high place, she looked out over the campus bathed in golden slanted light, and remarked that this light always made her think of Avalon, the golden isle far to the west -- that this slanting autumnal sunshine is why Avalon's apples are golden.  Thank you, Catherine Freis, for that image I carry with me and for so many other gifts!

I went out to the hazel wood,  
Because a fire was in my head, 
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,  
And hooked a berry to a thread;  
And when white moths were on the wing,  
And moth-like stars were flickering out, 
I dropped the berry in a stream  
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor 
I went to blow the fire a-flame,  
But something rustled on the floor,  
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl  
With apple blossom in her hair 
Who called me by my name and ran  
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering  
Through hollow lands and hilly lands, 
I will find out where she has gone, 
And kiss her lips and take her hands;  
And walk among long dappled grass, 
And pluck till time and times are done, 
The silver apples of the moon,  
The golden apples of the sun.
-- W. B. Yeats

What to Do on November 1: Roasting Pumpkin Seeds
So, it's the day after Halloween and what are we doing today? (besides eating candy)... roasting pumpkin seeds!

Maybe you've had those snack pumpkin seeds they sell in the grocery store... they're kind of pricey, and it's easy to roast your own... since you have a pumpkin around anyway!

1 - Scoop and separate:  After we scooped out all the pumpkin guts last night and carved our jack-o-lantern to protect our house from evil spirits :-) I saved all the seeds and guts in a big bowl.  Then when I got a chance I separated all the seeds from the gooey stuff.  That's not as hard as it sounds.  Even though it's all slippery, it's pretty easy to separate out the seeds just by scooping up the stuff and sort of rubbing and straining it through your fingers.

2 - Soak:  I put the seeds in a smaller bowl and covered them with a couple inches of water to sit overnight.  The seeds float to the top, so in the morning you can clean them further by gently stirring and straining with your fingers.

3 - Dry: Then I drained the seeds in a colander and rinsed them one more time, then spread them out on a tray to dry a bit.  They don't have to get completely dry, but it helps to let them dry out mostly.

4 - Roast: Finally just roast them!  Which means coat them lightly in oil -- you need only a spoonful or so -- rubbing the seeds to coat them all.  Then sprinkle with salt or whatever seasonings you want.  Spread them in a thin layer (single layer if possible) on a baking sheet and roast at 325 for 10-20 minutes, stirring about halfway through.

The time can be tricky, because it depends on your oven... the outsides don't need to totally brown but they will get crispy!  The trick is not to burn the inside seed -- test one to see if they're done.  The outside should be just starting to brown, crispy and easy to crunch.  The insides stay green, not brown.

5 - Snack!:  Sprinkle with a little more salt or seasoning, and munch! Instead of salt, you can try other spices: cardamom, garlic salt, chili powder, cumin, even sugar and cinnamon, are all good to try.

Pumpkin seeds are VERY good for you, BTW.  They have protein and healthy fats and lots of minerals including zinc and potassium.  I've heard they are especially good for men's sexual health because of the zinc  :-)

Ever tried roasting the pumpkin seeds? or cooking a fresh pumpkin?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Between the Worlds: The Origins of Halloween Final Part: Witch's Wisdom

The figure of the witch is now an integral part of Halloween in our minds, but she may be a relatively late arrival.   How she got there is a story extremely long and complex.

I suspect that originally witches were just another of the various supernatural beings thought to walk or fly about the earth on Halloween.  Witches tended to get confused with sorcerers, who, since they may supposedly used evil spirits to carry out their work, would be particularly active on this night.

The Real Witches - Wise Old Ladies in the Woods?
Some today regard the so-called witches of old Europe as simply survivors from the pre-Christian, nature-focused religions of the ancients; in other words, pagans who revered nature and Her cycles. The idea of older, traditional folks living off in the woods, continuing their seasonal celebrations, magical beliefs, and herbal medicine, is not far from our image of the witch:  The old lady off in the woods, talking to her cats and working her magic spells (recipes and healing potions?)

