Samhain Decoration Idea: A Harvest Still Life

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This picture is unfortunately kind of pixelated, but I couldn’t resist the jack-o’-lantern chowing down on the grapes.

Among many other things, Samhain is the last of the harvest festivals, so I have always liked to decorate my home and altar with some of the crops and foods available in late autumn.  Of course, this includes the usual suspects of gourds and squash–what would Samhain in America be without the jack-o’-lantern?–but other foods are harvested throughout October.  In the Pacific Northwest, October sees the last major apple harvest, as well as the bulk of our wine grape harvest, and the decorative Indian corn has fully dried by this point.  We’re also usually able to find all manner of acorns and nuts in the woods, and there’s usually late-blooming mums about, as well as all manner of interesting dried leaves, poppy pods, and other items that could be decoratively used in creating your “still life” tableau.  I think the last of the sunflowers would make an excellent addition, as would the final blooms of black-eyed susans.  Pine cones could also be an interesting element.

Finally, since the new grapes of the year ripen at this time, I have a small tradition of placing a bottle of local wine from the previous year’s vintage on the altar.  I feel that this helps me keep a connection between the year gone by and the one to come.  (I also feel that when I leave the Pacific Northwest, I won’t worry so much about the ‘local’ part of this.)

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Samhain Decoration Idea: An Ancestor ‘Family Tree’

A Samhain ancestor tree created by Paige.

A Samhain ancestor tree created by Paige.

Flittering about the Interwebs of an evening, I came across this image of a “Samhain Tree” that a Flickr user named Paige (ladybird.ladybird) created for the centerpiece to her dumb supper table.  When I first saw it, the curmudgeonly part of me grumbled “Holy mackerel!  We string crap on trees for just about every holiday lately, don’t we?”  See, I have a thing against all the “Easter Egg trees” and “Valentine’s Day trees” and “Thanksgiving trees” I see in women’s magazines at every turn of the wheel.  In my book, the only tree-decorating holiday should be Yule.

A close-up of some of the ancestor ornaments.

A close-up of some of the ancestor ornaments.

However, the more I looked at Paige’s decorated branches, the more I realized she was essentially making a literal “family tree” from photographs of ancestors.  The concept was really simple:  Take two scalloped circles of orange-and-black scrapbooking paper, sandwich a loop of orange or black ribbon between them, and glue them together.  Then, cut out a circle around the face of a printed photograph of your ancestor and (optionally) a slightly larger circle of another decorative paper to frame the photo.  Glue the two the the front face of the scalloped circle.  Additionally, you can cut out a second circle of the second decorative paper and write the name of your ancestor on it before gluing it to the ornament’s back.  That’s really all there is to making the ornaments, which–being flat pieces–will easily store in an envelope between Samhains.

I really enjoyed the “bring the metaphor to life” aspect of this family tree, but I thought it had great practical benefits, too.  It allows you to attractively elevate your ancestor photographs on an altar so that you can place other seasonal items, various ancestor items, and plates for the dumb supper below.  If you’re anything like me, the Samhain altar gets awfully crowded, so something like this can really save your hide come circle time.

Making the tree itself is also dead simple:  you just cut generous lengths of thinner, nubbly branches from a local tree and group them in a vase.  Inserting them into marbles or glass chips will help hold them in place, and a tall, cylindrical vase (like the one shown) will help keep the branches from spreading outwards overmuch.  For extra seasonal tie-ins, the vase can be decorated with orange and black ribbon, as Paige has done here.

Samhain Decoration Idea: A Skull Bead Garland

A bit of my new Samhain Garland

A bit of my new Samhain Garland

This garland was the bane of my existence for a solid twelve months.  It started back when I first visited my coven sister V. in March 2012.  During that visit, she took me to Shipwreck Beads, in Lacey.  There, I came across these dyed magnesite skull beads, which had been mismarked at $2.49 for a strand of 22 beads (others of that size were $4.20).  I bought four strands and decided that I would make a garland with them, but I wanted the skulls to be interspersed with Samhain-colored orange and black beads.  Unfortunately, Shipwreck didn’t have any bright orange beads that weren’t plastic or seed beads, so the skull beads languished in a drawer until November 2012, when I visited a Gem Faire in Tacoma.  I miraculously found some orange-dyed stone beads and black wooden round beads from a vendor there, and picked up some stringing supplies at Shipwreck later that week.  Thus began my real frustrations.

