This is the third article in December of the School for Housewives 1906 series published on December 16, 1907, and is a discussion on Christmas traditions in other countries.
Transcribed from the Sunday edition of Boston Sunday Post.
Christmas Fare in Many Lands
DO YOU ever realize how much of the good cheer of Christmas is dependent on cookery? Every land—indeed, almost every family—has its own special dainties of the season, the omission of which would mean the loss of half the Christmas spirit.
From remote antiquity has come to us this habit of Christmas feasting; indeed, the Christmas cakes are said to typify a direct connection between the adoration of the God of Light and the expression of his power on earth in the fire and the hearth.
In many of their Christmas customs today the peasantry of Europe is all unwittingly following the traditions of its pagan ancestry. Thus, little do the people of central France, who each year bake small crescent-shaped “gateaux de Noel,” called “cornabeaux,” to give to the poor, realize that the odd shape of these cakes, resembling a bullock’s horns, is a heritage of their heathen forefathers.
Equally ignorant are the Scandinavians, who bake their Christmas cakes in the shape of a pig, and feast on roast pork for their Christmas dinner. They do not think that they are commemorating the sacrificial boar whose life was offered up each Yuletide.
The superstitions which so frequently cling around Christmas customs are not confined to saving scraps of the Yule log to ward off thunderstorms. A certain French loaf cake baked by some of the old-time farmers on Christmas Eves, so far from being indigestible, is thought to have healing powers, and is saved all through the year to give to the sick of the family.
Then there is a Scandinavian cake made from the flour of the last sheaf of corn harvested, a piece of which is always kept until spring, and given to the plowman for good luck in his crops.
The Christmas spirit is, doubtless, the same the world over, though it is manifested in some very curious foods. While the Russian and the Scandinavian always feast on Christmas Day on roast suckling pig, stuffed with buckwheat or chestnuts, the German regales himself on a fat goose, or, if he be from the Southern Rhine, on the “carpen blau,” or blue carp. This is cut in small pieces, and stewed in a red wine sauce, flavored with salt, pepper, a small onion, a bay leaf or two, slices of lemon, a large lump of butter and breadcrumbs. Just before serving, the raw blood of the carp and a lump of sugar are added.
While the Anglo-Saxon is eating his crisp, juicy turkey, the people of Panama are reveling in sancolcho, a special Christmas stew of beef, chicken, pork, potatoes, plantains, tomatoes, onions and peppers, cooked into a thick brown gravy, and the Neapolitan is feasting on eels boiled in oil.
The Christmas cake is equally varied, though it has a striking similarity in that most of it is dark, rich and plummy.
Holland, Amsterdam especially, indulges in quantities of St. Nicholas cake—a crisp brown gingerbread—made in the form of men and women. This is often called “vrigers,” or sweethearts, because each person gets a cake of the opposite sex. The Dutch also have another Christmas cake, scarcely so inviting. It is called “taai-taai,” or “tough-tough,” from its lack of tenderness. This cake, fortunately, has the happy faculty of mellowing with age.
After all, it is to Germany one must go for the real Christmas spirit in cookery, as in everything else. For weeks before hand the hausfrau and all her flock are making pleasing preparations for the great day. Indeed, if she be especially thrifty, she has been paying to the baker throughout the year a small weekly “stolle” tax, in order to get not only stolle, but all her cakes free at Christmas.
While the confectioner bakes most of the German cakes, especially the huge baumkuchen, numbers are also prepared at home.
Baumkuchen, a white cake, with streaks of fawn color running through it, is typically German. It is at least three feet high and hollow clear through the centre. The top is cut in points like a turret and iced with a white icing, while all over the glazed surface of the sides are knobs daubed with icing. Such a cake naturally requires to be baked in a special mould.
The baking of the springerle, a white cake with anise seed, causes quite a jubilation. The entire family gathers round the kitchen table and mould the dough into round little wooden forms of flowers and figures; the forms—which, by the way, may be bought in this country—are removed and the cakes baked on iron sheets.
Aix-la-Chapelle is noted for its honigkuchen (honey cakes). A delicious German recipe for this is to heat three-quarters of a pound of honey with three-quarters of a pound of sugar. Then add the pounded paste of seven ounces of sweet and 1½ ounces of bitter almonds, 3½ ounces of candied lemon peel, 1 ounce each of cloves and cinnamon, the grated rind of a lemon, 1-3 ounce of soda, and half cup of rosewater. After this is well mixed, add about 1¼ pounds of flour to make a firm dough that can be well kneaded. When cold, roll out, stick cherries over it, and bake in a moderate oven.
