Today marks the fourth day of December and in parts of France and Germany St. Barbara's Day, or as we call it, Barbartag, on December 4, is considered to mark the beginning of the Christmas season. According to legend, Barbara, the daughter of a rich pagan, was carefully guarded by her father who kept her locked up in a tower in order to to shield her from outside influences.
German-speaking countries celebrate the tradition of the St. Barbara's branch, or as we call it the Barbarazweig. The original folklore was that unmarried girls cut twigs from cherry trees and forced them into bloom. There is an old belief that if the twig blossoms on Christmas Eve, the girl will be married the following year. The practice of forcing the blooms on the cherry tree twigs comes from a legend that while St. Barbara was locked in her tower, she felt lonely. She found a dried up cherry tree branch which she watered daily with a few drops from her drinking water and it is said to have flowered on the day of her untimely death.
To this day, this is a nice decoration for your home during the winter season. Branches from other flowering plants or trees may be used, such as apple, forsythia, plum, lilac, or chestnut but cherry is the preferred.
On a day with mild temperatures, pick branches that have swollen buds and cut stems. Crush the ends of the branches, and submerge in a tub of cool, not icy, water for several hours. Place the branches in a large vase of water. For a few days, leave the branches in a cool area. As the buds begin to swell bring the branches into a warm room, but not in direct heat and when the blooms appear, place the branches in a sunny window. Change water every two days. Thin branches force more quickly than thick ones – it will take from one to four weeks for the brach to bloom.
In my pictures I placed the branch from our cherry tree next to a small version of the St.Barbara´s Cake, or Barbarakuchen as we call it in German. This is an old traditional German cake recipe that makes a lovely lemon-flavored cake to go with a cup of coffee or some lovely tea on the feast of St. Barbara.
St. Barbara's Cake - Barbarakuchen
Ingredients for the Cake
- 200 g unsalted butter, room temperature, plus some to flour the baking pan(s)
- 250 g superfine baking sugar
- the grated zest from one organic lemon
- 4 eggs (M), organic or free range
- 125 g AP (plain) flour, plus some to flour the baking pan(s)
- 125 g corn starch
- 2 tsps baking powder
- a pinch of fine sea salt
Ingredients for the Icing
- 150 g powdered sugar
- 2 - 3 tbsps freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Preheat your oven to 180 ° C (356° F) or 160° C (320° F ) for convection ovens.
- Butter and flour your loaf pan(s). NOTE: I use one large one (30 x 11 cm or 11 x 4 inches) or five small ones (11 x 7 cm or 4 x 2 inches).
- In a large bowl, whisk together flour, corn starch, baking powder, and salt.
- In another bowl, using a mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, 8 minutes.
- Add zest, then eggs, one at a time, beating well and scraping down bowl as needed.
- With mixer on low, add flour mixture in two additions, beat until combined.
- Transfer batter to prepared pan(s) – the pans should be about 2/3 full.
- Bake until the cakes spring back when lightly touched or a skewer inserted in center comes out clean, depending on the size of your pans, that will take about 40 to 45 minutes for the small and about 55 to 60 minutes for the large.
- Let cool in pan(s) on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, for about 30 minutes. NOTE: Setting the racks in a rimmed baking sheet will make sure that any excess glaze will drip onto the baking sheets instead of your counter.
- Remove loaf or loaves from pan(s) and let cool completely on rack.
- Whisk powdered sugar and about 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice to make glaze.
- Drizzle over the loaf cake(s) and let stand until set (that will take about 30 – 60 minutes, depending on how thick your glaze is).
The loaf shape of the finished St. Barbara´s cake is said to be reminiscent of the tower that Barbara was locked in by her father. This cake is traditionally glazed with this thick powdered sugar and lemon juice glaze but I have also seen a version in Bavaria, where the cake was glazed with dark chocolate instead.
Instead of baking the St. Barbara´s Cake in a large loaf pan, you can use individual small ones like I did (this recipe yields five small loaf cakes OR one large one) – that way you can give a small version of the St. Barbara´s Cake as a gift, maybe along with a small branch from a tree in your garden or from your trusted florist. And really, while this cake is perfect for Decmber 4 and baking in honor of the feast of St. Barbara, it is wonderful any time of the year.
Please make sure to drop by again tomorrow when we will open our fifth special surprise in my virtual Advent Calendar and travel to a different European country!