It became very apparent after stringing my first foot that I would need to knot between each bead.  Due to the fact that most of the garland is made of stone, it is quite heavy, and the force of a train of beads slamming into each other on a loose string meant that the beads might get nicked up or split, and a lot of friction would be put on the string.  Eventually, that string would break and I’d have a huge mess to clean up.  But knotting was hard. I was using the method shown in the video below, but after about 20 beads, I realized it was very laborious to string one bead down 17 feet of cord (I wasn’t sure how long the finished garland was going to be, so I made sure to get a lot of cord). In order to keep the cord from tangling, I tried to wind it around a pair of spools, but that got very tiresome very quickly. So I took a break and loosely strung all the beads I was going to use onto the length of cord.

This worked out quite well for a couple of feet, since I could use the “short” end of knotted beads to slide through the loop and form a knot. But the short end didn’t stay short for long and once I got to about 5-6 feet of knotted beads, I realized it was taking up to 10 minutes to slide down one bead and tie one knot. Very often, I’d create a tangle, or–worse–get everything in line but end up tying a knot too far away from the bead and then waste a lot of time trying to pick the knot open again.  I soldiered on for another couple of weeks until I managed about 7 or 8 feet until, frustrated, I boxed up the entire project and set it aside until the middle of March 2013.

At this point, I brought out the project and set it up on my bed. With some fiddling, I realized if I kept a couple feet of ’empty’ cord between the stream of loose beads and the stream of knotted beads, I could essentially leave both these streams in two compact heaps. All I need to do was twist the empty middle into a loop, pinch the crossed of the strands with one hand, while using the other to simultaneously hold the loop open while gliding the bottom of the loop under the heap of knotted beads. Thanks to sitting on a soft surface, the loop would slide under cleanly and not tangle up in the beads. This would essentially give me a huge, loose knot. It was a simple matter of sticking a pair of tweezers into that loop right in front of the bead and then tightening the loop to create a knot. In the time it took to watch three episodes of West Wing, I finished knotting the garland.

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The finished garland is a whopping twelve feet long, and it weighs 1 pound and 3.125 ounces.  I think it looks nice just wound around objects on my altar, but it could also be draped above the altar or around it.  I could also heap it into a glass bowl or drape it onto different items like framed photographs of my ancestors.  It’s the cord of life and death that links us all together.

Sabbat Traditions: Ghosts in the Graveyard

Now that I’ve gotten to think about Samhain food traditions I’ve enjoyed in the past, I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned the wonder of “Ghosts in the Graveyard” before.

Let me take you back to my wonderful college years.  DePauw University was a great place for me for many reasons, but the best one is that I made a ton of pagan friends there.  Together, we started a pagan student group called The Rede, and we celebrated most of the sabbats together.

We were all also very fond of a particular cemetery out in the countryside of Putnam County.  Boone Hutcheson Cemetery might just be one of the oldest active cemeteries in Indiana.  It has gravesites that go back as far as 1812, four years before Indiana became a state and more than a decade before the county was formed.  It is most famous for being the cemetery in which many relatives and descendents of the pioneer and explorer Daniel Boone, who died himself in 1820, are buried.  Boone Hutch, as the locals call it, is also famous for its ghost stories.  The most famous phantoms include a police officer from about the 1950s who sits inside the graveyard with a blue light and chases away nocturnal visitors.  There is also purported to be a pack of ghost dogs with eyes that burn red who chase similar visitors back into their cars.  These dogs are supposed to emerge from a cave near the cemetery, which has its own trove of lore involving bodies dropping from their rotting caskets into the cave.

