Plum Deluxe: A Tea Review

True facts about Melissa Zupan #329:  In a previous life (that is, before graduate school part 1), I used to work for a major tea company.  I got to go to one of the World Tea Expos with them, which was one of the more amazing experiences I’ve had in business.  And through them, I got my start in blogging.  In fact, my tea review blog was one of the most highly trafficked tea review blogs on the ‘net during its time.  I ended up getting so many samples sent to me that I had a 5-year personal supply after I shuttered the blog and moved to Oregon.  And I drink tea multiple times a day.

This experience has left me a ridiculous tea snob.  I have a few good-ol’ affordable standbys that I buy by the pound for my ‘every day’ sips.  (Adagio’s Yunnan Noir, Jade Oolong, and Summer Rose for when I feel I need a hit of a flavor).  And sometimes I get a little crazy and go for a few ounces of something highly flavored (like David Tea’s Read My Lips, which is so yummy!), but usually when I want something special, I’m the nerd who’s buying single origin high mountain oolongs direct from the farmers in Taiwan.  Tea is my scotch.

So when Andy at Plum Deluxe asked me if I would try and review some of his teas, my first impulse was to say no.  I am a tea-lover who has strong preferences and opinions on her tea, and I frankly didn’t want to choke down something I personally thought noxious and produce a highly biased review that, let’s face it, wouldn’t help anyone.  But his company is just so gosh darn positive, I couldn’t help myself.  The tea looked like pretty decent quality, and had all the buzzwords I like to hear:  organic, non-GMO, fair trade, and hand blended.  More important, though, was the company’s underlying ethos.  Andy’s goal is to use tea to share the lessons of his late mother, who lost a 5-year battle with breast cancer.  Andy says that those years, however, were “some of the best years of her life” because she took the opportunity to care for herself and enjoy her life to the fullest.  A good part of that was creating “moments that matter, every day”…one of which the meditative quality of enjoying a fantastic cup of tea.

IMG_3074

Bags of Plum Deluxe’s “Reading Nook Blend”, “Portland Rose City Chai”, and “Afternoon ‘High Tea'”

And so I found myself with three teas:  Reading Nook Blend, which combines black tea leaves with rosebuds, lavender, and chamomile; Portland Rose City Chai, which blends black tea with rooibos, oregon rose petals, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, lemongrass, and essences of blackberry and almond; and Afternoon ‘High Tea’ White Tea, which mixes white tea with peach and apricot pieces with marigold petals and a pear essence.

And, let me be the first to admit it:  my fears of noxious, cloying brews were 100% inaccurate.  All of the teas were remarkably balanced and highly addictive.  In fact, the chai, the blend to which I had given the most mental side-eye, caused me to say “well that is a delight!” the first time I sipped it.  Well done, Plum Deluxe.  You absolutely exceeded my expectations.

IMG_3066

Back left:  Portland Rose City Chai. Back Right:  Reading Nook Blend.  Front:  Afternoon ‘High Tea’.

Let’s begin with that chai blend.  I adore chai; I really do.  But I have been uniformly disappointed by every one I’ve purchased from American companies, including my own beloved Adagio.  Their Thai Chai has been in my cabinet for over a year, and it is very tasty as far as chais go.  The lemongrass and coconut additions are what really make it “Thai” in profile, and they play nicely off the more traditional ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom.  These are all favorite flavors of mine, but I find I almost never brew it because of the “oil slick” that rises to the surface after brewing.  Unfortunately, most North American loose tea blenders use high levels of flavoring oils to produce the strong flavors that are winning more and more American tea drinkers.  It is understandable; a lot of people in this country want bold flavors and think teas too ‘watery’ and ‘weak.’  But honestly?  Those oils make my stomach churn, both figuratively and literally.

