Soon it will be Yule night, the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice: the night to reflect and prepare for the year to come. When Sunna returns in the morning, she will shine brighter than before, lighting the way for the great things to be done, the great things to happen, and to warm our hearts and souls in the coming days.
I think I speak for all of us when I say this year, 2020, we need great things and warm hearts. So let’s get to it!
Grinchin’ Away the Holidays
Holidays: I’m not great at ’em. It’s not that I don’t like them, but I just don’t get super enthusiastic when they roll around. It’s not just Yuletide that gets skimmed over in my house, it’s pretty much all of them. That’s what happens, I suppose, when you’re a household of one, an only child, and really just have your parents as far as family is concerned. This isn’t a depressing thing at all, far from it. In fact, the flurry of packed households and dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles sounds like a straight-up nightmare to this introvert, so I genuinely adore the quiet time I spend with my mom and stepdad on the major holidays.
That said, I sometimes feel like a Bad Heathen™ because I don’t really do anything special when the calendar calls for it. This year, however, is different. This year, I’m throwing myself into celebrating Yule.
This Year’s Wheel Hit a Few Potholes
This year has been painful for just about everyone. You don’t need me to run down the list of everything 2020 has brought to the table. I’ve been incredibly lucky: yes, I had COVID-19 in the spring, and while I still feel some of the lingering physical effects, I consider my infection to be pretty mild overall. I still have a job, my family is safe, and my friends and community are all powering through and complying with scientific and social recommendations. I got to start writing here, on Patheos, and I landed a book deal with Llewellyn. All in all, I’ve had a better year than most, but my heart has been heavy and stressed seeing people I care about suffer and struggle with isolation. The election cycle was horrific, but the result offered a hint of hope. #BLM and the summer protests were inspiring, but now it feels like people have lost interest even though there’s so much work to be done for equality. There have been a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs, because 2020 has traveled down a rough road.
So I feel a spiritual obligation to Do Things for Yule.
Almonds and Decadence: Milk is Optional
A few years ago, I managed to get a copy of the version of the almond cake recipe that my paternal family uses. It’s a new tradition for me, but it’s already cemented as an Essential for Yule baking. I’m a Lokean, so no matter how skilled I am at something or how well I plan it out, Something Always Happens.
The first time I made it, I somehow forgot to add the milk to the mix, even though the carton was sitting on the counter right in front of my face. Amazingly, this didn’t ruin the cake! Yes, the end pieces had a pretty hard crust, but they were like biscotti. The rest of the cake was dense and rich, almost like an almond fudge.
When I realized the mistake several days later, I made a new one per specs. It was good, but it wasn’t quite as decadent as the original. So I tend to split the difference now, adding half of the milk the recipe demands. The result is a cake that doesn’t have a biscotti-like crust and ends, but maintains the extraordinary almondy richness with the slightest hint of fluffy texture.
For Yule, treat yourself to a very simple, very indulgent bit of bliss. I’ll be sharing some of the cakes with my gods, ancestors, and the vættir in gratitude for their influence and in hopes of making 2021 much sweeter and more pleasant than 2020 was for the world.
I’m sharing the recipe as I received it (which is pretty much how everyone makes it when they’re not dopes forgetting entire ingredients in an incredibly simple ingredient list) with my own tweaks in parentheses.
Scandinavian Almond Cake (Svendsen Style)
- 1¼ cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1½ tsp. almond extract (I use at least 2 tsp.)
- 2/3 cup milk (optional, apparently. Skip milk for biscotti/fudge hybrid, add ¼ cup for a slightly fluffier texture and softer crust)
Add to mixture:
- 1¼ cup flour
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
Beat well, then add 1 stick melted butter and continue to beat until batter is uniform.
Spray pan generously with baking spray or Crisco and flour the pan well immediately before pouring batter into pan. This is the traditional pan for almond cake.
Bake at 350ºF for 40-50 minutes (but check the cake after about 30 minutes because in my experience, cooking time can actually range from 30-55 minutes, depending on how much milk is used!). The cake is done, like most cakes, when the edges are golden brown and it passes the Toothpick Test (or, in my Italian mother’s kitchen, the Uncooked Spaghetti Noodle Test). Let it cool enough to pop it out of the pan, gently loosening the edges with an icing spatula or butter knife if necessary (the less milk used, the more you’ll have to coax the edges free).
I think the cake is perfect with a generous dusting (or blizzard, let’s be honest) of confectioner’s sugar, but I’ve seen some people fancy it up with almond icing and sliced almonds. Or you can have it with berries and cream. Whatever enhances the joy in having your cake and eating it, too.
Let the Wheel Turn Anew
I don’t think any of us are sad to see this year draw to an end. Despite my not-too-festive attitude towards holidays, I’m looking forward to amping up the Yuletide glee and honoring the spirits of the season. I’m eager to keep vigil for Sunna on the longest night of the year, greeting her anew with a cup of coffee and a slab of Scandinavian almond cake to refresh her and revive the turning wheel with a touch of sweetness.
The wheel doesn’t always travel in a straight or obvious path, and 2020 threw the wheel into a number of potholes and ditches and a few tire spike strips along the way. Yet the wheel turns nonetheless, and it always takes us where we need to go. We can’t always plan for the road ahead, but that’s half the adventure. It’s the friends we make along the way, or something. And friends, I wish for you a blessed Yuletide, a brighter new year, and plenty of opportunities to savor the sweet treats, almond cake or otherwise.