As I write this, I have my back turned on my office and kitchen, both of which have been completely devastated by my tornado-like working methods, which go something like this: ‘start one thing then another then another then another then forget what you were doing, make a snack, then decide to write a blog post and if you don’t look behind you then the mess doesn’t exist, right?’. I might not be the most efficient person in the world, but I don’t think that was ever a question.
Drivers in Morocco aren’t quite like drivers here in California. Our driver on the 3 hour drive from Tangier to Chefchaouen drove in the middle of the road the majority of the way, swerving into the right lane at the last minute for oncoming traffic. He stopped at a Mosque to pray for 20 minutes, and pulled over again, half an hour later, to hack up a lung and spit it onto the shoulder. When the road turned steeply up into the mountains, the old diesel engine slowed to little over 15mph, and we chugged higher and higher, while cars whizzed by too close for comfort. And then the driver coughed for a minute, pointed up ahead and said, through a toothless smile, ‘Chaouen’.
(thoughts on fear, on adventure, on doing it regardless and tips on how to float like a jellyfish)
Jam and I raised our anchor in Ibiza and cast off at 2am, in the pitch black of a night when the moon had already set. The outline of Ibiza rock hung heavy on the horizon, outlined as black nothingness set against the backdrop of the milky way. A backdrop without disturbance, blotched with nebulae. Shooting stars shot by overhead every minute and the sea around us was dead, silky calm, save the drone of our engine. A couple of miles out, a mist arose from the warm sea, entirely covering horizon line, hanging low all around us.
After an especially stressful six weeks, during which Jam and I hardly saw each other, we packed up the car and drove north east, into the Sierras, to our favourite little camping spot. As we drove higher, the air got cooler and lighter. Sometimes you don’t notice that you live somewhere smoggy until you take a deep breath elsewhere and it makes your heart race and your eyes tear up for the purity and clean-ness of it all.
Sleeping under the stars (nothing beats falling asleep looking up at trees and stars!), cooking over fire (why does fire make everything taste so much better?), lots of lounging around in hammocks reading, and lots of wandering off into the wilderness, and napping on blankets as the cool mountain breeze blows through the aspens and spray from a nearby waterfall moistens the air. Jam slept for about 15 hours a day (restorative rest!), and I woke up at first light too excited to sleep any longer because there was so much to look at. We made wild teas over the fire; all the currants were in bloom. We washed in the river and found secret, sacred spots that looked more like something from a Miyazaki film than real life. A much-needed disconnect from everything life-related, during which I plagued my husband questions and statements like:
“How do you fall asleep at night if there’s still stuff to do?” and “How can you be up here when you know there’s work to be done?” and “Sometimes I work until 1am because I have to finish my to-do list and then I can barely move from exhaustion the next day.” and then he said, very wisely “You can never get everything done; nobody can. You just have to switch that part of your brain off and start it back up when you get back to work.”
I have brain-segmenting homework to do. In the meantime, here are some pictures…
(in which I dish out a recipe for the best rice in the world, talk about teaching, and hawk my herb blend)
As I write this, a big pot of elderflower champagne is fermenting away in the corner. Its bubbling noises permeate the quiet of my living room. Its a familiar kind of thing, comfortable, like having an old friend snoring in a chair. Tomorrow I’ll put it in a carboy and let it ferment for a bit longer, and then I’ll bottle it in champagne bottles and painstakingly wait. More about this process soon, most likely nest week. In the meantime, lots of things are happening. That class that I was so nervous about? It went well. Spiffingly well. Heart-soaringly well. Jump-up-and-down squealing kind of well. I think that public speaking terror can be overcome entirely by making sure one is speaking on a topic that one is well and truly infatuated with. In this case, I was talking about elderflowers, in an outdoor fort created by a big willow tree. And there’s another class this coming weekend, at the Roots of Healing Herb Fest. If you’re in Los Angeles, please come– it’ll be a wonderful day chock a block full of interesting classes. Mine? Mine is on five local plants that I use in my practice, with a little intro about why I think its so important to use local flavours. You know, stuff I could talk about for hours…
And speaking of local flavours, I’ve been playing around with a few things lately:
- Herbes De Californie is being re-stocked as we speak (as I type?). A frantic spring of gathering white sage, black sage, rose petals, bay leaves, and sagebrush. This is my stronghold, my go-to-best-friend of a spice mix. The thing that makes it onto every roast and every pizza and every side. Because of this, I’m usually out by November, and needless to say, the finishing of it usually results in minor tears. I am so happy to have it back.