I fully expected the Portland Rose City Chai to be similar.  In fact, I chose it because it contained the same lemongrass, ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom backbone that Adagio’s Thai Chai does.  And I was a little skeptical when I did my ‘leaf inspection.’  The dry blend is visually pretty, with tons of rose petals and lemongrass.  In fact, the tea itself looks like an addition more than the base.  It is, however, a very “dusty” blend, which initially surprised me.  I actually had to wipe the residual dust out of my tea scoop and off my inspecting bowl.  On tasting it, though, I became convinced that it was mostly ground spices.  To me, this is a positive.  If a blender leaves chunks of cinnamon or ginger in a blend, the tea will fully infuse and become bitter before the spices have had a chance to even get started releasing their essence.  Smaller grinds are therefore better when it comes to spices.  However, I was worried by the scent of the dry blend, which to me read as more of a ‘cherry cough syrup’ profile with some Dr. Pepper in the background.  I actually find similar scents in most flavored rooibos blends, particularly ones with ‘berry’ descriptions, so this may have been because of the inclusion of rooibos and blackberry flavoring.

In the brew, however, those acrid smells disappear.  The tea itself comes forward with its characteristic astringency, and the lemongrass and rose fade into solid background players, likely because their flavors overlap with the rooibos.  The spices round and balance out the blend rather than take it over, and they create a mild ‘warm’ feeling–both psychologically and physically.  It is lightly fruity, lightly floral, and lightly spicy:  complicated, and yet an ‘easy sipper’–it doesn’t command all your attention when you’re drinking it.  I loved it.

The Reading Nook Blend, too, was a show-stopping winner.  I only requested it because it was noted as being one of Plum Deluxe’s best sellers, so I thought it would give me a good idea of the “core” of their flavor profile.  Normally, I would have given it a solid pass based off the description alone, for it contains chamomile and I absolutely, positively abhor chamomile.  To me, it is a weirdly insipid floral on its own.  I accept it more in blends, where I find its lightly honeyed taste helps bind other flavors together.  However, I cannot abide how it gums up my infusers.  I have better things to do than scrub those like I’m about to use them to perform surgery.  (See below for infuser recommendations).

But, again, Reading Nook surprised me.  I could see through the bag that it was an exceptionally pretty blend.  The leaves are very dark and they make the magenta rose petals, yellow chamomile heads, purple lavender buds, and errant chartreuse leaves pop like the colors on a black velvet Elvis painting.  My housemates started to call it my “unicorn tea”, and I did not dissuade them from that assessment.

The biggest payoff, though, was the scent.  As soon as I opened up the bag, I grabbed one of my housemates and thrust the bag at him saying, “Smell this!”  Good man that he is, he did so without question, and I got to watch his eyes open with shock and desire.  “Is that…chocolate?!” he asked, practically salivating.  We went on to debate just what it smelled like.  Chocolate is the obvious and immediate smell, but it is way more complicated and nuanced than anything that has ever come out of a Hershey’s factory.  Eventually, I narrowed it down to smelling like a Dagoba lavender blueberry dark chocolate bar and took the opportunity to nip down to the grocery to buy one to test my hypothesis.  Bulls eye.

I have no idea where the chocolate or berry notes in the scent come from, for all that is in this blend is a cream-flavored black tea, rose petals, lavender, and chamomile…and none of those flowers lean towards a “fruit” profile.  When the tea is brewed, though, the fruity notes dissipate as do the chocolate notes, sadly.  The dominant flavor is the lavender, which comes through more as an herbal than as a floral.  The rose and chamomile do an excellent job as backup singers, and using the cream-flavored black as the base was inspired.  I think that a plain black tea would have overpowered some of the florals, but the cream rounds off the flavors and blends them all together very nicely.  As with the Portland Rose City Chai, Reading Nook has no “oil slick” that rises to the surface from its flavoring, which is excellent.  I find myself returning to this tea over and over, especially during weekends when I can laze about the house doing my own studies and school planning.  It helps me get into that perfect mind space where I am alert, but calm enough that I could happily watch paint dry.  It is, as advertised, an excellent blend for a long reading session.

