Today I thought I would do a little different approach to my usual food posts. I still want to stay on the Christmas theme, but with a bit of a twist.
Have you ever thought how some Christmas foods came to be? Who started the tradition of certain foods being served at Christmas? Well, I am here to answer a few of these questions. Well, me and my Sleuthing Elf!
Yeah, my Sleuthing Elf has joined me here on my food blog, she originated on my writing blog “To Breathe is to Write”. She’s very good at her job, so I asked her if she would help me here.
Why are some candies associated with Christmas? Hundreds of years ago sugar was very expensive. It was a food of the wealthy. For other people, it was a special treat saved for holidays (Christmas, Easter) and other special occasions (weddings, christenings). Many of these traditions remain today.
WHAT ABOUT THE CANDY CANE?
The origin of the candy cane is an interesting study of food lore and legend. It is easy to find information on this topic in books and on the Internet. The most popular story is the one about the German choirmaster who handed these out to his young singers in 1670 to keep them quite during a long church service. There is also controversy as to the origin of the shape. Does it represent a shepherd’s crook? Or the letter “J” for Jesus? Bear in mind, most of these stories are undocumented.
Cakes of all shapes and sizes (including smaller items such as cookies) have been part of festive holiday rituals long before Christmas. Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many of these recipes and ingredients (cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds, dried fruits etc.) were introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages. They were highly prized and quickly incorporated into European baked goods. Christmas cookies, as we know them today, trace their roots to these Medieval European recipes. Dutch and German settlers introduced cookie cutters, decorative molds, and festive holiday decorations to America. German lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first cake/cookie traditionally associated with Christmas. Sugar cookie type recipes descended from English traditions. Did you know Animal crackers began as edible ornaments?
Christmas birds: peacocks, swans, geese & turkeys
Food historians tell us the practice of serving large, stuffed fowl for Christmas, like many other Christian holiday food traditions, was borrowed from earlier cultural practices. Peacocks, swans, geese and turkeys all fit this bill. The larger the bird, the more festive the presence. “New World” turkeys were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. For many years, these “exotic” turkey birds only graced the tables of the wealthy. Working-class English Victorian families, like the Cratchits in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, belonged to Goose Clubs. In America, turkey (wild and plentiful) was a natural choice for the Christmas feast. And yet? Our survey of historic newspapers reveals the goose still commanded a traditional place on the Christmas table through the 19th century. Some traditions die hard.
The reason you won’t find 16th century recipes for “egg nog” is the term didn’t appear in print until the next century. Food historians/period recipes confirm English recipes for posset (esp. sack posset) were very similar to later egg nog. References to 16th century Jamestown egg nog were published after the from 18th century forwards, it is most likely the author was using a newer/more popular & accepted American term to denote an old traditional English holiday beverage.
Why do we call it gingerbread?
“The cake like consistency of gingerbread bears little resemblance to bread, so it comes as no surprise that gingerbread has no etymological connection with bread. It was originally, in the thirteenth century, gingerbras, a word borrowed from Old French which meant ‘preserved ginger’. But by the mid-fourteenth century,…-bread had begun to replace -bras, and it was only a matter of time before sense followed form. One of the earliest known recipes for it, in the early fifteenth-century cookery book Good Cookery, directs that it be made with breadcrumbs boiled in honey with ginger and other spices. This is the lineal ancestor of the modern cake like gingerbread in which treacle has replaced honey.”
—An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 142)
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus cooling and chilling times
Servings: Makes about 3 dozen cookies
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 3/4 cups (11.7 ounces) flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 cup chopped candied orange or lemon peel
1/2 cup chopped almonds plus blanched half almonds (whole almonds halved lengthwise) for garnish, divided
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon corn syrup
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1. In a small saucepan, bring the honey and molasses to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
2. In a large bowl, combine the cooled honey and molasses mixture with the brown sugar, egg, lemon juice and lemon zest.
3. Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg. Stir the dry ingredients into the molasses mixture until thoroughly incorporated, then stir in the chopped candied peel and nuts.
4. Cover the dough and refrigerate overnight.
5. Just before baking, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Make the glaze for the cookies: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water and corn syrup over high heat until a thermometer inserted reads 230 degrees. Quickly stir in the powdered sugar and remove from heat. Set the glaze aside in a warm place.
6. Roll the chilled dough on a floured surface to a thickness of one-fourth inch. Cut the dough into rectangles approximately 3 inches long and 2 inches wide.