- California sweet everlasting, one of my all time favourite smells, is working its way into an experimental mead. Am excited and nervous to see how this one goes. Wish me luck?
- Currants. Its such a simple little thing, but when I was leafing through Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I realised that one of the staples of Middle Eastern cooking is dried fruit. All of these cuisines that have such rich, exotic and frankly delicious histories utilise a combination of flavours, and I like that dried fruit provide the sweetness or the tang in the Middle East. A couple of days later I was out wandering in the wilderness as I’m often prone to do and stumbled upon this season’s first wild currants. Usually I bake with them because, well, I’m me, and I like anything sweet, but with the dried fruit thing in mind, I brought them home and set them out in the sun to dry. Once they were dry I put them in a jar and labelled them, and they sat there next to my gathered pine nuts and gathered acorns and store bought dates and apricots. I know that drying fruit is not remotely a novel concept, but to me, in that moment, it was a revelation. After said revelation I promptly cooked them all into my favourite rice dish. Rice, saffron, mixed herbs, sun dried berries, its perfect, and pretty simple to make.
I’ve been eating this rice in a multitude of different ways. My favourite is with chicken, hot off the barbecue, its flesh infused with that hot charcoal smoke flavour, drizzled with a yogurt and garlic sauce. My second favourite is on its own, with more of that yogurt sauce, and a handful of whatever fresh vegetables I can find in the fridge– usually right now its a mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes. Its also perfect with lamb, and flank steaks with a grape leaf chimichurri sauce.
Ottolenghi’s book has some steps that I’ve eliminated because I just didn’t notice such a dramatic difference as to warrant, say, mixing in the saffron at the end into half the rice, so that its a pretty blend of white and yellow. I happen to like the colour yellow and so I mix it in at the beginning, where I can forget about it. Other than that, its pretty similar. No foraged currants that you painstakingly sundried on your own? The original recipe calls for barberries, which I have stocked in the pantry at all timof es anyway. You can get them at a Persian market or online at Mountain Rose Herbs. You can also use dried oregon grape berries which I have done and found delicious. And if you have none of these and desperately need to make this now, use dried currants, though I do warn you that they won’t be as tangy, wild tasting or exotic.
Herbed saffron rice with sun dried local currants.
Adapted loosely from Jerusalem
2 tb butter
2 cups basmati rice
2 1/3 cups boiling water
1 tsp saffron soaked in 3 tbsp boiling water for about 30 mins
1/4 cup dried currants or barberries
small handfuls of herbs: bee balm, tarragon, cilantro, parsley– about a cup total, all chopped finely.
salt and pepper
1/2 cup crushed pistachios (optional– I’ve both used and not-used them and both ways are good)
Melt the butter, in a saucepan and throw in the rice. Stir to make sure they’re all coated with butter, then add the saffron water, and about 15 seconds later, the rest of the water. Add salt and pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon of each), cover tightly and reduce the heat to a very slow simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes then remove from the heat, stir in the currants or barberries, and cover with a towel and then the lid again. Leave off the heat, like this, steaming for another ten minutes, then take off the lid and stir in the chopped herbs. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper as need be. Transfer to a serving dish, and sprinkle with pistachios. Serve either hot or at room temperature.
And sometimes life is both normal and exciting:
1. From the couch in my living room where I write, looking out the window, the flower stalks of my big white sage plant can be seen shooting up towards the sky, waving in the wind. Every morning I run outside to see how many new flowers have appeared. It is often the highlight of my morning until something else appears in the garden. I am easily amused, it seems.
2. My plant collection is growing. With each new arrival, I place them on the dining room table, and arrange a meeting, during which I shout ‘Welcome, Friends!’ and introduce them to each other. Then I show them around and show them where they will be living and ask if these accommodations work for them. I think this is an unnecessary step but it is now a part of the routine and so it stays.