As you may suspect by now, I also had no complaints with the Afternoon ‘High Tea’ White Tea.  Well, I take that back:  I thought the name was weird.  An “afternoon tea” is one of those fussy affairs you would imagine Downton Abbey‘s Crawley family would partake in every day at 4 pm on the dot.  Historically, this is the ‘snack’ meal of hot tea, dainty sandwiches, scones, and cake that the posh set would eat toward the end of the afternoon, for they typically dined after 8 pm, which is an awful long way from luncheon around noon.  High tea, however, is a much heartier meal eaten by the working class at around 6 pm when many got off work.  It was usually some form of strong tea and bread, meat, cheese, and vegetable.  Of course, class divides are not so immediately evident these days, and the names of the various teas have become somewhat conflated.

I cannot say that I would serve this tea at either an afternoon or a high tea.  It is a fairly delicate flavor profile, and a black tea would be far more appropriate to either of those events.  It is, however, a nicely flavored peach tea.  The white tea here is more like a bai mu dan, which itself has a floral, peachy aroma.  That is only heightened by the inclusion of the peach and apricot pieces, and the pear flavoring does help keep it from feeling too much like you’ve fallen straight into Georgia.  This is not a tea that moves me to great descriptive heights, but it is a solid performer with a clean, true peach flavor, and I have found it to be highly pleasant to brew up when I want to wind down at the end of the work day with my Netflix obsession du jour.

Again, well done, Plum Deluxe!  I initially thought your offerings a bit pricey at $7 an ounce plus shipping ($10.50 altogether).  After all, I usually get about 12 mugs of tea per ounce of dry leaf, which would make each mug about $0.83 each, and that’s about what I pay for some truly superlative oolong.  But realistically, you’re not much more expensive than a soft drink habit, and you’re far healthier.  I also like the fact that you offer a subscription service.  If I registered for that, I’m sure I would enjoy practically anything you sent me based off the select I enjoyed here, and I’d get a fun perk of having a surprise every month.  Thank you so much, Andy!  I wish you well on this fantastic venture!

Notes:

  • Andy did not pay me for this review.
  • This post was decidedly low on the magic front.  I had contemplated choosing a blend for magical purposes and creating a tea ritual, but between wrapping up master’s degree no. 2, work demands, and lots of fun coven stuff…my reserves were running low.  If you want to see a great idea for a similar working, check out Marietta’s Plum Deluxe review at Witchy Words.  It’s great!
  • I mentioned infuser recommendations.  I am all about fancy tea brewing tools, and I have my fair share of gaiwans, kyusu, and yixing pots.  But 90% of my brewing is done with a brew basket in a mug.  Lately, I’ve been using Teavana’s “Cool Touch” Tea Strainer and have found it to be a champion when it comes to brewing teas with fine particulates, for it contains an awful lot of them *and* it cleans up beautifully.  Most brew baskets get little bits stuck in the mesh; not so with this one. If anything gets stuck, it’s usually pretty easy to remove. I find myself brewing more chamomile and rooibos these days now that I don’t have to spend 5 minutes picking bits out of the mesh. David’s Tea’s Perfect Infuser would likely be similar, but I have not tried it yet myself.  I like these brew baskets more than infusing a whole pot at a time, but I do pot-brew when I have friends over.  When that happens, I brew the leaves loose in the pot, and pour the tea through this brew basket, which acts like a strainer.  I have, in the past, tried gravity tea pots which utilize a mesh filter. Those are great at retaining particulates, but I destroyed a filter once trying to clean it, and I find that the plastic does stain over time, especially if you don’t use a dishwasher.  It’s really hard to destroy these steel brew baskets, though.

Candle Anointing Oils

In many ways, 2016 is a year I will be glad to see the backside of.  While it has actually been a wonderful year for me personally and professionally, in all other respects it has been a Dumpster Fire.

Maybe that is why I want to burn all the things.  In previous years gone by, I would hold on to candles and incense as though they cost thousands of dollars.  In fact, the last time I went to visit my mother, I found an unused candle that a friend gifted to me on my fifteenth birthday, and I turned 33 this year!  Now, however, I get a lot of pleasure from lighting up a few candles when I get home from work.  This has also been reflected in my magical practice, where suddenly all I want to do is candle magic.