No German family would be without stolle at Christmas, a very rich cake raised with yeast, nor without their delicious candy marzipan. Many of the cakes and candies are hung on the Christmas tree, as well as barley sugar candy, apples and gilded nuts. Little cakes, iced with different colored sugar, can be bought especially for the decoration. These are left on the tree for two weeks or until the “baumplundern” (robbing the tree), when they are taken down with special ceremonies and given to the children of the poor. Most of the German cakes keep a long time.
Christmas in England means equally good things to eat, though possibly not so varied. Plum puddings, fruit cake and mince pie are never wanting, and delightfully rich and “plummy” are they all.
AN ENGLISH CEREMONY
The stirring of the plum pudding is made a special ceremony. The night before Christmas, or sometimes a week earlier, the family all gather round a holly-decked dining table. Then, as the butler brings in a huge bowl filled with the pudding batter, the father of the household rises, and, pouring m a glass of brandy, stirs it with a long spoon, wishing good luck, good cheer and good health to all, and to the King as well. He is followed, in turn, by each member of the family, down to the tiniest baby, and by the servants according to rank, each stirring in his glass of brandy, or, if one be a teetotaler, milk is sometimes substituted. Even the wee pet dog must be allowed to stir.
When that blazing plum pudding is brought in at dinner the next day one must be sure to get a piece of the flame for good luck.
One must also be very sure they have not tasted mince pie that season before they get a tart from the Christmas dinner, for that would be very bad luck, indeed.
After dessert very probably there will be snap-dragon, with the guests all pulling raisins out of blazing brandy. When they have eaten all they wish, salt is poured on the dish, and very weird does every one look in the blue light.
France does not pay as much attention to Christmas as do many other countries. New Year’s is her great day for feasting. Therefore, there is very little distinctive fare, beyond the few cakes already mentioned and some candy in odd forms and figures. No foreigners, however, eat candy as do the Americans, even at the holiday season.
The Italian Christmas is largely religious, but there is a varied interest in the Christmas fare. We find the Neapolitans and others of southern Italy going mad over “Il capitone,” the eel, reeking with garlic and oil, that every one must eat on Christmas day. All Christmas Eve the markets are full of excited people auctioning this delicacy of the season, which brings many times its regular price; indeed, the very poor often beggar themselves in their determination to buy an eel.
“Pizza,” a pastry filled with fruit and eggs, is another favorite Christmas dish.
In north Italy we find the people always eating Agnolotti (or Ravioli) on this day.
The giving of presents in an imported custom, and instead of a Christmas tree the wealthier people have a dark corner, adorned to represent a manger and the Nativity. This is called “Il Presepio,” and is common all over Italy. The churches have it for the poorer classes.
GALA TIMES IN MEXICO
Christmas in Mexico is a gala time, indeed; the feasting and present-giving lasts for nine days. During Posadas—the feast previous to Christmas (“Noche Buena”)—nine families club together, each taking a night. Even the children are brought to these feasts, where there are refreshments according to one’s means.
All gather in the parlor, and after singing and telling of the rosaries the hostess brings into the room a great basket filled with bananas, fruit, peanuts and “confites,” the national candy, of little sugared balls in many colors. These are thrown to the small children, to their intense delight.
Later, the older boys and young men blindfold the girls, give them a big stick and take them out to the courtyard, in the centre of which hangs a big pot decorated as a bull or man and filled, as was the basket, with assorted good things. Each girl in turn, after being turned till she loses her bearings, is given a try at the pot with her stick.
When a girl finally breaks the pot such a made scramble ensues, after which the distribution of presents on trays takes place.
For nine succeeding nights this is repeated until Christmas Eve, when a big dinner is given at midnight, to which all contribute. At this meal is served soup, turkey, vegetables and “Fiambi,” a kind of fruit salad, of organs, bananas and chicken marinaded in French dressing. The dessert is usually ices in fancy moulds, followed by much fun over nuts and raisins.
In Peru, Panama and other South American countries they also have an eight-days’ celebration at Christmas. The young girls, dressed all in white decollete, much-ruffled muslin gowns, with flowers in their hair, go into the plaza each night and dance in procession. This is followed by a feast.
