When an arrow does not hit its target, the marksman blames himself, not another person. A wise man behaves in the same way. — Confucius (from Tolstoy's Calendar of Wisdom for 11 January)
For those who have not yet cleared away Midwinter, even in my rather northerly part of the world, day length is now about the same as it was on November 30th. The latest sunrises ended back on 6 January. The sun now sets after 4:30pm, about where it was when the clocks changed to end Daylight Savings Time in early November. Twelfth Night, Epiphany, Plough Monday and Distaff Tuesday have all come and gone. So… the solstice is definitely over.
But, you say, it’s so bare when the holiday stuff is boxed up. And oh so dark. Well… I think I have a palliative. My birthday is in January. So I spent childhood trying to come up with ways to fend off the winter blues. One of my favorite is focusing on the winter lights.
When the weather is dry and cold and the moon rises late, the stars of winter are like jewels in black velvet. Winter skies are pointing away from the galactic center, so there isn’t the wash of glitter that you see in the summer. Instead, winter features some of the most spectacular stars visible from Earth dropped into an inky void that makes them shine all the brighter for lack of competition. The electric blue Dog Star, Sirius, the star that the Egyptians associated with Isis in her aspect of love goddess, Sothis, outshines all other stars and is normally brighter than most of the planets. The Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, a constellation that features in myth and lore almost universally around the globe, stands high and prominent in the winter skies. Orion the Hunter strides across the skies just after the Seven Sisters. The month begins with the Quadrantids meteor shower (this year washed out by a nearly full moon) and ends with the moon at its closest to the Earth. It’s a dazzling time — if you can stand the cold. And if there aren’t clouds. (Or, in certain quarters, atmospheric rivers…)
But there are other lights indoors. This is the best time of year for firelight of all kinds — from candles on the dinner table to the welcome blaze in the wood stove. As we move closer to Candlemas in February, you might try making your own candles. One of the easiest crafts I know, and also one of the messiest, candle-making is meditative and calming. And so very cozy-warm! Then there is the warm glow you make in the fireplace or wood stove. Not only is this good for hours of time lost to gazing into the flames, but it also requires hours of good hard work, splitting and hauling and stacking wood every day. The best way to work out in winter. And it comes with a fire to warm your feet when you’re done.
And then there’s ice. There is little in the universe that is as beautiful as fresh snow under starlight or awash with the pearly colors of rising dawn or glowing under the purpling twilight. Light is reflected and refracted and dispersed in rainbows and crystalline scintillation. The eye can hardly take it all in. Some mornings, water vapors turn to lacework frost on every surface, turning a mown field into a lake of glitter. Nothing plays with light like water in all its forms.
Of course, you could also just leave up some of the holiday lights. I have a particular weakness for bubble lights (inherited from my mother, the weakness, not the lights… she won’t pass those on yet…). There are many years I simply refuse to take my strand down on 12th Night. They aren’t lit all the time, but if I’m feeling dreary there’s nothing quite as happy as a cup of tea, a good mystery book, and colorful bubbles on the windowsill. Especially if there’s a moon shining through it all.
If you have the means, it also helps to put out lighter colors in your surroundings. This can be as simple and cheap as putting out white candles and perhaps a table covering or two. If you’ve been at this project as long as I have, then there are now creamy pillow covers and antique kitchen linens, pale quilts on the beds and lots of silvered glass on the mantle. Since I was born in January, I also have quite a collection of snowdrops — January’s birth flower — that I’ve been gifted over the years. Silk flowers, yes, but also beads and embroidery and art. All this indoor winter color makes the outdoors feel warmer somehow. Or maybe it just makes the home more open, airy and lighter — and light nearly always means heat to our animal minds.
So that’s one way to brighten up January. Another is to make good food. Because the kitchen is always merry and bright!
Blue Corn Bread
I finally found a source for the blue corn that I absolutely love and absolutely can’t seem to grow in New England. It’s not local, and I feel bad about that. But I treat it as a luxury and use it sparingly. Son#1 and I had blue corn pancakes over the holidays. That was almost the best part of my holidays. They taste like nothing else — sweet, nutty, with a basal flavor that doesn’t seem to have a name but which… well, if I said “dark” you would know exactly what I meant. Blue corn is dark. But the taste is overlain with hundreds of memories of special mornings in New Mexico. A whole tapestry of happiness! So blue corn pancakes are definitely a luxurious breakfast, one that should be eaten sparingly, savoring every bite and every memory.
