Of Festivals and Cakes

Did you know that snakes emerging from their dens was the original weather omen of spring? Punxsutawney Phil and groundhogs are new to the game, perhaps a tad cuter, but the timing is traditional. For those of us north of the equator, it’s the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.  In the Irish tradition, it’s called Imbolc.  Others may observe the Feast of St Brigid (the Irish goddess Brigid, later Christianized), plain old Groundhog Day or Candlemas/Purification of the Virgin. The obligatory tomb in Ireland aligned with the rising sun flashing in on the dates of Imbolc and Samhain (Halloween to most) can be found in County Meath.

As it generally marks the beginning of spring, this festival is a time of new beginnings – first ploughing, first planting, new romance, pregnancy of the herds. Time to clean out winter by burning the greens brought home at solstice. Hearth fires, candles, or a bonfire if the weather permits, represent the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun.

And, as with all the festivals, special cakes are baked. 

I enjoy giving a nod to the seasons and I’m not quite up for the gardening chores yet – so, baking it is. I’ve been pondering what kind of special cake to bake to acknowledge the season – a horridly rich chocolate cake as a contemporary consideration of special or throwback to tradition with a bannock or soda bread?  I also have an oat scone recipe I love (no light fluffy sweet muffin imitations in a triangle shape here, a scone that has substance) and oat cakes fit the traditional concept while large round scored bannocks today can be considered a scone. Like everyone else, I’ll do my soda bread next month. And, if I’m going to make it, I want to enjoy it. So, although original griddle cooked bannocks were unleavened and made with only barley or oats – I’ll go for a more contemporary take on a Bannock recipe that’s more pleasing to today’s (and my) palate. This version could be called a scone – it is very light and flaky, like a good biscuit, but not sweet like some of the marketed scones you might find.

Bannock, adapted from Gourmet’s all white flour recipe at Epicurious.com

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting
½ cup old fashioned oats (the kind you cook for 5 minutes to get oatmeal, no instant)
½ cup whole wheat flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small squares (less than an inch) NOT room temp, think pie dough or biscuit
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
3/4 cup diced dried cranberries, raisins or currants
Preheat oven to 450°F.

Given that I like the ease kitchen appliances bring, I prefer to do use my Cuisinart when crumbling butter with flours. I use the 4 cup Cuisinart Pro Plus compact Food Processor; I don’t cook for huge groups often so this totally meets my needs. When I do this recipe, I do it in parts. I place the whole wheat flour, oats, butter and 1 cup of the flour in my smaller processor and pulse in bursts until the mixture resembles coarse meal with small lumps.

I then place 1 cup AP flour, the baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in my mixing bowl and whisk those. Add the crumbly butter mixture from the processor in and blend.  If you have a larger processor – just toss all the dry ingredients in the bowl with the butter chunks and pulse. If not using a processor, whisk together flours, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a bowl and blend in the butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender. Like a biscuit or pie dough, the lighter your touch, the flakier this will be.  Pour in buttermilk, stirring until the dough just comes together. Add your dried fruit.

You might need some of that additional ¼ cup of flour now.  I like my dough just a tad sticky so I don’t knead it so much as give it a few good rolls while in the bowl then just let it sit 5 minutes. Note that it also can’t be so sticky that you can’t shape it or get it to your baking surface.  I shape mine on a floured surface and pat it into a 1 ½ to 2 inch-thick round that I score.  

Bake it on a pizza stone (an ungreased baking sheet works as well). Bake in the middle of the oven until golden, about 35 minutes.

Transfer bannock to a rack and cool to warm. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

I’m resurrecting this post for two “favorites” parties. It’s now August and we’ve just passed the harvest festival of Lughnasadh (Aug 1st) – the time of first harvest and celebrations of gratitude to ensure the impending harvest is plentiful and safely reaped before winter sets in. Those of us blogging no longer consider late rains, issues of mildew or early frosts. But here in wine country we’re still connected to the seasons for the continued health of the local economy, I know the vintners breathe a deep sigh of relief after their successful “no rain” no mildew” harvests and each winery hosts their own parties to celebrate. In Europe and Ireland people continue to celebrate the holiday with bonfires and dancing. The Christian church established this day as ritual of blessing the fields. As bannock is traditional for this harvest as well, thought I’d pull up this post and bake one myself. To see other bloggers favorite posts, check out Half Past Kissin Time’s Saturday Sampling or the Gallery of favorites at 21st Century Housewife.

Standing stone photo from Wikipedia.

This post is being reborn at the Gallery of Favorites that Alea at Pre-meditated Leftovers hosts with April of The 21st Century Housewife