Boone Hutch as seen from the base of the hill

Well, we spent oodles of night time at Boone Hutch, and while the place clearly had its ghosts (including the spirit of a then recently-buried teenager who sort of adopted us and often followed us home) we never saw the sinister famous ones.  In fact, Boone Hutch was one of the safest places we knew of.  We used to go out there just to walk around the loop road over and over again just to talk out our troubles or just to be safe in the night.  I found tons of bioluminescent grubs (glow worms) all around the graves once, looking like stars on the ground.  (In fact, I almost thought it was a watery reflection of the sky.)  I saw the Northern lights there.  I watched fog roll in from the big creek in the valley below the cemetery and saw it blanket everything in the valley.  It was a beautiful place.

We Reders also often went there to re-create parts of our childhood, and part of what that entailed was playing “Ghosts in the Graveyard.”  One person would be ‘it’, and everyone else would be the ghosts.  ‘It’ had to stand in place at a grave designated as base while all the ghosts tried to creep up on ‘it’ unnoticed.  ‘It’ had the responsibility of spotting  and identifying all the ghosts before he/she got tagged.  The last person identified (or the successful tagger) was ‘it’ in the next round.

We played this so often that when I saw this dessert called “Ghosts in the Graveyard” in a Kraft brand magazine in our junior year, I knew I would have to make it for our Samhain Dumb Supper.  It sort of became a tradition after that.  I baked a chocolate cake and decorated it like you see here, but it’s also easily done with a more “dirt pudding” type of recipe.  No matter what is used for the base, every time I see this Samhain dessert, I get very nostalgic for my Rede friends and our good times together.

The image from Kraft that inspired me

Ghosts in the Graveyard

1 9×13 chocolate cake, baked OR enough chocolate pudding to fill a 9×13 baking dish
1 batch chocolate frosting if using a cake
1 tub (12 oz.) Cool Whip whipped topping
15 or so Oreo Cookies, crushed (about 1-1/2 cups)
Assorted decorations: 4 Cameo Creme Sandwich Cookies, decorating icing in white, brown, and orange, 5 candy pumpkins, 10 candy corn pieces, 1 green chewy fruit rollup.

To assemble the dessert, make the pudding or frost the cake.  Cover the frosting/pudding evenly with the crushed Oreo cookies to make the graveyard ‘dirt.’  Pipe the colored frosting onto the Cameo cookies to make them look like gravestones (RIP down the center works well, as does outlining the cookies).  Pop the cookies into the pudding/cake, then snip the green fruit roll up into shards of ‘grass’ and arrange the grass around the grave stones.  Drop spoonfuls of Cool Whip onto the cake to resemble 3 ghosts and give them orange eyes with the frosting.  Scatter the pumpkins and the candy corn around the cake.  Serve.

Sabbat Traditions: Z.’s Gingerbread

I mentioned last year that my high priestess, Z., had a Samhain tradition that involved making gingerbread and serving it with sweetened whipped cream and/or applesauce for the group dumb supper.  It inspired me to try my hand at the Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread, which is amazing.  This year, though, I had my wits together and asked Z. for her recipe, which originates from an old Betty Crocker cookbook.

Z.’s Gingerbread

1/2 cup butter, softened
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg
1 cup blackstrap molasses
1 cup boiling water
2 1/4 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated is best)
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

Preheat the oven to 325˚F and grease and flour a 9-inch square pan.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream together the butter, sugar, and the egg until the mixture is light and fluffy. Blend in the molasses and the boiling water. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. Whisk them together until the mixture is even, then add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, stirring until all the flour is incorporated and the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and baked the cake for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake emerges with just a few moist crumbs.

Beginning Sabbat Traditions: Samhain Cake

One thing that I’ve been trying to do over the past several years is to conscientiously think about the Sabbats as holidays.  They’re religious observations, obviously…but if I’m to really integrate them into my life, then I need to come up with some life things that I can look forward to, that I can build traditions around.