32707

The basics of anointing a candle with oil.  There are always variations upon the theme, though.  For example, Hoodoo practice usually holds that with figure candles or 7-knob candles that you either start from the bottom and rub up in order to banish a thing, or start from the top and rub down in order to bring a thing to you.

Over the past year, I think I must have gone through five pounds of beeswax between all the candles I’ve lit in the name of magic.  It’s not always for a full on ritual; in fact, I’ve lately gotten into meditatively using chime candles to ‘tweak’ my mindset on things.  For example, when I am feeling uncharitable to my students, I anoint a candle with some oils that help me feel loving, light it, and think upon all the things the kids have done in the past that have helped me connect with and love them.  If I am having issues getting a paycheck to stretch, I anoint a candle with oils that make me feel wealthy, and I think upon ways I can modify my budget as the flame burns.

As this year has plod on, I realized that most of what I had been doing in this respect was either to help me feel love and compassion, to help me relax when I was stressed, to help me feel happiness when I was sad or angry, to give me fortitude to see another day through, to improve my finances, and to tweak my heath.  Not long after I realized this, I had a long phone conversation with a magically-schooled friend.  While my friend is now a rabid atheist, he was once a member of the O.T.O. and continues to read and interrogate all things occult.  He can also identify patterns and references as well as any literature Ph.D. I’ve met.  During this call, he asked me about how my witchery was progressing and I began lamenting about how categorized and predictable my magic had become.  He laughed when I told him what I had been doing and said “Do you realize you just described pretty much all the blessings in the Gnostic mass? ‘Bless this spiritual food unto our bodies, bestowing upon us health and wealth and strength and joy and peace and that fulfillment of will and of love under will that is perpetual happiness.’ What more do you want?”

img_2859

An array of the candle-anointing oils that I made

I realized, of course, that he was right and that these six areas are excellent core foci for magical workings.  Once I had “names” for the workings I’d been doing, I decided to make pre-mixed candle anointing oils for each.  This was entirely self-serving on my part: the one thing that keeps me from doing magic when I need it and when I’m overwhelmed is the ‘chore’ of pulling together correspondences.  It seems that I find spellcraft a beautiful and creative outlet when I have no spells that need doing, and an insurmountable hurdle when I need it the most.  By pulling together correspondences and charging a blend when I feel fine, I am able to pull on that “battery” when my own reserves and creativity are low. I’ve also found that in just working with these six oils and some fairly regular candle magic, I have been able to see just what areas I need more help in.  I’ve run through my “love” dram twice now, and my “Peace” dram three times; but I’ve only used a quarter of my original “Health” bottle.  Clearly my life right now is making me a stressed-out cynic!

My own blends for these areas are below.  I did not want to utilize anything that would require infusing an oil because I wanted these blends to be made quickly and in small amounts (1 dram, or about 3/4 teaspoon).  So I first created a list of commonly available and generally inexpensive essential oils.  I then cross-referenced a few different texts on magical herbalism and aromatherapy to list out associations for each oil.  Then I did a bit of research into perfumery to figure out what scents generally complemented each other before playing around with proportions.

The one exception to this practice was the “Health” blend, which is essentially a “Thieves” oil blend.  In fact, 10-16 drops of a Thieves-style blend could be used instead of counting drops of the five component oils.  I have taken to using this blend so much during the school year to help keep germs at bay that cinnamon and clove now seem to me positively salubrious.  This, of course, meant that I did not want to use cinnamon in my “Wealth” blend, even though it is the backbone of a lot of wealth powders and oils in many different traditions.  The blend I did develop, though, reminds me oddly enough of the smell that bills and coins acquire, and I find it quite effective.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-7-40-45-am

The blends I developed and have been using for about 4 months now.  I am a fan of the concentrations given by these drops, which are strong enough for me to get a good smell of them as I do the anointing, but not strong enough to linger and overpower incense.

Any neutral oil could be used for the jojoba oil, I suppose, but I am very partial to jojoba for candle anointing.  It is actually not an oil, but rather a liquid wax.  Therefore it sort of ‘adheres’ to the candle and becomes part of the surface layer of the wax rather than just sit atop it.  It also is close to the composition of our own skin’s sebum, and absorbs very well into our skin without leaving a feeling like we’ve just been given a massage with Crisco. I certainly don’t want to have to bring a tea towel into a ritual with me to mop up greasy hands!  Fractionated coconut oil would work well, too; after all, it is usually what rose and jasmine are diluted with.