3. Things are happening. I’m teaching two classes coming up: one with my friend Emily on May 5th (that’s next weekend, folks!) and one on May 25th at the Roots of Healing Herb Fest in Topanga Canyon. The first is on elderflowers and it will be spectacular; the second is on five local herbs that I use a lot, and I am trying not to panic at the thought of speaking in front of people. I figure 31 is as good as any age to rid myself of the residue of trauma caused by having to do an impromptu speech in Mrs. Leisk’s primary six classroom, and the humiliation of standing there for the full three minutes almost completely silent while people sniggered.*
4. Its been hot. Surprisingly hot. Ridiculously hot. Sit on the floor in your underwear eating ice cubes hot. Finally around 5:45 this evening the air cooled down enough for me to open the windows and throw the curtains back. A couple of hours of light and air streaming into the house, while the fires burn around LA, while the earth shakes (earthquakes and fires… is this the end of the world?), while the scent of smoke fills the air, and while Jam’s first day of directing (A real movie! His own movie!) is blessed with the flipside of the air-quality coin: perfect hazy light. While us Angelenos (yes I have finally called myself an Angeleno) sniff and scratch our irritated eyes and wonder about the fragility of this delicate balance that is life (at least I am). In our dry, parched state, gasping for water, gasping for air, with emotions on edge and the metallic clang of air conditioner units and screechy voices shouting at each other in the Friday afternoon traffic. That’s what today felt like to me: metallic, clangy, irritated. *coughs*
5. It was with great relief this evening that I slammed the front door and shut out the rest of the world. With greater relief that I threw open the windows to let some cool air in. Even smoky evening air, as it is. And even more so to make a strong cup of tea and open up the container of my new favourite cookies. The white sage seeds were sent to me by my friend Ginia who lives in Northern California and is a plant whisperer if ever I’ve met one. I’ve been holding onto them trying to decide what to do. In something sweet their flavour is delightfully delicate. I made one batch with those alone and another with one white sage leaf to enhance the taste a little. I recommend the latter and that is the version I am sharing below. If you don’t have white sage plants, then you can use any type of aromatic plant. I think these would be delicious with any form of sage, or bee balm, or even lavender. But for this evening the sage was perfect: grounding and calming, and soothing to my dried out and cranky self.
*why do British teachers feel the need to torture children so, and does this still happen nowadays?
Acorn shortbread with a white sage icing.
1 cup acorn flour
3/4 cup sweet white rice flour
3/4 cup potato starch
2/3 cup sugar minus 1 tablespoon
1/4 teaspoon salt
8oz (2 sticks) butter at room temperature
3/4 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tb white sage seeds
1 white sage leaf
Preheat the oven to 325.
In a pan on the stove, place the water, sage seeds and sage leaf. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer until the water is reduced by half.
Mix all the flours together. In a bowl or stand mixer, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar, then reduce the speed. Add the flours in two batches until well incorporated.
Grease the bottom of a 9 x 9 square pan, and dust with rice flour, then press the shortbread mixture into the bottom of the pan. It should be about 3/4″ thick all the way around. Bake at 325 for 40 minutes.
Remove from the oven and keep the oven on. Carefully cut the baked shortbread into slices, about 4″ long. Like shortbread fingers. Then wait for it to cool. Once cool, you can very carefully lift them out (apologies in advance– the first two might crumble into nothingness until you have that space for leverage… I haven’t been able to pry them out without causing shortbread damage) and place them on a baking sheet. Bake again, for another 15 minutes, until they’re golden brown.
In the meantime, in a separate bowl, sieve in the icing sugar and pour in 2 tablespoons of the sage water, seeds included. Mix it all together- it should be a paste and if you take a spoonful of it and drop it, it’ll pour off the spoon like thick paint. If its too thick, add a teaspoon of the sage water at a time. If too thin, add a little more sugar. When you remove the shortbread from the oven, drizzle the icing over the top. Allow to cool before eating.
Announcing: Wildcrafted Medicine Class in Los Angeles
I’m pleased to announce that my friend Emily and I are going to be teaching a series of wildcrafted medicine classes in Los Angeles. First up: elderflowers!
Are you interested in learning how to wildcraft your own herbal medicine? Interested in building your own home apothecary and knowing when and how to use things? Emily Ho and I are teaching a series of classes on how to build your own home apothecary, using wild ingredients, and our first is on elderflowers! You’ll learn how to use them, how to ID and gather them, we’ll make some medicines, and you’ll go home with a handout, a whole heap of new knowledge, and your own little hand made medicine jar :).
