04 January 2011

4 January - Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton; 11th Day of Christmas; Colonial Tipsy Cake

Weather: the weather today indicates the weather of November and April.
Bright, clear, with a few clouds, and warm.
Today is the memorial of Saint (Mary) Elizabeth Ann (Bayley) Seton, born in New York City in 1774. [Mary was her confirmation name]

There are many biographies of Mother Seton online - those from the Catholic Encyclopedia (written before she was canonized) and from the website of her shrine in Emmitsburg, Maryland,  being the most comprehensive.

Simply put: An Anglican/Episcopalian daughter of a socially prominent family (her father was a professor at Columbia), her husband's untimely death left her an impoverished widow with five children.  Her own studies had led her to question and then accept the Catholic faith; she harbored a desire to become a Catholic, which was finally realized (to the great distress and hostile opposition of her family) two years after her husband died.

In an effort to provide for her children, she set up or taught at different schools, with varying degrees of success.  Two years after her confirmation, she was invited to become the headmistress of a Catholic school in Maryland, and with the help of other like-minded young women, established a community of non-cloistered religious sisters called The Sister of Charity of Saint Joseph.  Her efforts were the beginning of the parochial schools in the United States.  Before her death in 1821, another school and two orphanages had been set up by her Order.

Among other things, she is a patron of widows and those ridiculed for their piety.  It is as a convert that she speaks the most to me, because we are the ones who seem to catch the most hell from everyone.  Our family and friends are shocked, dismayed, or dismissive ("It's just a phase she's going through") and sometimes downright nasty ("You are joining the Whore of Babylon!  You are going to Hell!"); cradle Catholics form themselves into some kind of "Prodigal Son's Elder Brother" club ("We've been doing this for years; we don't need you") and act like those who swim the Tiber are akin to those who swim the Rio Grande.  That we persevere in what we know to be right is often in spite of our fellow Christians, not because of them.
Elizabeth Ann was born, as noted, into an Anglican family, and Anglicans, unlike their Congregationalist (Puritan) brothers in New England, celebrated Christmas and its Twelve Days with good cheer.  A TIPSY CAKE was a favorite dessert of the colonists.

For this you will need a sponge cake, custard or pudding (vanilla is traditional), cream sherry or spiced rum, whipped cream, and then something for decoration: blanched almond slivers, glazed fruits, colorful nonpareils.  You can make the cake less tipsy by substituting fruit juice for the liquor. 

Custard: the custard has to chill for a while, so make it first.  You can make life easy by mixing up a couple of packages of vanilla custard or pudding.  Add 1/4 - 1/2 cup of sherry or rum to the custard if you like.

Separate 3 eggs; set whites aside for another use.  Beat the egg yolks lightly.

In a saucepan, mix together 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of cornstarch, and a pinch of salt.  Stir in 2 cups of milk.  Bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly; boil and stir 1 minute.

Pour a little of the hot mixture into the beaten yolks, mix well, then pour the yolks into the saucepan.  Stirring constantly, slowly heat the mixture over low heat for a couple of minutes to cook the yolks (we're not after hard-cooked eggs here; one to two minutes will suffice).  Remove from heat; stir in 1/2 cup of sherry or rum and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla.  Refrigerate, covered, until very cold.

Sponge cake is not the easiest cake to make, and you might want to use an angel-food cake mix instead.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Butter two 9-inch cake pans.
Separate 5 eggs.

Beat the egg whites until they stand in peaks; gradually add 1/4 cup of sugar.

Moving over to the bowl of egg yolks (and without washing the beaters), whip the yolks with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice until they are light.  Gradually beat in 3/4 cup of sugar.  Carefully pour the yolk mixture over the beaten whites and fold in gently.

In a sifter, put 1 cup of flour and a pinch (1/16 teaspoon) of salt.  Sift 1/3rd of the flour into the egg mixture and fold in gently.  Repeat with the remaining flour, 1/3rd at a time, until the flour is incorporated.

Spoon mixture into the cake pans and bake about 30 minutes or until firm.  Turn out cakes onto a rack and let cool.

Now to assemble the cake:

Slice the cooled cake layers to make 4 round slices (this is easiest if you stick toothpicks around the circumference of the cake halfway up the sides of each layer, and use them as a guide for your serrated knife).  Place one layer on a plate; sprinkle with sherry or rum (and I do mean sprinkle.  This isn't a trifle; you don't need to douse the cake.  A spritzer can be useful here.  You can also use fruit juice instead).  Cover with 1/3rd of the custard.  Top with another layer of cake, sprinkle, cover with another 1/3rd of the custard.  Repeat once more, then top with the final layer of cake.

Whip 1 cup of whipping cream (or use your favorite store-bought whipped cream or topping); frost the cake with it.  Decorate with blanched, slivered almonds, candied or glaceed fruits (or fresh fruit, well-drained and dry), cake Decors (Hundreds-and-Thousands) or Nonpareils.  This can be made an hour ahead of time, if left in the refrigerator until serving.