This month my column focusses on the customs of May Day and my recipe for you is a traditional Victoria Sandwich Cake with a May Day twist.
We have an abundance of Spring Festivals to choose from this month and next. Starting with April Fool’s Day, followed by Easter, then St Georges Day on 23rd April and May Day.
Spring Bank Holiday falls on the first Monday in May, which this year is the 5th. There are some parts of the UK where the ancient celebrations still take place, but these are not as widespread as they used to be. Along with Guy Fawkes Night, in the past it was probably one of our most boisterous, colourful and raucous festivals. In common with Guy Fawkes, this time of year used to see the lighting of fires for the Celtic fire festival of Beltane.
This was to purify the earth and free the crops from witches spells. Bones were burnt as the foul smell allegedly drove evil spirits away. This is where the word Bonfire comes from.
The 1st May has been celebrated since early times, relatively recently in 1978 the first Monday in May was designated as Spring Bank Holiday, also known International Workers’ Day. This ancient festival has many origins and associations, it is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Roman Goddess of flowers named Flora. The 1st May was the first day of summer and the 1st February was the first day of spring in the Pagan year. This is why the Summer Solstice is celebrated on June 21st for Midsummer. In the Catholic calendar May 1st is the Feast of St Joseph, patron saint of workers. It is perhaps this connection to workers that laid the foundation for it being International Workers Day or Labour Day.
Before being politicised May Day was a Pagan festival that marked the joy of surviving another dark winter and welcoming the summer. The symbol most associated with May Day is the Maypole and the May King and Queen. Legend has it that the origins of the maypole started in Pre Christian Rome with the Goddess Kybele and the death of her true love Attis. He was killed by a wild boar and bled to death under a pine tree. When Kybele heard of his fate she ordered for the pine tree to be chopped down as she believed his spirit to have taken refuge there. The tree was wrapped in cloth and decorated with violets and laid in a tomb. After a period of mourning on the 22nd March, (the vernal equinox) Attis was resurrected and rose out of the pine tree and he was reunited with Kybele. A time of great happiness followed and the garlanded tree was erected and became a symbol of rebirth in the Spring. This festival was known then as Hilaria and there were days of revelry from the 22nd March to April 1st, with people having an hilarious time up to April Fool’s Day. The Spring Festival became an annual event and maypoles started being erected all over Europe in remembrance of Attis and Kybele. The May King and Queen also relate back to this original legend.
During the puritanical parliaments in the era of Oliver Cromwell May Day was abolished along with many other ancient customs. It was reinstated with the restoration of Charles II in 1660. One of the oldest maypoles still in existence is in Castle Bytham Church in the south of the county. The words “this ware the May Poul, 1660” can be found on the ladder up to the belfry. It was thought to have been used to celebrate the restoration of Charles II. It was quite common after the annual revelries had finished for the maypole to be turned into a ladder or a house beam to bring luck.
Maypoles have always been decorated with bright colours, the addition of ribbons and the dance around to plait them was introduced in the late nineteenth century.
My recipe this month is for a very traditional Victoria Sandwich, but the decorations transform it into a festive May Day teatime treat.
May Day Victoria Sandwich Cake
2 x 7 inch Sandwich Cake tins, greased
Freestanding mixer or a hand held mixer, scales, sieve, big metal spoon and scissors
Mixing bowl, Measuring spoons, jug, spatula, pallet knife, fork, cooling racks
2 eggs - Weigh your eggs. The weight of your eggs becomes the weight you use for your butter, sugar and flour. (This top tip was given to my Mum Hilary Carter many years ago from our old neighbour Mrs Mona Marfurt on Witham Road in Woodhall Spa)
Egg weight in Self Raising Flour
Egg weight in Caster Sugar
Egg weight in Butter (softened at room temperature)
Tsp Vanilla Essence
Pinch baking powder
Butter Icing and Decoration
6oz Icing Sugar
Few drops of vanilla extract
Green food colouring
Raspberry or Strawberry Jam
Long stick of colourful rock – it is important to be as long as possible as this will go in the centre of your cake to make your maypole
Hundreds and Thousands
Pre-heat your oven to 180c
Weigh out all of your ingredients before you start and Sieve your flour and baking powder together. It really makes a difference if your ingredients and bowl are at room temperature and not stone cold.
Crack your eggs in a jug and whisk together with a fork just to break them up a bit and add your vanilla extract into your eggs.
Cream together your butter and sugar until light and fluffy. The colour should change from yellow to a nice creamy white colour, keep going until there is no grittiness from the sugar left. You may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a couple of times to make sure all of the butter and sugar are creamed.
Add in your beaten egg a little at a time and whisk it in and alternate it with a spoonful of flour from your weighed flour, this helps to stop it curdling.
When all of the egg is incorporated, gently fold in your remaining flour with a large metal spoon
If the mixture looks a bit stiff, (it should be a nice dropping consistency) gently stir in a tablespoon of milk to loosen it up a bit.
Use a spatula to scrape out all the cake mixture and divide equally between your two cake tins and immediately put into the centre of your pre heated oven. Bake for 25 to 30 min. It should be a lovely golden colour and spring back when you touch the centre when it is baked. You can put a skewer in the centre to test too and if it comes out with no crumbs on it is baked.
Leave to cool for a few minutes in the tin and then turn out on to a couple of cooling racks and let it go completely cold before you decorate.
Make your butter cream, again it really helps if everything is nicely at room temperature including your mixing bowl.
Weigh and sieve your icing sugar
Start to cream your butter
Gradually add in your sieved icing sugar
Then add in a few drops of vanilla extract and then a couple of drops of green food colouring
Now for the fun bit, you are aiming for a maypole look to your cake, the green buttercream is to look like grass.
First of all sandwich your cake together with the jam of your choice and then put your cake right way up ready to cover all over with the buttercream, I do the sides too, but it is up to you.
Then stick your rock in the centre of the cake to give you your maypole. That’s why you need the stick of rock to be long. The rest is up to you and how colourful you want it to be. A scattering of hundreds and thousands around the side looks good.
Then tie your bootlaces to the top of the rock and drape down to give you your ribbons and have a jelly baby at the bottom of the ribbon, you get the idea, enjoy playing!
I think it is a fun twist to a classic cake recipe and offers a teatime treat for May Day to celebrate this ancient festival.
Sadie Hirst is a member of the British Society of Baking and with her Husband Russell Hirst has a Multi award winning Butchers shop in Woodhall Spa. Sadie is a keen collector of old cookery books and loves trying out historical recipes and recreating them. For Sadie’s previous Target recipes please visit www.rjhirstfamilybutchers.co.uk or if you would like to get in touch with Sadie she would love to hear from you at email@example.com