Potions in Action: Ritual Bath Spray

img_8657-768x512

If only my crafting was this photogenic.

Six years ago, I discovered Zum Mist’s aromatherapy sprays and tried my hand at making them.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked and, for a time, sprayed the heck out of rooms and myself with my various creations.  But my day jobs since then have all had a no-scent policy.  These are in the interest of keeping people healthy, and since I have a student who goes into grand mal seizures in the presence of strong smells, I certainly don’t mind them that much.  And at home, I’ve switched to using ultrasonic diffusers which last longer and require less active work on my part.

But there are two things I use essential oil sprays for, and one of them is a “ritual bath in a bottle.”  While I usually do give myself a “spa day” before a coven ritual, it is hardly an intensive energetic cleansing.  I mostly just make sure that everything is shaved that should be shaved, my feet aren’t cracked with callouses, and my skin isn’t all dry and scaly.  (Gardnerians practice skyclad, folks.)  And, of course, I shower the morning of a ritual.  But there’s a lot of time and a lot of mundane worries and activities that occur between the time I shower and the time of ritual, and I don’t have time to take a quick shower, let alone a ritual bath.

But I do have time for a quick spray before I leave.  I just squirt a bit in the air and walk through the mist, visualizing it penetrating through my aura and clearing away any gunk.  Lately I’ve been using this blend, which I like.  Just about everything in it is cleansing, and the overall smell is bright, green, and lively.  Geranium and hyssop are florals, but grassier florals than something like rose or jasmine.  To me, they don’t make the overall smell terribly floral, but a friend recently caught a whiff of it and asked if I was wearing jasmine.  While I myself would not eliminate hyssop as I have always enjoyed it in a ritual bath, an admirable cleansing spray can be made with sage, rosemary, and lemon.  Those scents alone can put me in mind of a chicken dinner, so I might also add a tablespoon or two of vanilla extract.

While the sea salt does help prevent bacterial growth as well as being a key cleansing ingredient, I also like to add a splash of vodka to be on the safe side.  And I find that the alcohol helps broaden the scents of the oils.  That being said, I’ve never once had a water-only batch turn bad on me.

1 4-ounce Boston Round glass bottle with atomizer

2/3 ounce vegetable glycerin

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 ounce vodka or grain alcohol (optional, but nice)

40 drops sage essential oil

15 drops rosemary essential oil

15 drops lemon essential oil

12 drops geranium essential oil

10 drops hyssop essential oil

2 1/3 to 3 1/3 ounce distilled, spring, or reverse-osmosis water

Add the vegetable glycerin, salt, vodka (if using), and oils.  Fill the bottle with water up to where the top starts to curve to the neck, then cap it with the atomizer top and shake vigorously for several seconds to dissolve the salt and thoroughly mix the oils and the glycerin.  Shake again before using.

 

 

 

My Cauldron has WiFi

img_2793

And I can control it with my smartphone, too.

I am not even joking.

A friend of mine called me up a couple days ago and told me a relative had been injured and what she could do magically to help accelerate the healing process.  One conversation about ethics and energy and proximity later, I found myself setting a date with her to make an herbal salve the relative could use (with her doctor’s permission!) and which my friend could charge with intent in a circle.

I had the ingredients on hand for a favorite salve recipe, but what I didn’t have was time to baby a double-boiler or fuss with a crockpot that boils everything no matter what.  But I do have a sous vide cooker, and it can hold just about any temperature you want for just about as long as you want with no fuss at all.  So I hooked it up and held the infusing herbs and oils steady at 100℉ for 24 hours.

Holy heck, I think that was pretty much the easiest time I ever had making an oil infusion.  It took almost no time to set up, and it churned all night and all day with no problems whatsoever.  And when I was away at work and panicking that I was burning down the house, all I had to do was check my smartphone…and the cooker’s wifi connection would show me how it was running so I could abort if necessary.  But everything was fine, and I came home today to this glorious concoction:

img_2798

Not the most attractive picture ever…but dang!  That is some dark oil!