Introducing…The Wildcrafted Apothecary: A Herbal Medicine Class
Sunday, May 5, 1 ~ 4 pm
Los Angeles-area park (location provided to registered participants)
Elderflowers are blooming across Southern California! Learn how to gather them and make your own immune-boosting herbal elixir.
This class is a hands-on experience and includes:
• Wildcrafting: Learn how to confidently identify and ethically gather local elderflowers
• Tasting: Sip elderflower cordial, tea, and tincture
• Medicine making: Make your own elder elixir
• Herbal wisdom: We will discuss immune system basics, how herbalists treat viruses, and the difference between stimulating and relaxing diaphoretics
• Take-home goodies: You will receive an information packet with recipes and herbal guidance, a bag of elder tea, and the elixir you made!
No medicine cabinet should be without this.
$85 – includes organic/wildcrafted ingredients, supplies, and tastings
→ Register via PayPal: http://tinyurl.com/elderflowerclass
Register by April 25th. Class is limited to 15 people.
Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
About the instructors:
Rebecca Altman is an herbalist, writer, and proprietor of King’s Road Apothecary, a modern twist on an old-fashioned apothecary shop. Rebecca also writes about food, herbs, travel, and magic at Cauldrons & Crockpots.
Emily Ho is a writer and educator. She writes about nature, culture, and food at Roots & Marvel and contributes to Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn. Emily is also a Master Food Preserver and founder of LA Food Swap and Food Swap Network.
Cancellation policy: Rebecca Altman and Emily Ho reserve the right to cancel a class if necessary due to circumstances beyond our control or when enrollment is deemed insufficient. In this case, all payments will be refunded. Participant cancellations made up to one week prior to an event are eligible for a full refund less PayPal transaction fees incurred from both purchase and refund. Cancellations outside of this time frame are non-refundable. Class registration is transferable to another person if you are unable to attend. You must contact us to transfer your registration.
(in which I gather a lot of things, get a few bug bites, and try to stay connected to the earth)
There’s one hand and it contains relaxation, and everything I’ve ever mentioned about moving through space at one’s own pace. And then there’s the other hand which holds a to-do list a mile long, there’s the frenetic pace of spring, there’s gathering twenty million different things, and processing them, and buying more booze in a 2-month space than the entire other Bev Mo customers combined. In between the two hands there are stolen moments.
My stolen moments look like this: Up a tree, with a jar of something herbal, infused and delicious, gazing up at the canopy of leaves, listening to the sounds of city-nature, which is very different to country-nature. And it works. Its grounding and calming. And then I go back indoors to work some more.
When I look at the city, it reminds me of a big scab, over something living. One continuous slab of concrete with spaces in between it on occasion. Concrete does its best to cover up what’s underneath it (BB cream for the planet), and finding that earthiness is much harder when walking on a layer of foundation, but its not impossible. The thing is that the earth is everywhere and just because it seems that its more THERE when out in the wild, its actually that there’s less interference. Out in the wild its like tuning a radio directly to the station (do people still tune their own radios or are they all digital?). In the city there’s a bunch of white noise making it really hard to hear the music. But you can, especially if you know the song already– you know what to listen for and where to pick it up, then you can shut out the white noise and just hear that song. I think there are movements about this, called ‘Earthing’ and such, where the earth is touted as some new scientific new-age discovery. I can’t help but think that we’ve come so far from where we were, quite literally, our roots, that it takes a giant scientific discovery and technology to make us look down. Of course, thats not all of us.
I walk a block away for my coffee every morning. Lately, in spring-filled excitement, there are plants growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk. I’m sure that the City of Los Angeles people will come and spray something nasty on them soon– for some reason wild plants are an atrocity whereas the feat of construction being two buildings that are being hammered into place as I type is a triumph of man, even if they are hideous and noisy and had to cut down a big old tree to put them in. But in the meantime, there are feathery plants pushing up through the sidewalk, mushrooms growing on peoples’ lawns, resilient little plants thrusting their way up towards the sunlight that streams between buildings. I notice them because I notice the earth, and I notice that they find whatever cracks they can. Its resilient, and it reminds me of all nature, human nature, animal nature, earth nature. That nature is survival and self-expression, and I think all of us try to find our cracks to slip through regardless of what is painted over the top.