Always at this season the people eat Buenonella, a very light egg fritter, in the shape of a ring and fried in lard. These are sold everywhere on the streets.
They also have “Toronde alecante,” a sort of nougat, and many delicious “dulce,” as cakes and candy are called.
One of the favorites is called “Dulce de Naranja.” Take four large, thick-skinned navel oranges and cut them in round slices about a quarter of an inch thick, skin and all. Boil with one quart of water and a pound of sugar until the skin is tender. This should make a thick syrup like marmalade. If the oranges get too soft, take them out and pour the syrup over them.
Even Clavinistic Scotland has certain Christmas dishes, the chief being an extra rich shortcake, made of two pounds of flour, one-half pound of sugar, one pound of butter and one ounce candied peel. After washing the salt from the butter, rub it to a cream with the sugar, add the flour, which has been warmed, and mix carefully with a wooden spoon. Roll with a rolling pin or knead well with the hands. Press into tins, add comfits or sugared caraway seeds and the cinnamon, and bake in a moderate oven until crisp and brown, about three-quarters of an hour.
In far-away Calcutta they also have the Christmas spirit, and the natives make innumerable little cakes and present them to the English Sahibs. Sometimes these cakes are received by the score as offerings from the tradespeople and servants—though “backsheesh,” be it said, is usually expected in return.
The following recipes are all used by families noted for their good cooking in the lands from which they hall:
(The German Christmas candy).
1 pound sweet almonds (blanched).
1-16 pound bitter almonds or ½ ounce of the flavoring.
1 pound pulverized sugar (the finest confectioner’s).
A few drops of rosewater.
Buy the almonds shelled. Pound them to a paste in a mortar and add the rosewater. Mix in the sugar gradually and work to a paste of sufficient consistency to roll out. Sugar the board before rolling.
Marzipan may be made in any fancy shape or in moulds. A favorite way with the Germans is to roll part of it into a round cake about an inch thick, then mould another portion into a long, sausage-shaped piece and run around the edge of this cake, moistening it first with rosewater, so it sticks. Put candied cherries over the surface.
The marzipan may be put in the oven a minute to harden or even slightly brown. Sometimes the paste is divided into three parts, and colored brown, red and green with some harmless essence, and then put together in layers.
(A favorite German Christmas cake.)
3½ pounds flour.
1 pint lukewarm milk.
8 eggs (yolks).
1 yeast cake.
1 pint melted butter.
½pound stoned raisins.
½ pound sugar.
6 ounces chopped almonds.
Mix the flour with the yeast dissolved in warm milk and salt, and let it rise in a warm place. Beat the yolks and sugar together. Stir up the butter. Add to the dough, then add the fruit and lemon peel, and about a dessertspoonful of yeast that has been kept out. Raise again until very light. Mould into long loaves like a Vienna loaf, but not so pointed. Dent the top slightly with a knife, glaze with melted butter, and bake in a moderate over three-quarters of an hour. Almonds are often stuck in the top before going into the oven.
(A German Cake.)
One pound sugar.
One lemon and grated rind.
One pound flour.
A knifepointful of soda.
Mix the soda through the sugar and beat well with the eggs. Add the other ingredients and put dough away to rest. Take off rather small pieces of the dough; roll out on the board to the thickness of a knifeblade. The moulds are sprinkled with flour, and the rolled-cut dough os pressed tightly on them. The cakes are then put on buttered tins and covered with anise seed, and are allowed to stand over night, being baked the next day in a moderate oven.
(An English Nursery Fruit Cake.)
One pound flour.
One-half pound butter.
Three-quarters pound raisins.
One-quarter pound currants.
Three ounces of candied peel.
Six ounces sugar.
One tablespoonful of baking powder.
Milk to make a stiff dough.
Mix well and bake for two hours.
This cake may be eaten plain, or can have an almond icing covered with a white icing.
One pound confectioner’s sugar.
Three-quarters pound ground sweet almonds.
Two or three eggs.
A little rose or orange-flower water.
Mix the sugar and almonds together, make a hole in the centre and stir in two eggs and the rosewater. Wet to a firm paste, using the third egg if necessary. Turn the mixture on to a board that has been dusted with sugar to prevent sticking. Roll with a rolling-pin to the size of the cake. Place it on top and press smooth. Cover with a white boiled or unboiled icing.
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