For reference, this oil is so dark green it looks black, but it started as perfectly clear coconut oil.  That was a pretty effective infusion, if I do say so myself.  And, best of all, I can say with 100% certainty for the first time ever in my herbals preparations that I didn’t “cook” the herbs accidentally.

Wanted: Balance

For those of you who do not see me on the daily, you are probably unaware that even though I still ultimately think of my teaching job as a blessing and what I am meant to be doing right now, we are currently in the “hate” phase of our love/hate relationship.  I like to think of this phase as the pre-Thanksgiving sneaky hate spiral, but people smarter than me call it the “Disillusionment Phase.”  Basically, it’s that time of year in October and  November where teachers have just turned the page on the first quarter of the school year, and we realize that the dreams we had during the summer for how amazing this year was going to be have evaporated.  We take a solid look at the students we’re teaching–who are solidly out of their honeymoon phase and have morphed into hellions–their lackluster grades, the extreme amount of work we are doing, and the microscopic amount of pay off we get in return, and we just think…FUCK THIS.

bb

I honestly think Walt had less stress as Heisenburg than he did as Mr. White.

This is a thing.  I think that just about every new teacher (and probably most seasoned pros) goes through this.  We feel like frauds.  We feel like we aren’t doing the job well enough.  We feel like we are hurting children with our perceived incompetence. We are so over-extended and so stressed that we have exaggerated thoughts like “You know, if I hurt myself in a car crash this morning, I might not have to go to school for a few weeks.”  Just last week, I found myself staring into oncoming headlights as I was driving into school at 6 am (after waking up at 2 am to start working) and thinking, “it would be so easy to just turn the wheel left…”

This is a dark place, the Disillusionment Phase.  And I am certainly not alone in it, even though is is easy to think that.  The day I caught myself fantasizing about crashing my car, I mentioned it to my best work friend and she laughed and said “Oh, I’ve been having that dream for weeks now!” and next thing I know, I’m getting emails from the rest of my department saying “Yup: I’ve had that thought recently, too.”

While the solidarity is nice, I’d really like to find a way to get out of the Disillusionment Phase, but it is hard to see a tangible solution for that.  My fourth and fifth periods may decide to stop being jerks, but they probably won’t. And my workload may get lighter, but it probably won’t. I have very little real control over these stressors.  But what I can do is try to tweak my own mindset.

So over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to re-boot a meditation practice.  The only time I have been genuinely successful in this in the past was in graduate school when I could arrange my schedule to have a wide swath of time in the early morning to wake up, shower, eat healthfully, exercise, meditate, and do some personal reading and work before heading into classes around 9 am.  This is not feasible now.  Nor is having a set time each day–my schedule is too locked from 6 am to 4:30 pm, and then it’s highly variable every day after that.  The one thing that I can usually count on is a 9 pm bed time (ugh, that makes me feel so old), but meditating just before bed makes me fall asleep instead of meditate.

It’s been a struggle, and I’ve certainly not been perfect.  But I have really enjoyed the app I’m using to help: Headspace.  There’s a free starter pack of 10 guided meditations that help teach technique and regularity, and it sends you nice push notifications with reminders and positive thoughts.  You can also schedule reminders to meditate, which has been very useful to me. If you subscribe to the service (about the cost of Netflix), you get access to additional meditations and resources, but honestly I can see myself spending a few months at least on just the starter 10, so I’m not currently fussed about subscribing.

It’s helping some.  At the very least, taking 10 minutes a day to not think of anything obligation related or to zone out with a TV show has helped me stop thinking about the merits of maiming myself.  And it does help me feel, at least, as though I am practicing my spirituality more regularly rather than being a “Sabbat and Esbat” Wiccan. Perhaps I’ll see some other benefits a little down the road.

