Customs and traditions usually come from something that occurred hundreds or years ago, oft times thousands. Origin stories can get lost or buried under other stories and when someone asks why we blow out candles on a birthday cake or count the days to Christmas or exchange rings at weddings, we have to think and sometimes admit we just don’t know.
Along with candles, seeds and cheese are symbols of Imbolc and this Pear and Halva Braid is an example of taking the essence of a tradition and giving it a more modern twist. Cardamom, nutmeg, star anise and sesame are all seeds not easily found in a local shop in the last century. Seeds represent possibility and Imbolc is all about new possibilities, the first hints of a new cycle as the light returns to the world. There is nothing much substantive to see and harvest is a long way off but the idea that an opportunity has been suggested, that we can open space for that opportunity to grow, is what is behind our use of seeds as a symbol of this time of the year. Winter pears are the resources we have on hand, carefully stored away, yet ensuring a foundation, a place to plant new seeds.
You will need:
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 cup luke warm water
1 pkg. yeast
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp. butter
3-4 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg, well beaten
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. ground cardamon
4 cups flour
1 cup mead
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
3 whole star anise
2 large firm ripe pears, peeled, cored and sliced
2 squares of halva about 1-1 1/2 inch cubed ( I used vanilla flavoured but plain will work as well )
1/2 cup/small brick cream cheese
1/2 cup icing sugar
3 Tbsp. whipping cream
Put on an apron to help create your shift in focus and energy. Close your eyes as you take and hold a deep breath. Release and repeat. As this braid is for Imbolc, I would suggest inviting Brigid to your hearth and requesting a blessing on your home as you prepare the ingredients. “In my kitchen filled with care, I welcome, Earth, Fire, Water, Air“.
If you have a go to basic sweet dough recipe, by all means use it and skip down to the filling section below. If not, carry on with the recipe included here.
Begin by proofing the yeast. Combine 1 tsp. sugar with 1/4 cup warm water in a bowl or glass and adding the yeast. Allow the mixture to sit for 15 minutes, making sure that the yeast becomes active, starts forming bubbles and begins to fill the container.
While the yeast is waking up, scald the milk and add butter, stir until melted. Add water, salt and sugar. Stir well and once the mixture is cool enough not to cook an egg, add in the egg and stir again.
A second option is to place all the liquid ingredients in the larger bowl and slowly add the flour while mixing with a hand mixer until it it too difficult to mix before mixing by hand.
I was in the mood for doing some kneading by hand so I poured the liquid into the dry ingredients. While kneading, I like to remember that wheat is also a seed. One ear of wheat contains about 40 grains. One grain, once milled, gives about 20,000 particles of flour. When you get to kneading try focusing on the seeds you would like to plant in your life as you work the dough.
Mix until a dough forms and the flour in being incorporated. Turn the dough and any leftover bits onto a floured work space and knead for at least 5 minutes, working in all the flour. If the dough feels to stiff, open a hole in the centre and add in an extra tablespon of water. Continue kneading.
When the dough is soft and elastic, wipe/wash out the bowl and return the dough to it to rest and grow. Some people like to oil the bowl before returning the dough as it can make it easier to remove the dough later.
Let the dough sit in a warm location until it has doubled in size. Cover to keep the dough away from cold drafts. One option is to store in a slightly warmed oven or try adding a bowl of hot water to the oven. While the dough is sitting move on to the filling.
Bring the mead to a simmer and add the star anise. Allow to simmer for about 15 minutes to reduce the liquid. ( Mead is not mandatory. A wine might be easier to locate or a diluted port, even juice with more anise and cinnamon and cloves will work. )
Wash, peel and slice 2 large pears. ( or apples in a pinch ) Poach the pears in the mead mixture until just cooked and remove from the pan. It may be necessary to poach the pears in two batches.
Once the pears are cooked, continue to reduce the liquid until you have 1/2 cup.
Return the cornstarch mixture to the pan and bring to a boil. The mixture will thicken.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool. If you find any lumps they can be dealt with by pouring the mixture through a small sieve.
Once the dough has doubled in size, it is time to put everything together. Punch the dough down and if the hole remains, it is time to roll.
The quick and easy option is to place the pears, crumbled halva and sauce on top of the dough and to them roll it pinwheel fashion from the smaller side, sealing the seam and cutting through the roll from opposite sides to create a pattern.
They hang on walls to request Brigid’s blessing on a home. As she is also the associated with craftmanship, weaving would be another skill attributed to this Fire Goddess. So the second option here would be to weave the dough together as shown below.
Cut slits about 1/3 of the way into the dough from each side, taking away about 1 1/2 inches from each corner.
Crumble the halva, down the middle section and layer with the poached pears.
Fold the top center section down on top of the pear filling and begin to fold the strips over the filling at a bit of an angle. Think mummy bindings.
Move all the way down to the bottom, folding up the bottom before completing the weaving of the side strips.
These rest periods will take about an hour while the yeast goes back to work adding air pockets, making the bread light and fluffy.
When you are almost ready, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If the bread is being stored in the oven, take it out before turning the oven on. An egg wash can be applied to the loaf to deepen the colour when baked. Mix a little watr with an egg and paint the top of the loaf. Bake for about 35 minutes.
Cheese and milk are also part of Imbolc celebrations because ewe’s are making milk to feed their new kids. In my part of the world, the first of this years newborns are out in the fields, so topping off the braid with a little dairy decoration is in keeping with the celebrations.
Cool the baked braid and drizzle the cream cheese icing on top.
Put on the kettle, share one loaf with family and keep the other safe for your intended purpose.
For all the spices in this recipe, it is not in any way overpowering and you will not go astray doubling the caradmon, nutmeg and star anise.
Pear and Halva Braid from My Kitchen Wand.