Eulalia’s Shamefully Easy Cheater’s Method for Zero Stress Vigil Snacks

This is not a post about how to recreate a complicated medieval meal, or a review of fancy heirloom stone-ground flours, or a story about doing something awesome and inspiring and historical. Rather, this is a post for anyone who is planning food for a vigil and who wants a great, crowd-pleasing spread that can be set up in a field or in a hotel room (so, when you don’t have access to a kitchen) with a minimum of misery while still maximizing the wow-factor. Basically, this is how to prepare vigil food that people will like and that is period-ish while relying almost exclusively on pre-made ingredients from Costco and Trader Joe’s. And now you know my shameful secret: I say I love cooking, but apparently if you ask me to do your vigil food I won’t actually cook a damn thing for you. (Okay, that’s not really true: I’ll probably bake some pies.) If that’s enough self-flagellation on my part, let’s begin.

MedievalSnax
“I can’t believe she got this marzipan at IKEA!”

First off, my philosophy of vigil food: vigil food should be easy to eat. Everything served at a vigil should be able to be eaten with nothing more than your fingers, a napkin, and a toothpick. The food should be easy to identify at a glance, and palatable at room temperature. Vigils tend not to be the environment for particularly challenging (for the eater) dishes. At the same time, though, vigil food should also always be passably historical or at least not obviously modern.

Also, some tips on servingware. With limited kitchen facilities, dishes can be an challenging part of the process. I like to have some disposable wooden spoons on hand, like these. You can use them for normal spoon things, and also as a spreading implement. I’m also a huge fan of a discovery my wife made a few years ago: palm leaf plates! They are disposable (or burnable if you’re into that kind of thing), biodegradable, astoundingly sturdy, and, while they are not as nice as actual period dishes, they are perfectly serviceable and do not look glaringly out of place. (Honestly we keep a stash of the smaller size of them in our feast gear basket, they are great if an unexpected dinner guest shows up.)

On to food! Start with the obvious stuff: artisan bread and good butter, crackers, sliced or bite-sized cheeses, salami / cured meats, cheese and cured meats rolled together (Costco and Trader Joe’s both stock these), nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios), fresh fruit (grapes, apples and pears, stone fruits, berries, figs, etc.), pickles (cucumbers, asparagus, artichoke hearts, beets, onions, olives, mushrooms, etc.), dried fruits, candied ginger — basically, think “tourney lunch.”  The trick on this is go for broke on presentation; try to make everything look inviting and friendly, and I recommend putting out a little of everything at first and restocking as the night goes on rather than a giant pile of anything at the start.

The next level is taking these prepared foods and combining them in inventive ways. Three of my favorite creative vigil snack innovations are:

  • Grind unsalted pistachios in a food processor. Roll fresh goat cheese into balls about an inch in diameter. Roll the goat cheese balls in the pistachios and set out. These are dead easy and have been the hit of the evening at the last two vigils I’ve helped with.
  • Decant a container of mascarpone into a bowl. Spoon cloudberry jam (or really any jam, I just happen to really like the cloudberry jam from IKEA) onto the mascarpone. Put a plate of butter wafer cookies from Trader Joe’s next to this and encourage guests to spoon the mascarpone and jam onto the cookies. Takes 30 seconds to make and tastes amazing.
  • Pull the pit out of a date. Stuff an almond in it and squish it back together. Wrap in prosciutto. Repeat. Variation: pull the pit out of a date, fill it with goat cheese, squish it back together. Repeat. (These look cute plated together.)

All of these are great for rounding out a vigil spread when you’re the one in charge of organizing and you also have people volunteering to bring snacks (which seems to usually be the case). If your volunteers bring their favorite home-made goodies, and you pad it out with store-bought stuff, it will be a genuinely nice spread. My two favorite things to get people to volunteer to make are homemade sausages and mini savory tarts or pies. It also is usually pretty easy to get people excited about bringing cookies, and there are good resources out there for late-period cookie recipes. I’m also a fan of roast meat with a period sauce, medieval gingerbread, and fussy medieval candies (like orange peels!)

The take-home message here is that if you’ve been tasked with doing food for a vigil, I promise you can pull it off without running yourself ragged. This isn’t to say you can’t also do an incredible spread entirely handmade from period recipes from a particular culture and time period; I’ve helped with vigils that had exactly that, and they were inspiring. All I’m saying is that you don’t actually HAVE TO go that route. After all, I’m apparently a cooking Laurel and yet the most highly praised dish I’ve ever brought to a vigil was that mascarpone and cloudberry jam; good snacks are good snacks whether you made them or just “made” them. Especially at a vigil, most people are not there for having a serious food experience. I think it took me a while to really grasp that and pull my ego back enough to get out of Artist mode and into Hospitality mode. Snacks are great, don’t stress, let’s hug!

PS: They really do sell marzipan at IKEA, but only around Christmas time. If you hate making your own, stock up (it keeps) and keep some on hand for marzipan emergencies. I happen to prefer the IKEA marzipan to other store-bought ones, but I am honestly not sure why.

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I have an apprentice!

