Today is Winter Solstice, the first day of Winter, and the shortest day of the year. From here on out, the days will slowly get longer, with a bit more sunlight each day, until Spring Equinox, when the sun will chase Winter away at last. It’s been wintry here for a few weeks now, though. We’ve had a couple of short, sweet snowstorms, and there’s still a few inches of snow on the ground, even though the temperatures have been fluctuating wildly – Sunday we hit 50 deg.F, and this morning the weather station displayed 7 deg.F when I took the dog out for her morning constitution. Thankfully nothing is terribly icy, so getting around isn’t difficult yet.
Our winter holiday traditions are, well, eclectic. Over the years, we have celebrated on the Winter Solstice, Christmas Day, or whichever day in-between those two was easiest for the five of us to get together. While The Boy was still attending elementary school, if our chosen celebratory day fell on one of the last, absurd days of school before vacation, he simply began his vacation a few days early. He did not particularly enjoy the school parties, so did not miss being there for them. One year, a nasty ice storm set our schedule for us, and we just made the best of it, once everyone’s power was restored and the roads were clear. This year, we are celebrating tonight, just the three of us, and on Christmas Day, with the in-laws. Tonight’s festivities will include an all-night vigil, waiting for the sun to return, while watching all four “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and eating vaguely piratey snacks. This was The Boy’s idea, when we discovered he had not seen any of the Pirates movies, and The Husband and I questioned our parenting abilities concerning this discovery.
I continued the holiday baking today with a batch of anise cookies. I made the dough Monday afternoon, and it hung out in the refrigerator until this morning. This is my first time making this recipe; it comes from my mother-in-law’s family, and she usually makes them and brings us a big bag of them, because the recipe makes a lot of cookies. This year, The Boy asked me to try my hand at them.
There is a lot of anise in these cookies, 2 tablespoons of anise oil and 1 tablespoon ground anise seeds. It is so potent right after it’s made, I could only handle a small taste of raw dough before my whole mouth was overpowered by its spicy, sweet flavor. But the time in the refrigerator mellows it a bit, and baking the cookies tames them a bit more. The powdered sugar glaze they are bathed in adds just the right amount of pure sweetness to make them quite hard to stop eating. The Husband ate more than a few while the glaze was still setting up on them. There will still be plenty left for Sunday’s dessert, after our holiday meal with his parents, and for days after that.
Anise is in the carrot family, along with fennel, coriander, dill, and caraway. Its flavor is similar to star anise, but the two plants are unrelated and entirely different. Anise is native to Asia, and has been prized by many different cultures for centuries, both for medicines, and as one of the spices added to candies and baked goods for celebratory meals. It was often used to flavor digestive cakes, served after heavy meals to aid digestion, and is said to help control flatulence, always a plus at large gatherings. On the mystical side, anise is said to have protective and purifying properties, and can aid in psychic work and divination. A sachet of anise seeds tucked under your pillow is said to prevent nightmares.
Winter Solstice celebrations have been around for centuries, as well, and it’s not hard to imagine that anise would have flavored cakes and wine at those celebrations, just as they flavor our cookies now. Blessed Solstice to you and your loved ones. Light the Yule log and let the fire burn bright!