Most of the herbs I gather are resilient like that: many of us herbalists think the wild weeds make the strongest medicine. I’ve been collecting them like a madwoman lately, in full spring fervor. In the last few weeks or so, I have gathered California poppy, peach leaves, apricot leaves, alder leaves and bark, yerba santa, sweet clover, elderflowers, white sage, black sage, ocotillo bark and flowers, chaparral, desert lavender, mugwort, pine pollen. I’ve accrued a series of bug bites so big and so itchy and red and swollen that my super effective Bug Bite Balm had to be applied 3 times to make it go away (which is a big deal because it usually works in 1 or 2). The frenetic pace of spring starts slow and reaches its climax between now and the end of May. Most of these I bring home and immediately process for medicine- stripping bark, pulling leaves, scrubbing dirt off things, immersing in oils or vinegars or alcohol or honey. My storage cabinet is nearing full again. Of all these, there’s one thing I actually bring home for food first, even if its damn good medicine: elderflowers.
I’ve seen them everywhere I’ve been in the northern hemisphere. Even in the middle of a city in India. I assume they grow in the south too, though I’ve never been south of the equator so I don’t know for sure. Their flavour is floral and fragrant and distinctly one of its own, and since ours in Southern California have been out for a few weeks, they’ll start blooming spreading north from here, and I’d start looking sooner or later depending on where you are. Once you spot them, you’ll spot them everywhere. And I make food with them before I make medicine partly because they’re so abundant and partly because by the time spring has arrived I MISS them like you wouldn’t believe.
First thing I made was cordial. And the second thing I made was this cake. Its gluten free, though you couldn’t tell apart from the slightly crumbly texture. Its light and fluffy and it tastes of spring. And I highly recommend that you make some as soon as your elderflowers start to blossom.
Elderflower and blackberry cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe
For the syrup:
1 cup elderflowers
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
For the cake:
12 tb salted butter (or unsalted but add about 1/2 tsp salt to the batter with the flour)
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sweet white rice flour
1/3 cup potato starch
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup almond flour
2 tb ground flax or chia seeds
2 tsp baking powder
2 tb milk
8oz (about 2 cups) blackberries- either fresh or frozen
First things first, get the elderflower syrup on- put the elderflowers, water and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat immediately, and leave to sit for up to an hour. Taste it. Does it taste strongly of elderflowers and spring? Then you can strain out the liquid and set it aside.
Next, preheat the oven to 350.
Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer until they’re light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure they are incorporated fully. Then, add the milk, and two tablespoons of the elderflower syrup. Mix together all the flours, and the baking powder, and, with the mixer on very slow, add the flour in 3 batches. Once its fully incorporated, stir in the blackberries by hand. They might start to stain the batter, and that’s ok, but do it lightly and not too much so that you don’t end up with purple cake (not that there’s anything wrong with purple cake, we are not purplist here at C&C).
Oil up a 9″ round springform pan. Quite honestly, I am lazy and I use olive oil for this, but you can be non-lazy and use butter. Just, olive oil works too. Use something oily. Then, scrape in the cake batter. Bake at 350 for an hour. At 50 minutes, pull it out and press the top slightly, if it feels firm then check it with a skewer or sharp knife- when it comes out clean the cake is done. It should be around an hour though.
Remove from the oven, and prick the top of it with a sharp knife, about 10 times, in 10 different places. Then pour over the elderflower syrup you made earlier. Pour it so that it gets every inch of the top of the cake. It should sink in quite quickly. Leave until cool in the pan, then run a knife around the edges. You can try and slide it off the base, but I found it safer to just leave it there and pretend it’s meant to be presented like that. Decorate with powdered sugar, blackberries and elderflowers. Serve with fresh cream.
It’ll be quite crumbly until its cool. This shouldn’t matter too much though.
(in which I dole out an anatomy lesson, provide pictures of my recent adventures, and reward you with a recipe for the best cookie in the entire world)
I’ve been thinking about time lately. Of course there’s city time, or world-clock time, or employer time. I think they’re one and the same. The kind of time that means you have to be at X by X time. The kind of time that has you clutching your coffee in one hand, briefcase in the other, and hurtling towards a target somewhere in the distance along a straight and narrow line.