Tullia has officially graduated from my student to my apprentice! We had a brief ceremony at Collegium, exchanging words (and gifts) and then signing a contract.

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Photo by Maestra Raffaella di Contino, OP

I’m really excited to see where Tullia takes her research next. In addition to her All The Roman Things! adventures, she’s also been doing lots of cool (okay, mostly Roman!) jewelry.

We stuck with my persona for our ceremony. We did a contract that I very loosely based on some period apprenticeship contract examples that I was able to find online, which we read and signed (and then invited witnesses to sign as well).

[This post is still in progress, I need to find my copy of our contract and post the language of it here.]

Eulalia’s Words to Live By

Striving to be a Peer helped me become a better version of myself. I became more introspective and got better at asking myself tough questions. Through all that, I came to some pretty good rules for living. There are some great guides already out there about working toward Peerage; I don’t think this is that, necessarily… but it also probably won’t hurt. But more than that, these rules pretty much sum up my life philosophy:

Rule Number 1: Quit whining or fix it.

Everyone’s a critic and we all love to complain, me especially. When things don’t go the way I think they should, I have a lot to say about that (as you have no doubt observed if you’ve read any of my previous posts here). But complaining is easy; actually doing something is hard. I often use this rule as a metric to gauge how much I really care about an issue: Am I willing to take any action? If I’m not, it’s time to shut my trap.

Rule Number 2: Volunteers are heroes. 

Actually, this is kind of a corollary to that first one. Without getting too deep into the weeds, I have had my share of really unpleasant experiences as a volunteer in the SCA; if I were treated at work (where they pay me) the way I have been treated at events (where I was giving my time), I would not keep working there. As an organization, we have to do better. So, here’s my rule to live by: if someone is stepping up to do the work, you don’t get to criticize how they do it (unless you are, say, the branch seneschal or exchequer, and the way the volunteer is doing the thing is no good / very bad / omg stop). If you think something should be done differently, step up and do it.

Rule Number 3: Use your words.

This might seem like it contradicts the first two, but bear with me. Using your words doesn’t mean complaining or criticizing, but using direct, clear, effective communication to get your needs met. I will admit that I have shamelessly borrowed this guiding principle from Captain Awkward. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Advocate for your needs, and set boundaries; enforce those boundaries firmly and without drama when needed. When you have a problem with someone, speak to them directly or engage a formal dispute process by taking it to the appropriate people.

Rule Number 4: When in doubt, just be nice.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. I’m still working on it.

All of these rules stem from the same root: your words have power. Wield them carefully.

Bonus rule, just for those trying to become Peers: If you want to be a Peer, you probably shouldn’t badmouth Peers. This is really just a corollary of all the above rules, but I think it needs to be called out directly. Don’t tell everyone you know that [whatever Peerage order] is [a bunch of assholes, too stupid to see how great you are, not as awesome as they think they are, stuck-up, rude, out of touch, delusional, etc. etc. etc.] Listen, I get it: I know what it feels like to feel like no one sees you; but I also know that we do see you, and we hear you. I think that the hardest part of the quest for Peerage is that Peers are actually really good at making sure you don’t notice that they’re watching you. You are allowed to be human and you are allowed to get frustrated. But we are human too, and if a Peerage order’s strongest impression of you is something horrible you’ve said about them, that is not doing you any favors.

What about you, readers? What are your rules to live by? What guidelines would you give someone when it comes to the ill-defined parts of being a Peer?

Laurel Stuff: my Approach to Students and Apprentices, and my Apprentice Questionnaire

As I ramp up my involvement in the work of being a Laurel, I’ve been really enjoying developing formal and informal mentoring relationships. I thought I would share some of what I do that might be helpful to both peers and those interested in working with peers.

SCAheraldryRight now, I have a few people whom I think of as “associates” — we haven’t formalized our relationship, but I think they’re cool and I give them as much active help and advice as they’ll accept (and I have time for). (Conchobhar was strongly in this category, incidentally.) This might be help and advice around specific topics (how to do research, making pies, fire cooking) or it might be more general (demystifying the Laurels’ council, A&S competition coaching). Associates have no obligation to me, they’re just people I have taken a shine to.

I also have two students with whom I have entered into a more structured agreement. They get a bit more of my time and energy than my associates. Becoming my student entails some conversation to make sure it’s something we both want and a short ceremony (at an event) making some agreements to each other but not swearing fealty. I ask my students to set some kind of concrete goal, and I operate on a year-by-year “contract” with each student; at the end of that year, the student can opt to renew the contract and continue being a student, we can talk about them becoming an apprentice, or we can both go our separate ways.

While student can be a stepping stone to apprentice, it doesn’t have to be — if someone wants to learn from me and doesn’t want to do the fealty part, is already in fealty to another, has zero desire to be a Laurel, or whatever, student is a perfectly worthy thing to be. In all of this, I try to center the needs of the learner rather than myself. (Oh, uh, if you’re just joining us: I am modernly a teacher at an alternative high school, and I am passionate about the craft of teaching. Not surprisingly, this heavily informs my approach to being a Laurel.)