I’ve also made a couple rounds of quick bread with blue corn. The first was a felicitous cross between a corn muffin recipe and a pumpkin bread. Now that was luxury!
Then, this past weekend I found that my bananas had gone beyond any semblance of yellow. So it was time for banana bread.
I used to bake banana bread all the time. It was a staple for quick breakfasts and after-school snacks when there were teen appetites in my house. But bananas are another import that serves as a rare treat in the loca-vore diet… though one that sadly will not be an option at all much longer, what with viruses and monocultures and climate controlled shipping and all. (At least blue corn avoids all that.) So here is this special bread recipe that I love and here is this special flour that I love and… hmmm… wouldn’t it be extra-special if I combine the two?
That was my thought anyway… and I invented Blue Corn Banana Bread. And yes, it is extra-super-special! So yummy it didn’t even go to the freezer. I’m eating a large slice every day for dinner with this week’s Pot of Something (black beans, sweet potatoes, corn, and green chile in a tomato-butternut squash soup base… yes, it’s delicious… no, it has no name.)
So here is the recipe for Blue Corn Banana Bread.
Makes 2 loaves. Cut in half if you don’t have so many brown bananas…
6 eggs, well beaten 3 cups mashed over-ripe bananas (I used 6 mid-sized bananas.) 2 cups sugar 1 cup melted butter or corn oil 2 tsp vanilla extract Optional: 1/2 cup currants (or other dried fruit) 1/2 cup toasted pecans (or other nuts)
2 cups all-purpose flour 2 cups whole wheat flour 1 cup blue corn flour 3 tsp baking powder 1 tsp baking soda 1/2 tsp salt 2 tsp ground cinnamon 1 tsp ground nutmeg 1 tsp ground allspice
Warm the oven to 375°F and prep two 9″x5″x3″ loaf pans. I used a square of parchment paper in the base of the pan and corn oil on the sides.
If you are using nuts, put them in a shallow pan over moderate heat to toast them. When you smell them, take them off the heat, but leave them in the pan to continue to brown.
If you are using butter, melt it over lowish heat. Don’t brown it or let it boil for this recipe.
While the butter melts, beat the eggs until frothy in a large bowl.
Add the banana mash to the eggs and beat until well combined.
Slowly add the melted butter or oil to the egg and banana, stirring continuously to combine.
Add the sugar to the liquids and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the vanilla extract and set the liquids aside.
In a smaller bowl, combine all the flours, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and the ground spices. Stir until all the ingredients are blended smoothly. Blue corn flour tends to clump, so you may need to use your fingers to break up the blobs.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet a little at a time, beating smooth between each addition.
Stir in the currants (dried fruit) and pecans (nuts).
This mix will be more firm than the usual runny banana bread batter, more like cookie dough. Scoop it into the prepared pans, filling both pans evenly. (Counting scoops is how I do that…)
Bake in the middle of a 375°F oven for about 1 hour, or until the top is brown and a toothpick inserted in the bread comes out smooth. You may want to cover the top with foil for the last fifteen minutes or so since this recipe is very sugary and will try to scorch if left to its own devices.
When done baking, let cool in the pan for ten minutes. Then run a knife around the edges to help slide each loaf from its pan and let them cool completely on a wire rack. Or just eat it warm. (I’m not convinced that quick breads develop much more of a crumb with cooling… so there really is no reason to wait for this one.)
Banana bread will keep on the counter for a week (as long as it’s not warm and wet in your house). It will keep in the fridge for a couple weeks or more. And you can freeze it almost indefinitely without losing flavor. I’m not sure how the blue corn will affect any of that, being that this is the first time I’ve made it. But then, if a loaf lasts for more than a week… what’s wrong with you? Should we call an ambulance?
This bread has so much flavor you won’t want to put anything on it, but it is a bit corn-y (ie dry). So it does benefit from a bit of butter. (I suspect almond butter would be divine… sadly, that is not on the loca-vore menu in Vermont…)
The word for this week is
Here are the poems that have been added so far to the January Wednesday Word contest.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023