But there are other times. There’s sea time, for example. Sea time operates according to its own clock. In fact there’s a saying to ‘never sail on a schedule’, because if you sail on a schedule then you end up in less than ideal conditions, and less than ideal conditions out on the ocean are a matter of life and death.
There’s self-employment time. Self-employment time can mean a number of things to a number of people. To some it means up at dawn and work till midnight. For others it means wake when you like and work till midnight (there’s a theme here). It used to, for me, be something much closer to city time. But lately, that’s been changing.
There’s earth time, that slow, moist, circular time, that moves in cycles and doesn’t give a whit about what you, me or Greenwich think. Earth time and body time in my mind are one and the same. That is, our bodies aren’t built for city time but for the slow, for the cyclic, for the reverent. Our bodies are built to eat when hungry, sleep when tired, to move around a lot, and contrary to popular belief, to heal themselves.
For the most part, we’re all raised on city time. Children are taught to read their watches at an early age and we learn to step to a rhythm that someone else has decided. That’s fine. As far as employment, meetings, existing in the ‘real world’ (I hate that term), its necessary. But when home alone, when walking along a scarcely trodden path in the mountains, when cooking, when reading, when hanging out with friends and with family, its nice to be able to switch back to earth time, or body time, which, as I’ve mentioned, are one and the same.
I discovered my body time purely by accident. It was the result of doing a psoas workshop from my new biomechanics guru*. The psoas muscle. You know, that giant band of muscle that runs from the back of your body, at the bottom of your ribs, through to the front of your body, at the top of your thighs… I know, I know, you came here for plant matter and food and are getting sucker punched with an anatomy lesson. But there is a point; hear me out.
Our bodies register stress before our minds do. Because as much as we think our minds are the cleverest things in the world, they aren’t cleverer than gut feelings. They aren’t cleverer than hair standing on end for no reason, for refusal to walk a certain way home even though you always go that way, or for just not liking somebody even though they smile and seem nice on the surface. Bodies know things that minds can’t comprehend. And bodies know stress before minds do. For me, and I think for most of us, that stress manifests in one place first: in the psoas. And for most of us, it manifests there so early in life that we don’t notice its there. I think it has something to do with being pointed on that linear time path with our chins jutting fiercely into the future, to where we’re supposed to be instead of where we are. The second our focus gets out ahead of us like that, our ribs jut out ahead of us too, and then we’re done for**.
I’ve been noticing it for the past couple of weeks. Wind up the body like you wind up an alarm clock and it hurtles forward in space and time towards its goal. Relax the body, and time flows in a different way. Easily. Flowily. The flow doesn’t just happen all around me but inside too. The second that relaxation happens, blood, lymph, nervous system and energy all band together and start moving around in the middle of my trunk. Its circular and its movement and it feels as good as lying down on a comfy bed after twelve hours on my feet. Tense up and it goes away. Relax and it returns. Its a feedback mechanism that lets me know the second I’m starting to get stressed out.
In order to keep my psoas relaxed and that flowy sensation moving, I have to do things slower. Dramatically slower. Annoyingly slower. But to be annoyed is to tense up, and so, taking walking as an example, to walk at a pace that keeps me relaxed is to settle my mind down somewhere into the pit of my belly and go at the speed my body enjoys. I have come to refer to this speed as ‘Rebecca pace’. I’m sure you will have your own pace too if you don’t already (do you? If so, how could you not tell me about this? If not, please relax your own psoas and get back to me.). Rebecca pace and earth time work together well, as evidenced by the relaxed smile and lack of wrinkles on my forehead. Yes, its true. Earth time is a beauty treatment.
In honor of doing things slowly, I’ve been making these cookies lately. Yes, they’re labour-intensive. Yes, they’re probably the most unhealthy thing I’ve ever made (if you count the sheer amount of sugar in them). Yes, they use acorn flour which is hard to find unless you have oak trees around you or a Korean market nearby. But I promise you, if you can find acorn flour and plum jam and forget about how much sugar you’re about to ear, you’ll be the happiest squid in the world when you sink your teeth into one.