As Christianity gained ascendancy in Europe, witches were reinterpreted through Church dogma of the time and came to be viewed (incorrectly) as Satan-worshippers.  Many of the popular (and often incorrect) notions about witchcraft derived from supposed "confessions" extracted by torture from the accused "witches" of earlier centuries.  Most who were executed as witches during the "burning times" were most likely "strange" old ladies living alone in the woods, the mentally ill, midwives and herbalists, people who followed the "old ways" of the Celts, women whose remarkable ugliness or beauty brought attention.....those whose "difference" aroused suspicion in a fearful, ignorant, and tumultuous age.

The Witch's Cauldron
The witch's cauldron represents the "cauldron of Cerridwen" of Celtic myth, source of wisdom and rebirth -- and the direct symbolic predecessor of the Holy Grail.  In myth often the seeker was cut up and boiled in the cauldron, to emerge again reborn in wholeness, health & wisdom.  (But thanks to Shakespeare for the line, "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!")

The cauldron and later the Grail were believed to be guarded by a hideous woman-beast.  In many Celtic stories it is through this terrifying creature that the magic vessel is finally encountered, and only the person who can accept and kiss her can gain access to the wisdom and renewal she guards. 

This image of the old witch hovering over her cauldron embodies beautifully the original symbolic meaning of Halloween (and doesn't she remind you a bit of Hestia at her eternal hearth-fire?). 

Here we confront perhaps the ultimate riddle: By embracing the pain and struggle of life we gain wisdom and greater strength.  Embrace the dark to find the light.  At Halloween, as winter approaches, the world comes face to face with the power of death and darkness, which holds within it the promise of rebirth.  On the wheel of the year, the cold stillness of the coming winter will take us around again to the warmth and renewal of spring.

Behind our holiday called Halloween lies the eerie, magical mood of the ancient festival of Samhain and All Hallow's Eve.  Perhaps we would do well to remember some of its original meaning -- not to conjure up real fears again, but rather to rekindle a feeling of wonder toward the great cycle of death and rebirth in nature and in our lives.

Have a JOLLY HALLOWEEN! May fortune smile on you!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween Customs Part Eight: Cats and Bats and Owls, Oh My!

If you are a cat lover like me, a favorite symbol of Halloween is a Black Cat!

Cats have long been the objects of much superstition, and they are frequently associated with Halloween.  Cats were sacred to the Druids of ancient Ireland and Britain.  It was believed that they had once been human beings.  A person who was truly noble and blessed might deserve the honor of being reincarnated as a cat!  And of course cats themselves have nine lives...

Perhaps the cat had magical power because it was supposedly the most common "familiar" of witches (probably just the favorite companion of old ladies living alone). Talking to cats and birds was one sign of being a witch -- I would be in trouble!

Feline behavior towards a person on Halloween was taken as an omen.  For example, if a cat jumps into your lap on this night, good luck is foretold.  Probably more prevalent is the belief that cats, particularly black cats, can be ill omens.  Everyone in the U.S. has heard that a black cat crossing your path means bad luck ahead.  Did you know a white cat brings good luck?  As the owner of several black cats in my life, I consider them lucky too.

The bad reputation of the cat may have been a medieval Christian reaction against the honor given them by the pre-Christian Druids.  Medieval Christians burned cats along with accused "witches" ... leading to an overpopulation of rats, which bred fleas, which carried the bubonic plague that killed a third of the population of that's bad luck.

 Bats and owls are associated with Halloween probably because they are nocturnal -- active only at night.  Perhaps they join the spirits to fly about the night sky. 

Owls were for thousands of years associated with knowledge and wisdom, especially feminine wisdom.  Owls were a symbol for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and of many goddesses before her.  So they are a fitting companion for the witch, the Old Wise Woman.

And she will be our last topic in our Halloween feature series: Between the Worlds Origins of Halloween and Its Customs ...