7. Place the cookies at least 1 inch apart on a greased baking sheet. Place 1 half almond (split side down) in the center of each cookie, then bake until set, 10 to 12 minutes. Brush the cookies with a thin coating of the warm glaze, then cool the cookies on a rack. Store the cookies in an airtight container for a week to mellow the flavors.
Ethiopia: Doro wat
Doro wat is usually served with injera, a spongy, tangy Ethiopian flat bread that can be found in some ethnic markets. Other kinds of flat bread or pita could work as substitutes.
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 1 hour
Makes: 6 servings
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
2 yellow onions, chopped
3/4 cup tomato paste
3 cups cold water
2 teaspoons garlic salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon berbere spice blend, see note
2 pounds chicken pieces
6 hard-cooked eggs, shelled
1. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions; cook, stirring often, until golden, 10 minutes. Mix the tomato paste with 1/2 cup of the water; stir into the onions. Add the garlic salt, pepper, berbere spice blend and the remaining 2 1/2 cups water. Heat to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low. Cook to blend flavors, 10 minutes.
2. Prick chicken pieces and eggs all over with a skewer or fork; add to sauce. Stir to coat pieces with sauce. Simmer on low heat until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened, about 40 minutes.
Note: To make a Western version of berbere spice blend, mix together 6 tablespoons ground red pepper, 2 tablespoons sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon ground dried mint in a bowl. Heat a heavy skillet over low heat; add spices. Toast lightly, stirring, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Cool. Makes 1/2 cup.
Christmas dinner in Denmark wouldn’t be complete without risalamande, a traditional Danish rice pudding dessert. Each person at the table gets served up this dish, and eating it becomes a game as diners search for a whole almond hidden in someone’s dessert. Whoever finds the almond in their risalamande earns a prize.
1/3 cup (65 g) short-grained rice
½ vanilla pod (reserve the other half for the sauce)
1 cup whipping cream
3 tbsp caster sugar
65 g almond flakes
1 whole almond1. Split half of the vanilla pod lengthways, scrape out the seeds.
2. Place the milk and vanilla in a heavy-bottomed pan. Bring to a boil.
3. Reduce the heat. Add the rice gradually stirring constantly.
4. Increase the heat and bring to a boil again.
5. When the milk boils, reduce the heat, cover and simmer on a very low heat for about 1 hour or until the rice is cooked. Stir from time to time, making sure that the rice doesn’t stick too much to the bottom.
6. Leave to cool completely.
7. Whip the cream together with sugar. Fold the whipped cream and almonds into the rice. You can add more sugar or more almonds if you wish. Serve with warm cherry sauce (recipe below)
½ tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp sugar
½ vanilla pod
1 ½ cup water + 2 tbsp cold water
1 heaped tbsp potato starch (corn starch can be substituted)
2. Combine the potato starch with 2 tbsp cold water.
3. Bring the cherries to a boil. Remove the vanilla pod from the pot. Reduce the heat, and , stirring constantly, slowly pour the water with the starch. Simmer for a few minutes until the sauce thickens slightly.
Simbang Gabi (Night Mass) is the kick off to the Christmas season in the Philippines. The traditional celebration starts December 16, and includes nine days of masses before dawn. That may sound early, but after the people get to enjoy a special holiday breakfast complete with lots of sweet treats. Bibingka, a rice flour cake, is a popular Simbang Gabi dessert.
Bibingka (Adapted from Mark Marking) Makes 48 pieces
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
2 (12-ounce) jars macapuno coconut strings in heavy syrup*
1 (16-ounce) box mochiko sweet rice flour*
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup wheat germ (or finely chopped almonds for a gluten-free recipe)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a 13″ x 18″ x 1″ baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large mixing bowl, beat coconut milk, condensed milk, and melted butter until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until combined. Do the same with both jars of macapuno strings. Gradually beat in mochiko flour (do not pour all at once or it will get clumpy). Follow that with the brown sugar and wheat germ. Once you achieve an even consistency, add vanilla extract and beat until combined.
Pour batter into lined cookie sheet. Bake until lightly browned, about 45 minutes. Sprinkle cinnamon evenly over the cake. Continue to bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, between 2-15 minutes longer.
Remove from pan and let cool on the parchment paper. Once cooled down, cut into to 2-inch squares. A long ruler and pizza cutter work nicely.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 1-2 days or in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks.
*Available at Filipino and many Asian markets.