Plum and acorn custard sandwich cookies
Note: these cookies are a variation on my favourite two British cookies: Jammy Dodgers and Custard Creams. If you’re familiar with either then you’ll see the resemblance. Also, the acorn custard cream filling is even better than the original and you might want to eat it all on a spoon.
1 portion buckwheat shortbread dough
1 portion acorn custard (see below)
About 1/2 cup plum jam (storebought works fine too. You might be tempted to use another flavour but we did do a taste test of every jam in the cupboard and it was decided that my original brilliant vision was best in the end.)
Preheat the oven to 350, and roll out the shortbread dough. Cut it into an even number of cookie shapes, and then, using a small round thing (I used an apple corer; have never been so happy to find an apple corer in my drawer, and also, for the record, I have no idea where it came from) cut holes in the centre of half the cookies. Sprinkle those holey (holy?) cookies with granulated sugar and bake the whole lot at 350 for 18-20 minutes. They should be golden brown and not remotely burned.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool before putting this magical little parcel together.
Take a solid cookie, and upon it place about a teaspoon of the acorn custard. Spread this out, then on top of that, a dollop (maybe 1/2 teaspoon) of plum jam. Put a holy cookie on top and press it down to make a sandwich. Repeat for all of them. Pour self a cup of tea or big glass of milk and try to only eat one. Really…
FOR THE ACORN CUSTARD:
1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter at room temperature
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 cup acorn flour
8 tbsps corn starch
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Beat the butter in a bowl until slightly fluffy, then add the vanilla and then the dry ingredients one at a time. Keep mixing until its all incorporated. It should be thick but not powdery, tacky but not liquid. Enough that you can take off a lump between your fingers and press it onto a cookie base and not fight to have it stay where you put it (ie. no buttery mess left on your hands). But soft enough that its not like biting into chalk. I know, my descriptions are exact beyond belief. Apologies there…
*there’s a reason her blog is called ‘Katy Says’ and its because I say ‘Katy says…’ about five times a day. Also, did I mention that I become obsessed with things and then get very annoying about them?
**this is called rib thrust. Look for it in yourself– feel under your ribcage and if they’re not flush with your rippled abdomen then there’s a rib thrust. And now look for it in everyone around you and you, too, can be as annoying as I am and say ‘RIB THRUST’ really loudly every time you see it.
Water both scares and excites me. Unlike my husband who can’t stay away from the stuff, I have a healthy respect for it due to a. being a not-so-strong swimmer and b. two almost drowning incidents on the sea shore. I grew up on the water, some of my earliest memories are of the smell of boat, of the sound of water lapping against the hull as I drift off to sleep, of the sounds of halyards tinking against masts and seagulls squawking as the wind picks up. Of sea spray, and of the terror that overwhelms me when land disappears from sight. Even now, when the depth radar goes to ‘too bloody deep’ and there’s no land, I start thinking about being swallowed. Of things like the Marianas Trench with its crushing darkness. Of what exactly is and could be down there, and of the crushing fluidity of it all. Out on the sea, one is truly and absolutely subject to the elements. Water and air, colliding on a surface, and us, tiny people, on the frontier.
Water is in us and water is outside of us. Water that seeps through our skin and water that we drink to quench thirst. Water, life provider, water as the primordial ooze that we emerged from billions of years ago. Water as our great ancestral mother and water as the soothing coolness that fills our bodies from the inside. Water heals. Water is sacred. Water is one primitive drive that we all have both towards and away from, in longing and in fear. Water is gentle, water can kill in no time at all, and water can heal. From the salt that dissolves in it to the blood in our veins, to the healing springs that bubble forth from deep below the earths crust, to a handful of herbs sprinkled over a hot pot and left to infuse as the water ekes out the goodness, and then there it is, the beauty of the elements: they are as powerful as the hand that wields them.
And water can be medicine. Alone, its hydrotherapy: the use of hot and cold water to draw circulation to and from places. Got an injury? Jump in the shower and blast the area with water as hot as you can bear for a couple of minutes, and follow that with 30 seconds of cold. Repeat, a couple of times, and you’ll stimulate circulation to the area. I’d almost guarantee swifter recovery (especially if you use Busted Joint Ointment at the same time ;)).
