Today marks the shortest day of the year, where the sun, our source of warmth and light, is furthest from us. Living in a city, in the modern world, with electricity and lights and all kinds of noises blocking out the silence, it's easy to forget that we still live in bodies that have cycles, on a planet that has cycles. Years ago, before all of that stuff existed, as the nights grew longer, and the cold grew deeper, imagine what a blessing that marker would have been: a turning point! The beginning of winter!! I imagine how, even though the coldest months are still to come, that little bit of light that's growing in the sky is not just a marker of the passing of time but a beacon urging us forward when the darkness and cold might cause us to despair. Winter is a time for nourishment. For relaxing and sleeping and taking care of yourself. For walks in the cold with a hot drink in our hands and for the smells of things baking to fill our houses. Winter is time to get back to our roots. Literally. To feel our feet on the earth and follow them underground and maybe even curl up for a nap, right there, wherever we are.
This morning I went for a walk before dawn. The poplar trees across the street are shedding their leaves- every minute one does its little death dance, falling to the concrete. I pressed my face against their bark, and inhaled a deep breath, and felt like I was being pulled into the earth by their roots, and the falling of leaves. It was intensely nourishing, like my body was drinking in the earth, and by the time I was ready to leave, the sun had emerged, casting orange light over the world around me. I wandered back inside and made myself a coffee, then leafed through cook books for a while, trying to decide what to make today.
Which brings me to fir. Kiva had sent me some of her white fir needles, and I had a bunch of Douglas fir branches sitting around being lovely and delicious, and I was desperate to bake something with the two combined. Since today is the most dense day of the year, and marks the first day of winter, I figured something dense and coniferous tasting would be perfect. A sweet stodgy elf bread that one could wrap up and take on a long hike if needed. I'm happy to say that it turned out just as I'd hoped. Dense, not too sweet, with a coniferous flavour that isn't entirely overpowering, but is most definitely pronounced.
Where can you get your own fir needles? Look around you. Check on the internet to see what grows in your area. If you don't have white and Douglas fir, try spruce (also delicious!) or pine. Taste the needles: each tree has a different flavour, and this flavour varies throughout the year too. Not only that, but if you gather extra, you can grind them up to make tea, which is one of my favourite things to sip on all winter. It's really high in vitamin C, as bright and beautiful as (and even better tasting than) green tea, and each citrusy sip connects you to a forest out there. With each sip, you're drinking in the nourishment that you get from resting your weary bones against a tree for a while, or curling up against a big gnarled root to take a nap. With each sip, and each deep breath, you're connecting to a cycle that is older than we can possibly fathom. The darkest of days can be lit by the brightness in each cup. And that, to me (and you?), is a comforting thought to take into my wintery slumber.
Adapted from Home Made
4 tb butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/3 cups flour
1/4 cup really super finely chopped conifers (I dry them first, then give em a whiz in the blender or coffee grinder)
1 1/2 cups strong black tea
1 1/2 cups dried fruit (I used half sultanas, and half candied citrus peel)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/8 cup finely chopped conifer needles
1/4 cup water
In a saucepan, heat up the black tea. Add the dried fruit, and half of the chopped conifers. Simmer on the stove until most of the tea is absorbed, and the fruit is nice and plump (about 1 hour). Remove from the heat, strain the raisins, and set aside the tea.
Preheat the oven to 350.
In a bowl, beat the butter, then add the sugar, then the egg, plus about 1/4 cup of the remaining cooking liquid. Stir in the raisins, then add the rest of the chopped conifers, the baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Then add the flour. It should be quite a thick batter.
Pour into a greased loaf pan, and bake for 1 1/4 hours, until a knife inserted comes out clean.
While the loaf is cooling, prepare the drizzle. Mix the ingredients together in a saucepan, and heat until the sugar is melted. Remove from heat, and allow to cool for a few minutes, then, using a spoon, drizzle it over the cake.
Can be served slightly warm, in slices, with a pat of butter. Can also be wrapped up and taken on long winter walks, to be eaten under a tree.