14 December 2011

Halcyon Days; Floating Islands

May halcyons smooth the wave and calm the seas,
And the rough south-east sink into a breeze;
Halcyons, of all the birds that haunt the main,
Most lov'd and honour'd by the Nereid train.
Theocritus. Idyl. vii. 1. 57.  translated by Francis Fawkes, 1767  

The Halcyon Days begin today and continue through the 28th of December (calculated on one week fore and aft of the shortest day, December 21). Some older calendars say that the days start on the 11th or the 15th of December, and last for seven, eleven, or fourteen days.  Be that as it may, these days are supposed to denote calm weather and smooth sailing, at least in the Mediterranean. [The Widow would dearly love to be cruising the Med right now and testing the tradition – in the spirit of scientific inquiry, of course.]

Alcyone was a Greek maiden, daughter of King Aeolus of Thessaly and married to Ceyx, the half-divine son of Eosphoros (the Morning Star).  They were so happy in their marriage, that she called him Zeus and he called her Hera, which angered the original owners of those names, the king and queen of the gods.  One story says that Zeus launched a thunderbolt at the ship which carried Ceyx and sank it; in her grief, Alcyone threw herself into the sea, and both were changed into aquatic birds: the kingfisher (halcyon) and the gannet (ceyx).  Another version omits the shipwreck and merely says that the two were turned into birds for their impiety.

It was said that while the kingfisher builds her nest and lays her eggs, in the seven days before and after the Winter Solstice (or the fourteen days before), the seas remain calm.  This in its turn gave rise to the artistic vision of the bird serenely riding the calm waters on her QE2 nursery.

... Alcyone, compressed
Seven days sits brooding on her watery nest,
A wintry queen; her sire at length is kind,
Calms every storm, and hushes every wind.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, lib. xi.  Translated by John Dryden.


I suppose that Bird's Nest Soup is the most apropos item on the menu, but as I don't like it, you are on your own for it.  Maybe a FLOATING ISLAND PUDDING, instead:

First make your custard.  Divide 6 cold eggs.  As 4 egg whites will be used for the meringues, separate 4 eggs, yolks in one bowl, whites in another.  Then divide the remaining 2 eggs, yolks with their fellows, whites in a third bowl.  You will have a bowl with 6 yolks, a bowl with 4 whites, and a bowl with 2 whites.  Set the whites aside, but do not chill.

Heat 2 cups of milk in the top part of a double boiler.  Heat water in the lower part of the double boiler to boiling.  Mix the 6 yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar and a dash of salt (mix thoroughly, but don't beat).  When bubbles appear around the edge of the milk, pour a little of it (about 1/2 cup) into the egg mixture and blend well.  Pour this into the milk.  Place the top part of the double boiler over the boiling water in the lower part.  Cook, stirring continuously, until thick enough to coat a metal spoon.  Remove from heat; mix in 1 teaspoon of vanilla.  Pour into a shallow serving dish and chill.

Now for the meringue islands.  Fill a skillet with about 1 to 1-1/2 inches of water and bring to a simmer.  Beat the 4 egg whites (which should be at room temperature now) in a deep bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy, then gradually beat in a pinch of salt and six tablespoons of sugar.  Continue beating until meringue stands up in stiff peaks.  Carefully drop tablespoonfuls of the meringue in the simmering water, one at a time.  When they are set (about 2 -3 minutes), carefully lift them out of the water with a slotted spoon, and place on top of the chilled custard, so that they resemble islands in a custard sea.  Chill before serving.

You can use the other 2 egg whites in CHOCOLATE MERINGUES, by beating the whites with 1/8 teaspoon of salt until stiff.  Add 1/2 cup of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating for 2 minutes after each addition; mixture should be very stiff.  Stir in 1 teaspoon of vanilla and fold in 1 cup of chocolate pieces (I like really dark, bitter, chocolate; choose your own preference).

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (make sure the oven is fully preheated before baking).  Line cookie sheets with brown paper (I cut up paper bags; you can also use ungreased cookie sheets), and drop meringue mixture onto them by teaspoonfuls.  It is optional, but I like to top mine with a bit of cut-up maraschino cherry; red and green are suitable for this time of year.  Bake for about 25 minutes.  Remove and cool.  This will make 2 to 3 dozen, depending on the size of your teaspoons, but they melt in the mouth like true meringues and can be addicting.

I hope the seas of your life are calm right now.