As you know, I celebrated Samhain this year with Hartwood Grove, and Z. made some really good, awesome gingerbread for the cakes and ale.  And something clicked for me.  Over the past few days, I’d been craving desserts that heavily featured molasses and warm spices.  I’d been churning out batch after batch of molasses cookies (and gobbling them up soon after…not the best thing for the waist line), and when it came time for me to make house dinner on Wednesday, I decided to pull out all the stops and make an intriguing dessert I found on the internet:  Gingerbread Stout Cake with an Ale Caramel Sauce.  The cake is originally attributed to Claudia Fleming of Gramercy Tavern, but the addition of the caramel sauce is the brain child of home cook and blogger Peabody.

Oh, oh, oh was this ever decadent.  The outside of the cake caramelizes to a hard, crisp shell while the inside is moist and dense.  In fact, it’s so dense that the very middle has a texture almost like pudding (it is completely baked–trust me).  It is thick and rich, and utterly in-your-face gingerbread.  Z.’s gingerbread is fantastic–I definitely want the recipe–but this is the one that screams “holiday” to me.  It’s one of those special once-in-a-year cakes, and what better holiday for it than Samhain?

As a note, this cake does sink a bit as it cools, which isn’t a huge aesthetic problem as the Bundt cake is inverted and no one will see the sinking.  However, I’d like to fix this problem eventually.  One hypothesis is that too much baking powder may be the culprit.  It might also just be the extreme moisture content of the cake:  the batter is exceptionally thin (which is what causes the crisp shell–some sugar sinks out of the batter and caramelizes on the pan, which is why a thoroughly greased nonstick Bundt pan is essential for this recipe).  Further baking will reveal the answer, I’m sure.

Gingerbread Stout Cake with Ale Caramel Sauce
1 cup Guinness Extra Stout (or a similar dark stout)
1 cup dark molasses (definitely not blackstrap molasses)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cardamom
3 large eggs
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil

Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F.  Thoroughly grease and flour a 10- or 12-cup a heavy, nonstick Bundt cake pan (such as those from Nordicware’s cast aluminum series), or thoroughly coat the pan with baking spray.  Set the pan aside.

In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and spices together.  Set the dry ingredients aside.

Bring the Guinness and molasses to a boil in a 5 to 6 quart saucepan or Dutch oven and promptly remove it from the heat. Whisk in baking soda, then cool to room temperature.  The baking soda will cause the Guinness and molasses to foam up, and if a big saucepan or Dutch oven isn’t used, it may foam out of the pan.

Whisk the eggs and sugars together in a medium bowl or in a stand mixer. Whisk in the oil, then molasses mixture. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk them together until just combined.  The batter will be very thin.

Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan, and rap the pan sharply on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Place the cake on the center oven rack and bake about 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with just a few moist crumbs adhering to the pick.  Cool the cake in its pan on a rack 5 minutes, then turn the cake out onto the rack to cool completely.  When the cake is cool, use a very large spatula or a series of spatulas to help transfer the cake to its serving platter as the moisture and denseness of the cake makes it prone to breaking with uneven weight distribution.

Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream and the Ale Caramel Sauce.

Ale Caramel Sauce
12 ounces ale
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup heavy whipping cream
pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pour the ale into a medium saucepan and bring to a low boil.  Continue to boil the ale, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until it is reduced by two-thirds (or to 4 ounces).

Add the butter and brown sugar to the reduced ale and bring it to a low boil, stirring only when the mixture is in danger of boiling over.  Continue boiling until the mixture is thick and syrupy, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Slowly stir in the cream as it will spatter up and cook the caramel sauce another 5 or 6 minutes, until it is thickened.  At this point, remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the vanilla and salt.  Cool the sauce until it is slightly warm or even room temperature.  Keep in mind that the sauce will thicken even more as it cools, so you may wish to pour it into a squeeze bottle while it is still more fluid.