There’s the cold sock treatment, and the cold wet rag on throat treatment*. There’s hot springs and cold springs and plunging oneself into an ice cold lake after a hot sauna. And then there’s my favourite: the bath.
My old apartment lacked a bath tub. I would curl up on my side onto the floor of the shower, blasting the hot water, pretending. It didn’t work. One of the reasons I moved in with Jam was that he had a bathtub. True story. In our bathroom, we have a few big buckets: Epsom salt (available in bulk here); Mustard salt bath. And then we have a shelf with bath scrubs– I like to take a big scoop, scrub myself down and then let the oils float to the top of the bath. My all-time favourite, however, is the herbal bath. With a big pot of water on the stove and a handful of herbs simmered until the water is dark and fragrant. There is magic in these baths, deep and powerful.
Skin is absorbent, and its our biggest organ. Like a giant waterproof lung creating a permeable barrier between our bodies and the world. Everything you put on your skin is absorbed into your blood stream. Absolutely everything. Sitting back into a hot kava bath, for example, and within minutes the effects of the kava have penetrated your skin. You feel relaxed, you feel slightly woo-woo, and you feel, well, good. I add meadowsweet, and do the two in combination. The kava relaxes and unwinds your mimd, while the meadowsweet eases aches and pains, and the result is a pretty darn relaxed, social and all around good-feeling night.
Conifer baths are a glorious thing- simmer fir, spruce or pine needles until they’ve made a strong brew, and add to your bath for a fragrant, anti-inflammatory and somewhat expectorant bath (really, if there’s grunge in your lungs, after bathing in the stuff you’ll hack it up). Lavender baths relax the liver, until you’re so comfortable with the present moment that you don’t remember what you were worrying about in the first place. Ginger and mustard baths warm and stimulate the circulation making your fingers tingle and your toes feel on fire which, in the middle of the winter, can be a beautiful thing. Chapparal baths smell like the desert, especially with a sprinkling of desert lavender in there. Its anti-fungal and kills anything it comes into contact with (jock itch, athlete’s foot, you name it), and I’m not sure how it’d smell to a non-desert lover but to me its glorious. Rosemary stimulates circulation and smells good to boot (though careful if you tend towards high blood pressure because it can give you a nasty headache), Bladderwrack is pain-relieving, slimy, good for the skin and chock full of iodine (and bathing in it is a lot more pleasurable than drinking it, in my opinion). Eucalyptus for your respiratory tract, Arnica for joint pain, linden because its sweet, relaxing, heart-opening and beautiful, and mugwort, for the aromatics, for the blood-moving, for the crazy dreams you’ll have afterwards and for the ache-easing of both body and heart.
Favourite combinations include kava+meadowsweet for either joint pain or stress relief or both (and if the pain is really bad a dropper of arnica tincture); Eucalptus+Rosemary for feeling like you’re full of grunge; Douglas fir + pine for inflamed and sluggish and desperately in need of some fresh air; Chapparal + Desert lavender for missing the desert so much my heart hurts; Bladderwrack for sore joints and wanting to play Siren for the night (it is, however, required to lie in the bath and sing); Ginger + mustard for the kind of cold that seeps to your bones and makes you think that you’re never going to be able to move properly again; Linden + lavender, for the kind of sweet relaxation that makes you smile dreamily all evening; and mugwort + motherwort for achy moon time when you just want to sink into the earth and close your eyes and bite the head off anybody who tries to disturb you.
Simmer the herbs in a big pot on the stove for at least 20 minutes. I do about 2 cups of herbs per 2 gallons of water; you can find your own amount as you might like more or less. Then strain through a sieve and add to the bath.
Candles and a dark room are, of course, a must.
Almost all the above are available from Mountain Rose Herbs; I recommend buying equal quantities of whatever you’re using, putting them all together with big labels in big jars in whatever blends you so desire.
And in April, for my Monthly Herbal Surprise Box I’ll be sending out a herbal bath infusion, so if you’d like to receive a special bath, you can sign up.
And if you’ve made it this far, tell me please, what are your favourite herbal baths?
*For flu: wet socks, covered with dry wool socks, to stimulate fever. For sore throat: cold wet rag over the throat until it warms: stimulates circulation to the area; works wonders.