Pancake Day!

PancakeNicola here, blogging about food (which I seem to do quite often!) Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Pancake Day, Mardi Gras and various other names around the world. Like many festivals that have become popular celebrations, Shrove Tuesday originated in the Church calendar and is still observed as a religious festival by many people.

The name Shrove Tuesday comes originally from the word “shrive” meaning to absolve, as it falls just before the beginning of Lent. The name Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday” is more descriptive, however, as it gives a clue to the theme of eating up all the rich food you might then forsake during the 40 days of Lent, when people would be expected to fast and pray. Meat, eggs and various milk products were forbidden.

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What the Wenches are Reading in April!

Christina here to tell you what the Wenches have been reading this month – an eclectic mix as always! With all of us being in isolation, we’ve had plenty of time to dive into our TBR piles and we hope you have too. Have a look and see if anything appeals to you!

The Forgotten SisterI’ll start off with my own April favourites: First and foremost I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Wench Nicola’s upcoming release, The Forgotten Sister – published tomorrow! – a Tudor mystery and time slip (dual time) novel. I can safely say that this is one of the best books I have read in a long time! It has everything you want from a time slip story and it was utterly, utterly brilliant!!! Nicola has managed to intertwine the story of Amy Robsart (wife of Robert Dudley in Tudor times) so cleverly with the characters in the present. Robert is part of Queen Elizabeth I’s court and Amy doesn’t seem to figure much in his plans. She needs a way out of their loveless marriage and thinks she’s hit on the perfect solution – but has she? The present day heroine Lizzie has her own problems to contend with and when her life begins to echo the happenings of the past, she has to uncover a centuries old secret in order to move forward. I couldn’t put this down and the characters will stay in my mind for a long time.

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Eat, Drink and Be Merry!

Cheese DinnerCara/Andrea here, wishing all our Wenchly friends a happy holiday season. As is our tradition here, we’re all doing daily posting to celebrate the 12 Days of Chistmas and some of our favorite things about the season. Well, I don’t know about you, but festive food is always one of my favorite treats (did someone say chocolate?) especially when celebrated with family and friends.

Meghan-cooking I spent Christmas with my older brother and his family—who all love to cook. (Here’s my adorable niece—with SIL in the background enjoying the kitchen chaos—who helped her Dad prepare the amazing wild mushroom Risottorisotto.)  Friends brought an array of scrumptious dishes, included a fabulous assortment of cheeses, smoked salmon. Add bright salads, vegetarian specialties, lots of wine, flickering candles, vintage glasses and silver . . . the groaning board was overflowing with good cheer.

I brought a dessert, and as I always enjoy perusing recipes, I decided to try something new I had recently discovered—a Chocolate Guinness cake (which I thought was a fun C-g-cakehomage to my SIL, who did her PhD dissertation on James Joyce.) It was a big hit (and I have to say, it really was fabulous, and quite easy to make) So, it’s my favorite recipe of the 2011 Holidays, and I’d like to share it. (Sorry, it disappeared so fast I didn’t have a chance to photograph it! But here's a shot from Nigela Lawson's food site.)

Nigella Lawson's Absolutely Fabulous Chocolate Guinness Cake

1 cup Guinness
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups superfine sugar
3/4 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Ingredients for the topping:

8 oz Philadelphia cream cheese

1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat the over to 350 F, and butter and line a 9 inch springform pan.

Pour the Guinness into a large wide saucepan, add the butter — in spoons or slices — and heat until the butter's melted, at which time you should whisk in the cocoa and sugar. Beat the sour cream with the eggs and vanilla and then pour into the brown, buttery, beery pan and finally whisk in the flour and baking soda.

Pour the cake batter into the greased and lined pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. Leave to cool completely in the pan on a cooling rack, as it is quite a damp cake.

When the cake's cold, sit it on a flat platter or cake stand and get on with the frosting. Lightly whip the cream cheese until smooth, sift over the confectioner's sugar and then beat them both together. Or do this in a processor, putting the unsifted confectioners' sugar in first and blitz to remove lumps before adding the cheese.

Add the cream and beat again until it makes a spreadable consistency. Ice the top of the black cake so that it resembles the frothy top of the famous pint.

Enjoy! Best wishes to everyone for a happy, healthy New Year!

A Wee Tipple on the Lore of Single Malt Scotch

Cara/Andrea here,
CEBOOKMARK  OBAN As some of you may know, I have, by virtue of default, I think, been elected Wench Team Captain of Sports and Spirits (er, no, no—not the rah-rah kind, the intoxicating kind.) This past summer, I laced on my spikes and took you on a walk through the fairways of golf history. But now, as the winter pervades the air here in the Northeast and the  pace slows to celebrate the holidays with family and friends, it seems the perfect time to turn to golf’s 19th hole (for all you non-golfers, that’s the bar) and take a wee tipple into the origins and traditions of Scotland’s national drink—single malt whisky.

Vintage-drawing Uisge Beatha
There’s a great Gaelic bruhahha over who actually invented whisky. Most historians agree it was probably the Irish, as there are 12th century documents making reference to it.  So the Scots merely claim that they perfected the spirit. The earliest mention of distilling in Scotland dates from 1494, when an official record notes that a certain Friar John Cor of Dunfermline purchased malt to make “acquavitae’—which is Latin for water of life.

