Happy Monday! I just got back from an amazing wedding weekend in Charlottesville, VA. So fun to see old college friends and celebrate a beautiful wedding!
I’m starting my week off with a fun surprise-inside cake, which totally reminds me of Medieval reliquaries! Reliquaries are beautiful but pretty strange objects. Fueled by the Christian belief in the afterlife and resurrection, Medieval churches built ornate altars to house the remains of a holy person or saint. The holiest relics of all were associated with Christ and the Virgin Mary, and it was believed that these objects bestowed privileges and honor upon the possessor. Relics could be anything from an article of clothing, a clipping of hair or a tooth, and were valued based on how important the holy figure was. Wealthy and powerful monasteries and cathedrals were constantly on the lookout for the most prestigious items.
The relic was housed in a very ornate and heavily decorated box called a reliquary, and a huge amount of artistry went into constructing these decorative items. Sometimes reliquaries looked like miniature caskets or jewelry boxes, and sometimes they were built to look like the relics that were housed inside. Built with only the best materials, they were covered in gold, silver, ivory, enamel and precious gems.
One of the most famous reliquaries that survives is one that houses a relic of the crown of thorns. The lavishly decorated object is very slim with two faces, and shows scenes of the Last Judgment. Apparently Louis IX of France purchased what he believed to be the original crown of thorns in the late 13th century, and individual thorns from the crown were passed down between kings. King Charles V had this reliquary made to hold just 1 thorn, and it is considered to be one of the most spectacular examples of Medieval European metalworking. After about 300 years in the Habsburg collection, the reliquary was acquired by the British Museum in 1898, and is in remarkably good condition considering its age.
A few other favorites:
Reliquary bust of a companion of Saint Ursula, c. 1520-1530, oak, polychrome, gilt, glass – on view at the Met
Reliquary of St. Thomas Beckett, 12th century, copper, enamel, gilt – on view at the British Museum
The Beckett Casket, 12th century, copper, enamel, gilt – on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum
This awesome pound cake is actually made of two flavors, and can be made with any of your favorite recipes. I used vanilla pound cake for the “relic” star within the cake, and spiced butternut squash pound cake as the main flavor. While this pound cake might look difficult, it is actually pretty easy. For best results, use a 1-2 inch cookie cutter for the shape inside. Happy Baking!
Vanilla Pound Cake:
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
½ cup milk
Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 9 x 5-inch bread pan. Set aside.
Beat the butter in a stand mixer on medium speed. After a few minutes, when it is light and fluffy, add the sugar. Beat another minute, then scrape down the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula and add the eggs, one at a time. Mix, add the vanilla and mix some more. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Alternately add the dry mix with the milk to the batter and mix only until combined. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 1 hour, maybe 5 minutes more, until a toothpick inserted into the center out clean. Let cool in the pan for 20 minutes and then gently turn over to cool on a rack. Let cake cool another hour and then slice the cake into equal 1-inch slices. Using a small cookie cutter (I used a star), cut a shape into each slice of cake. Try to cut from the most perfect, even part of the slice. After you’ve cut shapes in each piece, discard the scraps (I mean eat) and set the stars aside while you bake the next cake.
Spiced Butternut Squash Pound Cake:
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup sugar
1 cup butternut squash puree
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Keep the oven at 350°F and grease another 9 x 5-inch pan. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until light. Add the sugars and beat another minute. Mix in the butternut squash, followed by the eggs, one by one and the vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the dry mix to the batter over 3 equal additions. Mix only until combined.
Fill the prepared pan with about an inch of batter. Arrange the vanilla pound cake stars in a stack, and fit them into the pan. Pour the rest of the batter around the stack of stars, so that they are completely covered. Bake for at least 45 minutes – its done when an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for 20 minutes in the pan, then turn out on a cutting board and cool completely. Slice and enjoy with coffee or your beverage of choice! This rich cake will start your week off right!
Featured art: The Holy Thorn Reliquary, c. 1400, gold, enamel and precious gems
Reliquary bust of a companion of Saint Ursula, c. 1520-1530, oak, polychrome, gilt, glass
Reliquary of St. Thomas Beckett, 12th century, copper, enamel, gilt
The Beckett Casket, 12th century, copper, enamel, gilt