How y’all doing out there? We’re on Week 7 of quarantine and thankful for our health, the roof over our heads, and a full pantry, even as life (and finances) seem to get more precarious every day. I keep finding myself in the kitchen- my attention span and emotional state are exactly the correct wavelength for ongoing baking and fermentation projects. Reading books? Not so much.
This week, I’m eagerly awaiting May 1st, Beltane, also known as May Day, the sacred cross-quarter day that marks the midpoint between Ostara (the Spring Equinox) and Litha (the Summer Solstice). According to Wikipedia, “the earliest known May celebrations appeared with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers.” Even though Maypoles, May Queens, and Beltane fires now seem a thing of antiquity, May Day was celebrated widely throughout the United States up until as recently as the 1960’s and 70’s.
One small way you can keep May Day traditions alive (while not touching or sharing germs with anyone that is not in your quarantine pod/squad) is by making a May Basket to share.
A May Basket is simply a small basket or cone of flowers, treats, and candies shared with friends, sweethearts, and neighbors on May 1st. The tradition of hanging the May Basket on the doorknob, knocking on the door, and running away keeps you safely within social distancing protocols while sharing spring joy! Just remember to wash your hands. Here’s how I’ve made mine:
Step 1: Make the basket.
A simple paper cone affixed with a ribbon is the perfect, lo-fi vessel for your May Basket. Decorate your paper however you like (I prefer collage: gluing magazine cuttings to construction paper with a glue stick), then form a cone and staple or tape the edges. Punch a hole on either side and thread with a ribbon, and your May Basket is ready to fill!
If you have the time, desire, and ingredients to bake, by all means, bake! But if you want to keep it simple, there’s no shame in just buying some small chocolates and candies. Your May Basket can be as simple and sweet as you choose. You can’t do it wrong, and your friends and neighbors will appreciate it just as much.
I opted to fill my baskets with my childhood favorite: petit fours (pronounced petta-fours), small, delicate cakes, filled and glazed. The name petit fours means “little ovens” in French, because traditionally the pastry to make them was baked with the last embers of a wood-fired oven as it cooled down. I started with a simple lemon pound cake, baked in two 10″ round layers.
Lemon Pound Cake: Start with all ingredients at room temperature. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a stand mixer, cream 1 stick of butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar until light. Add in three eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl as you go. Add and mix: dash of vanilla, zest of one lemon, 1/2 cup sour cream. Sift together: 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add to creamed mixture and mix gently until just combined. Pour into two 10″ round pans (or a half sheet rectangle pan). Take care to smooth the batter as evenly as possible and rotate every 5 minutes in the oven so the layers bake perfectly flat. Bake for 15-25 minutes, or until cakes are golden, the edges start to come away from the sides of the pan, and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Make the filling: cook down 2 cups of any fruit of your choice with 1/2 cup sugar, juice of one lemon, 1 tablespoon cornstarch and a pinch of salt. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until the mixture begins to thicken. Or: you can gently warm your favorite fruit jam in a saucepan to thin it.
Fill and weight the cakes: place the first cake layer on a cookie sheet, and cover with the filling. Place the second cake layer on top of the filling layer, and cover with parchment or wax paper. Place another baking sheet on top of that, then place a weight on top of the baking sheet. A cast iron skillet works nicely. The goal is to get the cake to congeal together with the filling, not to smush the cake. Place the cake in the fridge to chill for an hour or two.
Make the glaze: whisk 4 cups of powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and one tablespoon milk or cream. Add more liquid as needed for a thick but pourable consistency.
Assemble the petit fours: using a strip of paper as a straight edge for a guide, cut the cake into squares with a serrated knife. Place each square on a rack and top with a spoonful of glaze. I had some leftover cream cheese icing in the fridge which I colored with turmeric and piped on a star design with, but you can decorate with fresh fruits or flowers, or leave them plain.
Package the petit fours: To package the petit fours, I placed each one in a cupcake liner, then cut, stamped, and folded strips of cardstock to create a protective case for each one. A little more time consuming than cupcakes or pound cake, but what I have an abundance of right now is TIME.
Step 3: Assemble the baskets.
I harvested spring flowers from my yard and some out-of-the-way places, and had a very sweet afternoon driving around, filling my little paper cones with flowers and cake, and hanging them on a few doorknobs.
However you choose to celebrate, I hope you have a beautiful Beltane. In the midst of all of our human chaos, the wheel of the year keeps turning, and that certainty is a delicious comfort.
Wishing you luck and love,
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