With Halloween over, Christmas is now firmly on the horizon. The neat, hopeful displays of dried fruit, nuts, spices, flour and other festive baking essentials in the supermarkets and the exquisite crates of jewel toned winter fruit (so leafy, glossy and utterly exotic in comparison to the rest of the year’s humdrum gala-apple-and-banana offering) remind me sweetly, sentimentally, sometimes overly powerfully of the two linked but utterly distinct events that marked each of my autumns as a child and still influence and enrich my food aesthetic today – the school harvest festival and the church harvest festival.
I can’t remember exactly now, as both feel so long ago, but I think the school one happened first. It was a solemn, serious, Church of Ireland affair. Each pupil would be instructed to bring in a tin of something during the week beforehand. Before being given to a charity, these tins of Lustre tinned pineapple and Batchelors beans would be arranged by the 6th class pupils into an impressive, undulating assemblage on the long, low wooden gymnastics benches in the hall. Special harvest hymns would be plinked out on the hall piano by the Junior Infants teacher; bright little voices singing out loudly, as instructed by the vice principal. I’m no longer certain (maybe this part is a dream?) but I seem to remember that only the teachers brought in flour, as if it was a special privilege; the most important ingredient of all for the harvest festival.
Where the school harvest service was a somewhat stern, quite contained event, the harvest service in our presbyterian church in Rathgar was the total opposite: nature’s unpredictability was recognised; its bounty was celebrated and its fruits, branches and sheafs of grain were exalted on high for their wildness; their beauty; their unbridled, barely tamed generosity.
A congregation member known to have a good eye for design (usually a glamorous woman from nearby who had a handy way with flowers) would be tasked with ‘curating’ (my word, not theirs) the decoration of one window with some Sunday school children one afternoon in the week beforehand.
Regardless of whether I had been lucky enough to have helped with it or not, each year I would be transfixed by the decorated window for the whole service on the following Sunday. Now, when I think back on these harvest windows, they have a rich, warm autumnal glow emanating from them. Such a transformation; such plenty: what I understand awe to feel like.
PARSNIP IN A PEAR TREE CAKE
Perfect as a bolstering option for serving with coffee on wintry weekend mornings, the grated parsnip gives this cake an incredible depth of flavour while the rye flour and seeds make it pleasingly substantial. Makes 12 slices.
100g self-raising flour
100g rye flour
3 tbsps of mixed sultanas & raisins
2 tbsps of mixed seeds
Zest of 1/2 an orange
Pinch of ground cinnamon
6 or 7 cardamon pods, dehusked
1tsp baking powder
1/2tsp baking soda
Tiny pinch of sea salt
3 medium free-range eggs
175ml sunflower oil
165g light soft brown sugar
100g grated pear (firmer varieties work best)
100g grated parsnip
Preheat your oven to 180°c and line a loaf tin with baking parchment. Put the flours, sultanas, seeds, orange zest, cinnamon, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, grated parsnip, grated pear and salt in a large bowl and mix until well combined. Beat the eggs until smooth. Add the sunflower oil and sugar and whisk until well combined. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and beat in the egg mixture until fully incorporated. Pour the mixture into the parchment-lined loaf tin and smooth the surface out with a spatula. Bake in the centre of the oven for 30-35 minutes, until the cake is springy, well-risen and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean (it may need slightly more than 35 minutes; if so use your judgment – you’re looking for the moment when the skewer turns from slightly gooey to coming out clean, then take it out right then so that it doesn’t over-bake. Once baked through, rest on a cooling rack for 10 minutes in its tin then remove and serve whilst still slightly warm. Butter optional but advised 🙂