Last week Mom told me she was invited to a “tiny tea party” on December 4, St. Barbara’s Day, a party that included all the Barbaras who live in her community. The host is a Barbara who has been hosting Barbara tea parties since starting the tradition in Park City, Utah, in 1999. What a lovely idea!
I asked the host if I could come and take a few pictures. Here they are posing with a cutout of Marilyn Monroe, whose real name was Norma Jeane, not Barbara. Whatever. You don’t get to pose with Marilyn every day.
And again the Barbaras at the table with Norma Jeane looking on – see her in the mirror? (Another Barbara came later and another had the date mixed up.) During the party, Host Barbara (in red) showed them various St. Barbara items she has collected over the years and even gave them a crossword puzzle entitled “Barbaras We Have Known.”
“St. Barbara was quite a lady,” Mom’s invitation had said. Indeed she was. Virtuous, beautiful, locked in a tower by her self-serving father, Barbara of the legend lived in the third century, converted to Christianity (when that was not the thing to do) and was publicly humiliated and finally beheaded, thus the head she holds in her hand.
For many years I have had a recipe in my cookbook for Barbara-kuchen, or Barbara cake. The handwriting is my friend Anett’s, who lives in Germany, where St. Barbara is more widely celebrated. It’s really quite a simple cake, even if it looks unintelligible. The main thing is to see that it says Barbara-kuchen at the top.
As a way to thank the host for allowing me to come take pictures at her tiny tea party (and a wonderful excuse to bake), I decided to make the cake. Ingredients are:
14 Tablespoons butter, softened
the grated rind of one lemon
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup corn starch
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
You soften the butter (in my microwave this took 1 minute 20 seconds on defrost), add the sugar and eggs, and whisk it till creamy. A hand mixer would have been handy at this time – for such a small amount of batter I didn’t want to get out my big, wonderful stand mixer, but I had to beat the ingredients with a good bit of wrist action to get the fluffiness I wanted. If you have an electric hand mixer, or your stand mixer on the counter, it’s better to use it.
I added the lemon rind after that. You can see the teeny bits of butter still in the batter (my wrist is only so strong). I decided it didn’t matter and kept going.
By the time I added and stirred in the rest of the ingredients, it looked like this.
Those amazing eggs of mine made the batter so golden! I chose a small springform pan to bake this cake in because, Claudia tells me, traditionally in Germany the cake is baked in a “Kastenform” resembling the tower in which St. Barbara was imprisoned. I reasoned that a larger pan would make a flatter cake and a smaller pan would make a taller cake, so I went with small. My pan is 7 inches (18cm) across and 3 inches (8cm) high. I baked mine for 35 minutes at 375F (a toothpick inserted came out clean). I see now that the recipe says 350F. I missed that earlier.
But it came out okay. See? Bit of a tower, no? (Use your imagination now…)
I made the frosting with the juice of the same lemon I grated plus enough confectioner’s sugar added little by little until it seemed stiff enough. I can’t tell you how much sugar. I was in a hurry trying to get to this party in time!
After I put the frosting on, I realized it was not stiff enough, in fact was beginning to sag a bit down the sides, so I decided to remedy this by adding a lot of coconut all over it. Anyway you can’t go wrong putting a whole lot of coconut on top of lemon frosting that is covering a lemony cake. You just can’t. Then I thinly sliced another lemon and twisted them to make the cake pretty on top (as if loads of coconut is not inviting enough). Here’s the cake on Mom’s table before we went over to the party.
See those leaves in the jar behind the cake? I brought them too because of another part of the legend. It is said that on her way to prison, St. Barbara got her robe caught on a small cherry branch and it broke. Somehow the branch was put in water and then a new blossom opened on that branch on the day of her execution – the stuff of legends to be sure! I cannot imagine she was allowed to bring her broken cherry branch into the 3rd century prison with her and that someone gave her a jar with water in it, which she then used for her branch until they took her away. But what do I know — maybe this happened!
There is a lot I don’t know about 3rd century prisons. It is not useful to be sticklers about unknowable information like this. Just know that if you cut a branch (cherry or apple traditionally) on December 4, it is supposed to bloom by Christmas. I don’t have a cherry or apple tree, and neither does the community where Mom lives, so I brought branches from my lemon tree (thinking there’s lemon in the cake, so why not lemon?).
I want you to see how droopy my frosting was.
Time was not on my side, as I said, so I let it go. Anyway, I decided, it would taste the same (delicious I hoped!) and I am not trying to win any pretty-cake contests. Things that are made with love don’t have to be perfect.
To all the Barbaras, but especially to my mom (the best Barbara ever!), I wish a Happy Saint Barbara Day!
7 thoughts on “A Saint Barbara Day Cake!”
Lemon cake looks delicious. I have two Barbaras in my family. An aunt and a cousin both well over sixty. Barbara doesn’t seem to be as popular name today as it once was. But then again I don’t have any aunt or cousin Britney.
I’m told there are more Barbaras (even young ones) in Germany, so maybe it depends on where you are…
Thank you. The cake was delicious and looked so pretty on the table-and enjoyed by all. I add my greetings to all the Barbara’s out there.
I’m still hoping for a piece myself!
December 4 is Barbaratag; saint’s day for all Barbaras. Barbaratag in Germany – especially in Catholic regions – is filled with various traditions that connect to the legend of St. Barbara. The Barbara-Zweig (branch) is of them. Cut on Dec. 4th and put in water it will blossom on Christmas Day. The legend has it that St. Barbara while brought to prison had a dry branch sticking to her dress – she put it in water and it bloomed (the day when she was killed). To her it was a sign of new life and a sign of hope. In my (Catholic) childhood your saint’s day was much more important and celebrated than your birthday. We got small gifts on that very day. Barbara is a very pretty name with a very nice sound to it, but as far as I can observe it is not in the top 10 of most chosen (baby) names. However traditional names are being chosen again more and more. For instance there are two babies named “Franz” in my nearer circle. We shall see what will happen to Barbara. I would support it to become one of the top-tens.
I appreciate how you mention that the name has a nice sound to it. I agree. It’s one that sounds nice both in its American pronunciation (Bar-bruh) and in its German pronunciation (Bahr-bahr-ah). The way names sound in different languages makes them seem so very different sometimes. Bertha is a good example. In English (pronounced Ber-tha) it sounds heavy. In German (pronounced like Bear-ta) it’s light and lovely.