Scotchpainting In Gaelic, the phrase is “uisge beatha” . . . which somehow turned into “whisky” in English. (No doubt after the speaker had imbibed several glasses of the brew.)  Note that yet another brangling between the Scots and the Irish occurred over spelling. In Scotland, it’s always “whisky” while in Ireland and the rest of the world it’s “whiskey.”

What IS Whisky?

BarleyWhich begs the question of what exactly IS whisky. I’m glad you asked. Many countries make whiskey, but what we’re going to talk about here is “scotch” in its  purest form. To begin with, single malt (We’ll get to that term later) whisky is made from barley—-and only barley. Golden Promise is the the most popular variety, but each individual distillery has its favorite, depending on local growing conditions..

Distillery-1 Earth, Wind & Fire
The grain is soaked in water and allowed to germinate, forming “malt.” (A grain is said to be malted when its core starches covert to sugar.) This malt is then dried over heat—usually oven a peat fire—and ground to a coarse grist, Once again it’s soaked in hot water and yeast is added to ferment it. The resulting alcoholic slush is distilling in pot-shaped copper stills. (Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so its essence can be concentrated and collected as . . . uisge beatha.

Bowmorebarrels Heart of Oak
Scottish law specifies that “real” scotch must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years within Scotland, but many are, like fine wine, aged for considerably longer. The only wood allowed is oak, and the preferred species are Quercus alba (White American oak) and Quercus robur (European oak.) Single malt distilleries traditionally usually use old sherry or bourbon casks, as the residue of those spirits is said to impart a subtle flavoring to the whisky.

Vintage-photo The Singles Bar
Now that we have the basics down, let’s move on to the fine points. The term “single malt” means that the whisky has to come from the same distillery. (If you look on a label and see “Blended Scotch whisky” that means it a mix of a variety of brews from around the country.) Most distilleries are small because of the hand crafting involved, and their products are very distinctive because of the local ingredients. Water, peat, barley—even the surrounding rocks—affect the taste. On the other hand, blended whisky usually aims to create a uniform flavor from batch to batch.

Pot-still The Art of Malt
Single malt distillers think of themselves as artists, creating a unique work through a magical combination of ingredients, fermentation and aging. All the steps require tweaking and special techniques, which they jealously guard.  Now, you be asking, how different can it be? The answer is—very!

Glenfidd Scotland is a country of varied terrain and microclimates. The coast is flavored by brine and seaweed, the Highlands by granite and peat. Speyside is known for its elegance and refined smokiness while the wind-lashed whisky island of Islay produces sturdy, strong, iodine-tinged brews. Some people are adamant that the rock and soil over which the local water flows influences the taste—marshy land imparts a grassy taste while the sandstone of the northeast creates a firm-bodied whisky.

Map In other words, whisky has much in common with wine, where terroir and temperature affect the regional vintages. I never knew that until I visited Scotland and attended a single malt tasting. It was fun to sample a sip from the different regions—there are close to 200 single malt distilleries!—and the difference among them really is amazing. (Not that I sampled 200. I take my research seriously, but not that seriously. Hey, I have to actually write, not snooze.)

Malt-poster Wee Tipples
The oldest of the modern distilleries date back to the early 1700’s. (Some random facts: Justerini & Justerini, the legendary London wine merchants, first sold whisky in 1779. John Dewar, who started his business in 1806, was the first person to sell whisky in bottles.) The phylloxera bli
ght, which destroyed so many French vineyards in the late 1800’s, helped popularize the spirit outside of Scotland, for along with wine, much of the cognac production was disrupted and people turned to whisky as an alternative.  Today, of course, it is one of the world’s classic spirits, sipped neat or with just a single drop of water to stir the flavors. (Like fine wines, single malts are never served “on the rocks.”)

Glenfiddich1937 Scotch Hot Toddy:
Take a glass and add a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of honey (Scottish heather honey would be best), add a shot of whisky, and fill the glass with very hot or boiling water.

Even better, here’s a recipe for a cake flavored with whisky:

Chocolate Whisky Bundt Cake
Makes 12 to 14 servings

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process) plus 3 T for dusting pan
1 1/2 cups brewed coffee
1/2 cup Scotch whisky
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

1.  Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325ºF. Butter 3 qt. (10”) bundt pan well, then dust with 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, knocking out excess.
2.  Heat coffee, whisky, butter, and remaining cup cocoa powder in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, whisking, until butter is melted. Remove from heat, then add sugar and whisk until dissolved, about 1 minute. Transfer mixture to a large bowl and cool 5 minutes.
3.  While chocolate mixture cools, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together eggs and vanilla in a small bowl, then whisk into cooled chocolate mixture until combined well. Add flour mixture and whisk until just combined (batter will be thin and bubbly). Pour batter into bundt pan and bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes.
4.  Cool cake completely in pan on a rack, about 2 hours. Loosen cake from pan using tip of a dinner knife, then invert rack over pan and turn cake out onto rack.

Glemorangie I have to admit, I’m not much of a single malt whisky drinker, though once in a while, on a cold winter night, I do sip a glass of Glenmorangie or Balvenie. Do you enjoy a glass of scotch and if so, do you have a favorite single malts? If you don’t drink it, what image comes to mind when you hear the word? I always think of Cary Grant in one of those swanky ‘30s comedies when I think of whisky.

How about any other great whisky recipes?  Please feel free to share—-after all, we’re got lots of holiday baking to do!