One of my students is about to “graduate up” to being an apprentice.In addition to requiring potential apprentices to spend a year being my student first, they also must complete a project of their choosing during that time. This approach serves several goals, like allowing us to get to know each other more formally to see if this is likely to be a productive relationship and helping me get a sense of their SCA work style and current level of skill. The main distinction I make between apprentice and student is fealty: an apprentice is in fealty to me, a student is not. An apprenticeship term will be for a year with the opportunity for as many renewals as desired; I believe in making the continued relationship opt-in rather than opt out, so if I drop off the face of the planet my apprentices are released from their bond.

As part of this, I have developed a short questionnaire for the apprentice to complete. It’s one more tool for me to know what this person hopes to get out of their association with me — this can help me choose what to focus on when giving advice and feedback, and I also genuinely like getting to know people. More critically, this is a tool to help the apprentice reflect on their own journey and goals. As a Laurel, I cannot walk the path for you. I can’t even tell you how to walk the path. I can show you where the mountain is, and I might be able to point you toward a path; while you walk the path, I can offer you advice as you encounter obstacles, but in the end your path will be your own. Apprenticeship is not magical. Laurels are not magical. We can help you see what work needs to be done, but you’ll have to do it yourself. I am interested in developing more reflective tools around this concept.

Because I think other peers might be interested in adapting this for their own needs, and non peers might be interested in this sort of self-evaluation, here’s a copy of the questions in my questionnaire. Blanket permission for personal use, including adapting/modifying. If you publish any or part of it, or a derivative work, please include a credit to me. Thanks and enjoy!

Eulalia’s Apprentice Questionnaire
Disclaimers: This isn’t a job application. There are no wrong answers. These questions are deliberately open-ended. Eulalia assumes no risk or liability.

Why do you want to be an apprentice? What do you hope to get out of the experience?

Describe 1-3 specific hopes or expectations you have about an apprentice-Laurel relationship.

Why do you want to be MY apprentice? What do you think that I can offer you that someone else couldn’t?

What are the three MOST important things that you want from me as your Laurel and why?

Describe your communication style and preferences. Include things like how you like to be contacted.

Describe 1 worry or concern that you have about being my apprentice (or being an apprentice generally).

What do you consider your “specialty”? What ONE discipline / research area is MOST important to you?

What’s one project / art form that you’ve always wanted to try that’s completely outside of your current comfort zone?

What are your SCA goals for the next…
1 year?
5 years?
10 years?

What are some important parts of your life outside of the SCA?

What accomplishment are you most proud of…
In the SCA during the last year?
In the SCA overall?
In your personal life in the last year?
In your personal life overall?

List three specific commitments that you think you could make for yourself or to me for your first year of apprenticeship:

Cookbook Progress Update

Since posting about the cookbook project back in January, some stuff happened that was really hard and sad and I’m still processing all of it. It definitely put a damper on my dreams of testing a recipe a week for the cookbook, but I’m finally starting to feel a little human again (ugh grief is dumb). I don’t know how many recipes I’ll be able to test and add to the cookbook, but I have managed to get a small handful together since January (and it’s not like I didn’t have lots of recipes ready to go back in January, either!)

So, there will be a cookbook, it will probably mostly look like the table of contents already posted (see link), but there will also be at least a few more recipes too! I still don’t have anything like pre-order details or even how I’ll be releasing it nailed down; I’m going to just have to take that as it comes.

Recipe: easy and delicious fresh cheese


Cheese is awesome, isn’t it? As part of my ongoing home dairying adventures, I’ve settled on a simple method for making fresh cheese that I think is historical and that produces a very tasty final product. I made some today and remembered to snap a photo before we gobbled up every molecule. 

You will need:

  • 1/2 gallon whole milk 
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (actually the amount isn’t really that important, you could use anything from 1/4-2 cups)
  • A large container with a lid, like a giant Mason jar
  • A nonreactive pot
  • Some cheesecloth or a very clean kitchen towel
  • A colander 
  • Salt plus optional herbs or whatever else you’d like to use for flavor 

Method:

  1. In the jar, combine the milk and buttermilk. (Full disclosure: you can also do this in the pot itself.)
  2. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight (up to 24 hours), until milk is fully soured (cultured).
  3. Transfer cultured milk (called “clabber”) to the pot. 
  4. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the clabber curdles. This happens faster than you might expect. 
  5. Line the colander with a kitchen towel or several layers of cheesecloth. If you want to reserve the whey, place the colander over something big enough to catch that much liquid. 
  6. Drain the curds by pouring the curdled clabber slowly through the lined colander. 
  7. Draw up the corners of the cheesecloth, tie loosely, and hang to drip drain. I use a wooden spoon to suspend the bundle over a pot or deep bowl. If you are impatient, you can squeeze the curds, but this makes the texture less creamy. 
  8. When the curd reaches desired dryness, add salt to taste, or use in any recipe calling for fresh cheese. 

In addition to being a perfect base ingredient for many recipes, this cheese is great spread on fresh bread. If you go that route, do experiment with adding other flavors to it.