A Samhain Trip Down Memory Lane via Food

Some of my favorite Samhains I’ve ever had were those I spent with my college friends.  Back when we were all at DePauw, we usually went out to a cemetery and played “Ghosts in the Graveyard” and did a few other spooky things before heading back home for a dinner party (complete with our traditional “Ghosts in the Graveyard” cake) and a ritual.  When we graduated, though, we only had a couple Samhains together before jobs and life spread us to all corners of the country.  My favorite was the first: the night of a thousand disasters.

I remember that we were at Natalie and Allen’s apartment, and that it was one of the first real “grown up” parties they were hosting, and that some of Natalie’s family was coming so our stakes were high.  We planned a whole menu that was really quite fancy and where everything was specially chosen.  And the pièce de résistance was to be an apple pie, but not just any apple pie: Tyler Florence’s Caramel Apple Pie.  Now, maybe Natalie will correct me, but my memory is that this pie just about killed us.  We were not unskilled in the kitchen, but none of us were all that confident in our pie-making abilities, so we followed the instructions for this one to the letter.  But it took forever to make (easily double the prep + cooking time listed), made a huge mess in Natalie’s postage stamp kitchen, and when we finally cut into it, we found that under the gorgeous top crust was a bunch of half-cooked apples swimming in a liquid so abundant that it had dissolved the bottom crust.

And you know what?  I haven’t made another apple pie in the intervening decade.  Or pretty much any pie that can’t be made in a crumb crust.  It traumatized me.  Cutting into it flooded Natalie and Allen’s kitchen with sticky juice, and cleaning everything up pushed ritual so late that I’m pretty sure me and at least one other person crashed on their sofas before scooting off to work the next morning.

The thing is, I love apple pie, and I think that it is perfect for Samhain…especially when anything “pork” is on the menu.  It’s also been tugging on my hard this year.  My grandfather passed a few years ago, and he’s the only one person I have ever been close to who has, in fact, died.  And it is unreal how badly I miss him at times, and how much I wish he was here.  He was a career teacher, and I think that he probably would have been the only person in my family who would understand all the job-related stress I’ve been going through these past couple of years.  And Grandpa *loved* apple pie.  Around this time of year, it wasn’t uncommon for him and Grandma to buy bushels and bushels of the things at the orchards down the mountain.  And during apple time, they probably ate a slab pie between them every day (basically a bunch of apples thrown in the bottom of a 9×13 with one crust draped across the top…surprisingly light in calories, actually).  So this year when my coven leader told me that they were doing a pork loin roast, I found myself reaching for the apples I’d brought back from that very same orchard when I visited the family mountain a few weeks ago.

 But with memories of the horrific apple soup, I specifically searched out recipes that minimized liquid, and I think I found a winner in Serious Eats’ Gooey Apple Pie.  Unlike the tragic Florence recipe which uses thinly sliced raw apples, this one uses thicker chunks that are parcooked, then cooled before adding.  This basically means that the pectin in the apples has time to set and hold the apple’s shape and moisture, whereas in the Florence recipe, the pectin rushes out with all the juices when the cell walls start collapsing at the higher heat and basically leaves you with apple soup.

The pie turned out wonderfully (though I probably could have left it in a bit longer or done something to help the bottom brown).  I did make a couple changes from the recipe, though.  I used 2 tablespoons of cake spice (a mix of cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and clove) when I just needed 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon…because I totally misread the recipe.  The other thing I did not do was transfer my sous vide apples to a Dutch oven to thicken the liquid.  Instead, I poured the liquid into a saucepan and thickened it separately.  What I should have then done was tossed the apples in that, but instead I just poured the cooled sauce over the cooled apples in the pie crust.  The sauce went through all the apples as the pie baked, and the modification really cut down on the amount of time it took to cool the apples.

img_2778

My own gooey apple pie.  It is the prettiest pie I’ve ever made.

Altar Freshening with New Deity Representations

img_2755

Maxine Miller’s Cernunnos and Danu statuettes.

I once read in a book–I believe it was one of Deborah Lipp’s–that it was a good idea to move your deity representations around your house every so often.  The idea is that by mixing things up of occasion, the representations don’t have a chance to fade into the background and become part of the random flotsam and jetsam we become blind to in our homes.  In other words, we stay aware of them and the powerful beings they represent.