Friday, October 25, 2013

Origins of Halloween Part Seven: Pumpkins and Jack O' Lanterns

Pumpkins are of course another agricultural product always associated with Halloween.  Like apples, they are plentiful in October.  Also like apples, they were sometimes used for divination.  Some ladies put pumpkins on their heads at midnight on Halloween, to see their future husbands!  Having seen the inside of a pumpkin, I don't think this is worth it!

There is an Irish story explaining the origin of jack-o-lanterns:  It seems a man named Jack was barred from heaven because he was so stingy and forbidden to enter hell because of his practical jokes on the devil. The devil, angered by Jack's practical jokes, threw a live coal at him.  It landed in a half-eaten turnip in Jack's hand, creating the first jack-o-lantern.  (Early jack-o-lanterns were turnips as well as pumpkins and other gourds.)  Jack is condemned to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgment Day! Closed out of hell as well as heaven, he is suspended between life and death, and thus his jack-o-lantern is particularly appropriate to Halloween, the night when we're "Between the Worlds."
As a child in the southern U.S. I was told (teasingly) that the grinning pumpkin face in the window helped frighten evil spirits away from the house.  Although this may keep away the spirits of the dead, it seems to have little effect on the pranksters -- young people who become demons for a night and roam the neighborhoods making mischief.  Halloween provides an irresistible opportunity for the practical joker.  If the farmer's outhouse ends up in the creek, or your trees end up full of toilet paper, it was the evil spirits who did it --  a perfect alibi for the real culprits. 

Again, the limits placed on day-to-day behavior were weakened for a night -- sort of a social stress-relief valve.  Some once-common Halloween pranks, such as window-tapping, gathering vegetables (now eggs) to bombard house fronts and drop down chimneys, and removing carts and other belongings to faraway fields, were practiced in altered form in the United States when I was growing up (with the variation, of course, that we took things from the garage and left them in other neighbors' yards).  Soaping windows (especially car windows), stealing jack-o-lanterns, and "rolling" yards (adorning the trees and shrubs in toilet paper) are still popular.  Today, most of it is of course harmless, although I do wish people wouldn't smash jack-o-lanterns!

Were you ever a Halloween prankster?

To be continued..... more to come about Halloween and Halloween customs and traditions:
Black Cats, Witches, Bats & Owls!

The vintage Halloween images in this article are courtesy Lunagirl Images! 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Origins of Halloween Customs Part Six: Seeing the Future

Because it was the beginning of the Celtic new year and a time when the everyday and the supernatural were believed to be in such close contact....Halloween was considered the perfect time for divining the future.  The divination traditions associated with Halloween are numerous and fascinating!

MIRRORS:  There were many superstitions involving mirrors. Some believed that if a young woman looked into a mirror at midnight on Halloween, she would see the face of her future husband or true love. A smooth pond surface or wishing well reflection would also work! There were similar beliefs about looking into a pond or well at dawn on May Day (Beltane). Others might gaze into the mirror at midnight on Halloween and see their future revealed.

Mirrors and reflections were long considered magical and mysterious, because the reflection was associated with the soul of the person reflected; a mirror could capture or reveal one's soul.  Some of us are still a little superstitious about breaking a mirror!

APPLES:  Halloween divination usually involved apples, nuts, grain, or other agricultural products, combining the harvest aspect of the holiday with its magical nature. When bobbing for apples, some believed that the first person to get an apple would be the first to marry.
 Apples were particularly popular, and the apple rites seem to be the customs most often found in the United States.  To the Celts, a perfect apple was the charm by which one might be admitted to the Otherworld and gain "second sight."

Many customs involve apple peels. For example, people would peel apples trying to keep the peel all in one piece; whoever had the longest peel would have the longest life. Young girls would peel an apple and then throw the long peel over their left shoulder, believing that it would form the initial of their future husband's name! (Have you ever heard that one?)

What Halloween customs and superstitions did you have at your house?

To be continued..... more to come about Halloween and Halloween customs and traditions!

Still to come:
Pumpkins & Jack-o_Lanterns
Black Cats
Bats & Owls! 

The vintage Halloween images in this article are courtesy Lunagirl Images!