Welshcakes for St David

When I was an undergraduate, I spent three years living in a College that did not like its students to cook and as a result provided rudimentary kitchen facilities, which generally consisted of a plug-in electric hob and a microwave. This set-up not being conducive to baking in the strict sense of the term, Welshcakes (which can be griddled or shallow-fried) became my signature offering for puddings, tea parties, bicycle rides and any occasion (or none) when cake was required.

Welshcakes, then, are for me one of those foods that unlock many fond memories. They’re also a bit of a family tradition – the recipe I use came to me from my Grandmama, who is half Welsh (as was my Grandfather, which I only found out this week, thus making me two eighths Welsh).

These are simple cakes, but deliciously moreish. I also enjoy the process of making them – rubbing the fat into the flour, patting out the dough, cutting the circles, frying, flipping and letting them cool at least long enough not to burn any tongues! It forces me to slow down and simply immerse myself in the ritual of it all.

An annual excuse to make Welshcakes is St. David’s Day (1st March) – the feast day of the patron saint of Wales. This year, it is providing me with an excuse to make Welshcakes to take on a walk in the hills to escape the city and to fuel a planning meeting for a conference I’m organising in April.

A quick note on ingredients: traditionally, Welshcakes are cooked in lard, which gives a distinctive flavour and texture, but in order to be able to feed vegetarians (as St. David himself was), I usually end up cooking them in butter, which is delicious in a different way. A variation which works well is ‘Christmas Welshcakes’ with dried cranberries and perhaps some finely grated orange zest.

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Welshcakes

8oz / 100g self raising flour

tsp ground mixed spice (you can buy a jar of mixed of sweet spices or use any combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, according to your taste)

pinch salt

3oz / 75g demerara sugar

4oz / 100g cold butter, cut into 1cm cubes

3oz / 75g sultanas or currants

1 large egg, beaten

a little milk if needed

Lard or butter for cooking

Sift flour, spice and salt into a bowl, stir in sugar, then rub in the butter until crumbly.

Add the fruit, and then the egg to form a firm dough (adding milk if needed).

Roll or press out on a floured surface to 5mm / 1/4″ thick. Cut into rounds.

Heat a heavy frying or griddle pan and rub with lard or butter. Cook the cakes over a low heat for about a minute on each side – until lightly brown.

Leave to cool.

NOTE: the pan should be heated first, then the heat reduced to cook the cakes.

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Puttanesca for Mary Magdalene

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If I hadn’t gone into researching pictures, I would have loved to be a food historian. Maybe I can find a way into it in years to come. In the meantime, together with my Dad, one of my irregular diversions from PhD-land is collecting or inventing recipes to mark feast days.

Today, 22nd July is the feast of Mary Magdalene. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s been looming large in my research recently (although I’ve just finished working on that chapter for the time being) and I’m an alumna of her College, so it’s a good feast to mark.

I’m not aware of any tradition of a particular foodstuff for her feast day, but I have invented my own:  spaghetti alla puttanesca is such a remarkably appropriate dish that one almost wonders if it was created for this very occasion. The name literally means “whore’s pasta.” It is said to have been created in the red light district of Naples, though its red colour and spicy chilli make the name appropriate whatever its precise place of invention. Likewise, the colour matches the red garb and hair of images of Mary Magdalene.

Biblically speaking of course, Mary is not identified as a prostitute, but thanks to Gregory the Great and centuries of religious writers and artists, she is conflated with various other women in the Gospels so that we think of her as a penitent prostitute.  Aside from the name, many of the ingredients of puttanesca can also be linked to Mary Magdalene.

Recipe for two portions

Start by heating the olive oil from a small can of anchovies; you may find that you do not need all of the oil. The oil recalls Mary’s association with the anointing of Jesus, though your fellow-diners probably will not welcome you using any remaining anchovy-infused oil for that purpose!

When the oil is hot, reduce the heat and slowly sauté finely sliced garlic. When softened, add the anchovies, chopped, a can of tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes if they are plentiful), capers (the observant may notice I didn’t manage to get hold of any today), olives (I believe they ought to be black, but I only had green in stock) and chilli to taste. Capers are tear-shaped, so they evoke Mary’s identification with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and her lamentation at the death of Christ.

Leave the sauce to simmer while you cook your spaghetti (NB. you may need to allow longer for the sauce to cook if you are using fresh tomatoes, so make sure you don’t start cooking your spaghetti too early, or you will end up with soggy pasta).

The spaghetti recalls the hair of the women anointing Jesus’ feet. There are thinner varieties of spaghetti called capellini “thin hair” and capelli d’angelo “angel’s hair,” but you need the more robust spaghetti to hold the sauce.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, check the sauce for seasoning and combine. Serve sprinkled with parsley. This garden herb serves as a reminder that it was in the garden that Mary encountered the risen Christ on Easter morning, mistaking him for a gardener. Parsley is one of the easiest herbs to grow at home, even if, like me, you only have a windowsill and some potted herbs from the local supermarket.

More feasts to follow at irregular intervals.