I still do not have a full home to decorate as I wish (life goals!), but I do have my room and my altar, and what I have taken to doing is changing up every couple of months the representations of deity that I display on my altar.  My true favorites remain Neil Sims’ Cernunnos and Oberon Zell’s Millennial Gaia, but I also adore Paul Borda’s seated God and Goddess, which fondly remind me of some friends who love them, too, as well as of Doreen Valiente’s famous figures.  I have a few other statuary representations that I mix into things, and sometimes I’ve printed off color images I find on the Internet and pop them into 5×7 frames.

danu

Maxine Miller’s Danu.  I love how regally she stands, and I can’t get enough of the detailing on the back of her robe.

Recently, though, when I close my eyes and try to envision the Goddess, the figure that swims in my mind’s eye looks less like Gaia and more like Robin Wood’s High Priestess card: a lady with watery robes and long, cascading hair.  As it happens, I was flicking through various pagan blogs last year and came across an image that stopped me in my tracks.  It was an image John Beckett had on his post on Danu–Maxine Miller’s statue.  I had seen this statue before at Celtic Jackalope’s booth at Pantheacon, and a local pagan store in Olympia, Druid’s Nook, had carried it, but it had never really jumped out at me before.  But now, it seemed like I was looking at the Goddess in the way I’ve been seeing her more and more these days.  I did a bit of Googling to find other images, and eventually found one that showed the back of the statue–and the gorgeous oak tree under a triple moon with a dragonfly buzzing within its branches and a frog and a salmon leaping at its base.  I thought it was stunning, and all those symbols mean a great deal to me, personally.  A quick pop onto Celtic Jackalope revealed another bonus, at least to my mind:  they were discontinuing her original green finish and were introducing her in cold-cast bronze, which I vastly prefer.

Now, I originally ordered the statue in April.  Soon thereafter, Deborah at Celtic Jackalope contacted me to let me know the stock was out and wouldn’t be replenished until June.  Well, June turned into late August, and the statue that first arrived had some major problems with the finish.  Deborah was really great about working with me, though, and this week my replacement finally arrived.  I couldn’t be more pleased, and am enjoying how my morning devotionals have changed when I use her as a focal point.

cernunnos

Maxine Miller’s Cernunnos.  This particular representation really makes me ponder who the God is.  It has proved very illuminating to sit and meditate upon some of the symbols Miller wove into his sculpture.

During the long wait for Danu, Miller also expanded her “Celtic Goddesses” line by adding her first God to it:  Cernunnos.  Of course, as soon as I saw it, I placed an order.  It is so hard to find an image of Cernunnos that I feel like I can relate to.  To me, he is an incredibly dynamic, powerful figure–one that I am simultaneously attracted to and repelled by.  The representations that show him to be a benign, bearded man with horns–almost like a Wiccan Jesus–or sleepily seated as on the Gundestrup cauldron as a Buddha don’t really do anything for me, and they feel like they misrepresent his energy.

I really like Miller’s take on him.  He’s a bit different here than on her previously released plaque, which is also amazing.  There’s so much iconography here that captures my imagination, from his elfin features to his hair circling out behind him to create a sun, to the bear claw on his chest, to the oak laves vining out from his groin.  At his feet are scattered coins imprinted with pentacles and a fox. Upon his back is a gorgeous relief of three horned beasts–a ram, a bull, and a stag–crowned by the sun.  He stands in a modified magician’s pose, one hand upraised, the other lowered.  The wicked looking horned serpent he holds upraised in his left arm is not under control as it is in Sims’s representation–it is ready to strike.  This is a representation that makes me think, and–if I’m to be honest–makes me shudder a little.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I had both Sims’ and Miller’s Cernunnos figures on my altar for a few weeks, and meditating on both of them at the same time was highly illuminating.  And, as you see below, Danu looks very nice with Sims’ representation, too.

img_2749

A decided bonus for me:  Danu looks especially nice with Sims’ Cernunnos.  They are scaled identically, and look very nearly like a matched pair.