By Marcia Pilgeram
Who else preserves their holy cards in cookbooks? When I was in parochial school, holy cards were doled out like morning donuts at a police precinct. If you grew up Catholic, you know what I am talking about. For every spelling contest, lunchroom duty (a.k.a. child labor) and act of general benevolence we were rewarded with holy cards, often blessed (consecrated) by whichever priest happened to be roaming the halls. By high school, they’d frankly lost their luster, but fearing the wrath of a greater power, I never parted with a single one.
Today, my home is a sanctuary for these gold-rimmed, colorful likenesses of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a plethora of (so many) pious saints. Besides my collection, I am the multi-generational keeper of all things holy: family bibles, baptismal certificates and, yes, the hallowed cards of my forebears, who apparently also feared the wrath of a great power.
I never know where I’ll find one — tucked into books, file drawers, address books, old purses… — but, coming across them evokes childhood memories of my grandmother’s house. She had holy cards, more prominently displayed than mine, tucked everywhere; behind picture frames and mirrors were favorite spots. Small holy water fonts were also sprinkled liberally throughout her home, often accompanied by a consecrated card of Saint Joseph, well within kneeling distance.
I didn’t know the provenance of these prizes. I think I cherished some of them simply because they pictured beautiful, worthy women, like Saint Clare of Assisi. Others were favorites because I loved the way the saints’ names rolled off my tongue, like Saint Catherine of Siena. In the eighth grade, I signed a pledge card to consider a vocation to the church (it’s true), which brought me a whole bevy of beautiful cards. My principal at the time, Sister Kevin Marie Flynn (her cupboard full of shiny new cards), hailed from Ireland and was devoted to Saint Brigit. So, of course, was I.
I paid no attention to my Irish heritage at the time, and knew little about Saint Brigit’s good deeds, but I yearned for the traditional cross associated with her. The cross is typically woven with stiff grass, like rush, and has three or four arms with a square in the middle. The nuns were master weavers of these coveted crosses, doled out in spring, for good behavior.
There is evidence that Brigit was a devoted friend to Saint Patrick, and it’s said that their friendship was so great that they shared one heart and one mind. Like Saint Patrick, Saint Brigit is also a patron saint of Ireland, and, every Feb. 1, the Irish celebrate her. This date is known as The Feast of Saint Brigit.
In pagan times it was referred to as Imbolc to celebrate the arrival of longer, warmer days and the early signs of spring. It is one of the four major “fire” festivals (quarter days), referred to in Irish mythology from medieval Irish text, dating back to the fifth century.
It’s a sacred Holy Day and, more recently, an Irish national holiday that’s celebrated throughout Ireland, but especially in Kildare, Brigit’s ancestral home. The homes are adorned with Saint Brigid’s crosses set over doorways and windows to protect one’s home from harm. Traditionally, food is made and left on the doorsteps of friends and neighbors. Brigit is closely associated with dairy goods, like milk and cream and eggs. I am sure we’re related.
She is the patron saint of poets and printers and children of unmarried parents. She’s also the patron saint to farmers and ranchers, and I like to think she keeps a good watch over my son Zane, his children, and their cows and crops.
If you’re interested in honoring Brigit, try your hand at making some butter, a favorite Irish activity for children of all ages — my kids and theirs love this easy activity. Fill a quart canning jar a third of the way full with heavy whipping cream, screw the cap on the jar, vigorously shake until you are at the whipped cream stage. Keep shaking and, soon after that, you will hear the thud of the lump of butter. Pour off the liquid, knead the butter to remove pockets of liquid and serve with fresh bread.
We won’t be celebrating spring weather quite as early as our Irish counterparts, but we can still make some tasty foods to honor Saint Brigit. Right now, in the produce section, you’ll find some beautiful young asparagus. So go ahead and pick up some and try your hand at some Catholic cuisine with this savory cheese custard.
Spring tart with goat cheese and asparagus recipe • serves 4
This recipe is best with the earliest, tender spring asparagus available. Perfect for holidays spreads, like Easter brunch.
• 1 whole sprig fresh thyme
• 1 whole garlic clove
• 3 eggs, plus 2 extra yolks
• Pinch of cayenne pepper
• 1 tsp sea salt flakes
• ½ tsp ground white pepper
• ½ cup grated swiss cheese
• ½ cup goat cheese
• 12-20 young asparagus tips (depending on size), snapped close to the tip, rinse
Heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour cream or half and half in a small saucepan with thyme and garlic. Simmer/scald until it begins to steam — watching carefully.
Whisk eggs, cayenne, salt and pepper in a medium bowl until well blended. Remove thyme and garlic.
Add a tiny bit of hot cream to eggs, whisking constantly, so as not to curdle the eggs. Continue the process until the eggs are tempered (warmed up), then gradually add the rest of cream to the egg mixture, whisking constantly.
If using 1 dish, sprinkle grated cheese and spoonfuls of goat cheese into a 1-quart dish. If using ramekins, sprinkle ¼ grated cheese and ¼ goat cheese (by spoonful) into each ramekin. Pour egg mixture over the top mixture into a 1-qt. dish or 4 ramekins. Top with asparagus tips.
Put 1-qt. dish or ramekins in a deep baking pan and pour boiling water into the baking pan,
to within about 1 inch of the top of the dish or ramekins, careful not to spill water into the custard.
Bake until mixture is barely set — it should still jiggle in the center — about 30 minutes for ramekins and 5-10 minutes longer for baking dish. Remove from the oven and serve warm.
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