Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dark, But Not Stormy

It was a dark and stormy night.  Scratch that.

Just dark.  Not stormy... but, really, really dark.  And quite still, except for the beating of my heart.  Or is that the creaking of my knees?  No, wait.  It's someone knocking at my door.

As I approach, moans, groans and cackles begin to emerge from the other side.  I reach for my chocolate gun.  Better to have some protection than none at all. Opening the door, I peer out, cautiously.

A hideous claw attempts to push its way through the opening.  In the darkness, my eyes can just barely make out three, or maybe it’s four dim figures lurking in the threshold.  There's no need to ask who they are, and I know they've only come for one thing.

Ah, this time of year, it seems as if it's always been this way. But has it, really?

What if I’d opened my door in Celtic Ireland 2,000 years ago at the end of October?  Well, first of all, I'd never have opened it if mischievous spirits had come a’knocking.  For as all good Celts, I'd be in the midst of celebrating Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), a festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the year’s darker half. 

For as summer and autumn's bounty was fading into winter’s scarcity, everyone knew that the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead would overlap.  And it all came together on Samhain (our October 31), the very last day of the Celtic year. For it was on this day that the ghosts of the dead could return to Earth, seeking vengeance on their enemies before moving on to the next world.  With spirits lurking and bent on revenge, you bet I'd wear a mask or costume to disguise my identity.  Who wants to be recognized by souls seeking vengeance?

Then, in order to ensure getting through another tough winter, I'd light a great bonfire and leave offerings of food, drink, livestock and crops to appease the roaming spirits.  Everybody knows that a little bribery can be good for the soul.

And what world would I have found beyond my open door had I'd answered that knock in 9th Century England?  Well, for starters, Samhain would be down and out, but not forgotten.

Pope Gregory III, in an attempt to ease the Celt's transition from pagan practices to Christianity, decided to establish a sacred holiday on the 1st of November to honor Christian saints and martyrs called "All Hallows' Day" ("hallows" meaning "saints").  And this holiday happened to make October 31st, "All Hallows' Eve," which was later shortened to – you guessed it – "Hallowe'en."

But let’s make one last trip back again to my doorstep on that dark and not so stormy evening. Imagine my door opening instead, onto an evening in medieval England. It wouldn't be trick-or-treaters I'd be meeting. Instead, I would have baked “soul cakes” – small, round cakes topped with the mark of a cross.  Filled with raisins or currants and often seasoned with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and ginger, the cakes would be given away to poor folk going door to door on November 1st, in what became known as "souling," or receiving cakes in return for prayers for the dead. 

What we’d begin to recognize today as trick-or-treaters, wouldn't actually appear until the 19th century.  Known as "mumming” or "guising,” young people, dressed as ghosts, demons and other supernatural creatures would sing a song, recite a poem, or tell a joke – performing their "trick" before collecting a “treat” of fruit, coins or nuts.

Now, as we all know, most tricksters today would probably say nuts to the fruit.  And as for the coins, well, at least you could go out and buy some more candy.

But if candy’s not your game, well, I have something really special for you.  And I promise, no trick in this treat, but you may have trouble just eating a few.


Serves – hard to say

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons crystallized ginger (finely chopped)
1 teaspoon fresh ginger (peeled, minced)

6 tablespoons salted butter (room temperature)
¼ cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg

raw turbinado sugar

Set rack to mid-oven and preheat to 325° F.
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, ground, crystallized and fresh gingers in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the softened butter, brown sugar and egg with a hand mixer until light and fluffy.  Add the flour mixture and mix just until blended.

By heaping tablespoonfuls, roll each cookie into a ball, then dip only the top into the raw turbinado sugar.  Place on baking sheet and flatten each cookie gently with the bottom of a glass.

Bake 15 minutes until cookies are slightly puffed and pale golden brown.
Transfer to rack to cool.

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