Archive for December 21st, 2009

Winter solstice

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

The Winter Solstice usually occurs on December 21st or 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere. Described as the first day of winter, the solstice is caused by the Earth’s tilted axis (roughly 23.5 degrees) as it orbits around the sun. This is the phenomenon that causes both the change of seasons and the amount of sunlight we receive each day. Speaking of which, the Winter Solstice is often described as the shortest day of the year, although it technically still has 24-hours in it. Granted most of those hours are a little on the dark side (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), with sunrise occurring around 7:30 AM, and the sun setting just nine hours later at 4:30 PM.

During the late fall and early winter, the sun seems to hang lower on the horizon than at any other time of the year, due to the Northern Hemisphere being tilted away from the sun at its most extreme angle during our year long journey around the solar system. Conversely, the Summer Solstice takes place when the North Pole is angled closer to the sun, giving us the maximum amount of daylight we’ll get all year.

The term solstice is derived from the Latin, translating as the “sun stands still.” If you watch the sun rise and set over the next few days, these events will seem to take place in the same two parts of the sky each day. This stability is short lived and in the next few weeks the daylight will begin to last a bit longer. This occurrence held special meaning for many of the cultures found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is the basis for the myriad of winter holidays celebrated today.

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Edible history: 19th century heart-shaped Christmas cakes

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Who hasn’t read Little House on the Prairie? I did, and I read all the other books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read biographies of Laura, too, including my favorite from childhood, Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Donald Zochert. It was packed with information and lots of pictures. I still have that book; it’s in pretty rough shape, much like my personal book-version of a Velveteen Rabbit.

I loved Laura so much that my mom made the heart-shaped Christmas cakes from Little House on the Prairie for breakfast every Christmas morning when I was young:

“Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar.”

This year, my family will be with my parents for Christmas and my mom and I will cook heart-shaped Christmas cakes for my own daughter. Take a page from 19th century history and try the cakes for yourself. They are more like sweet biscuits than cake. I like them with honey!

Heart-Shaped Christmas Cakes Recipe (from The Little House Treasury by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Erikson)

Ingredients:

½ cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, softened
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus some extra for sprinkling on the tops of the cakes
¼ teaspoon vanilla
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
Flour for sprinkling
Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Heat the oven to 325º F

Beat the butter, sugar, and vanilla together until they are light and fluffy. Stir in the flour.

On a floured board, pat the dough out in a circle about 1/3″ thick. Cut out shapes with the cookie cutter.* Sprinkle the tops with granulated sugar. Put the heart shapes on the cookie sheet and bake them for about 15-20 minutes, until they are lightly browned. Take them out of the oven and sprinkle more granulated sugar on the tops. Carefully remove the cakes from the cookie sheet with the spatula and put them on the wire rack to cool.

Makes about 12 cakes.

*Ma likely did not have a heart-shaped cookie cutter. My mom rolls the dough and cuts triangular pieces, like wedges from a small pizza. On the wide end of the wedge, cut a slit about 1-2 inches, toward the pointed end. Pull the two flaps slightly apart. During baking, this will form a heart-shape more reminiscent of Laura’s cake.

If you try this recipe, let us know how it turned out! And send us pictures, too.


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