COOKING

Traditional Holiday Cakes and Breads

by Tarla Fallgatter

Copyright © 1997 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.

In many countries, thoughts of Christmas bring thoughts of tradition and traditional Christmas cakes and breads. In America the dark, spicy fruitcake incorporating fruit and nuts begins to appear around the holidays. In Mexico bunuelos—big, crisp fried cakes—are served for Christmas Eve supper. In Norway the delectable Fattigmands Bakkelse (poor man’s cakes) with a very tricky shape are enjoyed at Yuletide.

In Italy, pannettone, a rich, sweet holiday bread, fruit-filled and decorated with almonds, appears on every holiday table. In England, especially in the county of Yorkshire, every housewife makes her special Yule spice cake according to local tradition, and in the whole of England, Christmas is unthinkable without plenty of little mince pies.

In Sweden the Christmas celebrations begin on the morning of December 13, Saint Lucia’s Day, with trays of delicious saffron-colored Lucia buns. In Germany, hausfrauen are busy making Dresden stollen to give to their friends.

In France, the petits enfants are looking forward to their Christmas Buche de Noel and the crunchy meringue mushrooms sitting on top. Even in China, the mooncake has become the Chinese version of Christmas fruitcake, a seasonal delicacy that many people consider much better to give than to receive.

Fruitcake

You have, of course, heard the jokes about fruitcakes that have been handed down for generations, used as doorstops, with no one having the courage to actually eat them. And surely you remember the tale of the world’s lone fruitcake—it just keeps getting rewrapped and given to someone else.

When a research firm polled some 1,000 adults about what they did with fruitcake, 38 percent said they gave it away, 28 percent said they actually ate it, 13 percent said they used it as a doorstop, 9 percent said they scattered it for the birds, 4 percent said they threw it out and 8 percent said they couldn’t remember!

For the Southerners in America, however, fruitcake is serious business. One dedicated connoisseur from Texas has her fruitcake on a regular feeding schedule. She wraps her cakes in brandy-soaked cheesecloth, saturates the cheesecloth with brandy every day for the first month, then every month for the next six months.

If you can’t find a recipe you love, you can order fruitcakes from many sources. The fruitcake recipe used by Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey was developed by Father Arnold, a former prior at the monastery located in Yamhill County, Oregon. These fruitcakes are aged for three months and are rich with raisins and walnuts, and candied pineapple and cherries. (No green citron!) The abbey’s fruitcake output is 80 cakes a day for eight months, or about 2,000 fruitcakes each year, which is small potatoes compared to big-time bakers. (To order, call (800) 294-0105.)

The emperor of the mail-order fruitcake, Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, bakes 80,000 pounds of fruitcake per day during its October-December high season, for a total of 1.5 million fruitcakes which are then shipped around the world. Founded in 1896 by German baker August Weldmann and Corsicana entrepreneur W. Tom McElwee, the bakery stumbled into mail order when John Ringling and his famous circus troupe visited the town. Ringling requested that cakes be sent to fans and family around the world. In 1946, Bill McNutt, father of the current CEO of the same name, purchased the bakery and expanded the business. To ensure supply and quality, the company has its own pineapple plantation in Costa Rica and its own pecan-shelling plant in Corsicana.

Bunuelos

For nine consecutive nights before the traditional Christmas Eve supper there are the posadas to commemorate the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and their search for lodgings. The word "posada" means an inn. To the humble Mexican, the reenactment of the Holy Family’s quest for lodging is a ritual of deep religious significance. The posadas, which start on the sixteenth of December and end on Christmas Eve, take place at different houses each night. The climax of each is the breaking of the piñata, a pottery jar filled with trinkets, candies and miniature toys, ingeniously decorated with bright paper to represent an elaborate bird, or a clown in grotesque costume.

Posada ceremonies begin after dark on December 16, with a procession of pilgrims led by two children. As the pilgrims approach the door of the house assigned to the first posada, they chant traditional verses in which Joseph wakens the master of the place and asks for lodging for Mary.

When the religious ritual ends, refreshments are served and the piñata is broken. In the mingled atmosphere of religious fervor and childlike enjoyment, posadas and piñata-breakings continue until Christmas Eve. At midnight on Christmas Eve everyone surges into the churches to celebrate the Misa de Gallo or Mass of the Cock. After the service, whistles blow, fireworks explode, bells ring and magnificent processions form, for Jesus’ birth is the occasion of unbounded demonstration.

In the midst of the happy tumult, families hurry home to special holiday suppers. At last come the bunuelos, festal fried cakes that are puffed and brown. They are eaten plain, with cinnamon and brown sugar syrup, or sometimes with honey.

Fattigmands

In Norway, Christmas preparations start weeks in advance, with the slaughter of the family pig. The animal provides the hams and sausages, and the rich soups that everyone enjoys for Christmas feasting. Households fasten sheaves of wheat to poles and erect them in gardens so the birds will have their share of Christmas cheer. On Christmas Eve, horses and cows are given extra portions of oats and fodder.

Christmas Eve starts at four in the afternoon, when the village churches ring their bells and shopkeepers lock their doors and pull down their shutters. Families assemble about the soup kettle and, according to time-honored custom, each person eats a piece of fladbrod, or thin Norwegian bread, that has been dipped into the big kettle of molje, or broth. For generations, the tasting ceremony has preceded the holiday meal. Supper starts with koldt bord, a magnificent array of hot and cold appetizers, and ends with fourteen different cakes and sweets, and risengrynsgrot (rich rice pudding), with a lucky almond in the center. The almond is important, for whoever finds it will be first to wed in the coming year.

After supper the children see the Christmas tree—carefully guarded behind locked doors from the day Father brought it from the woods by sled. The tree is decorated with lighted candles, gingerbread men and gilded nuts—a truly beautiful sight. Father reads the Bible story of the Babe in the Manger, and the children then join hands with their elders and walk around the tree, while singing old carols. Julenisse, the gnome with the red, pointed cap and long, gray beard, brings the presents. Youngsters know him well, although they have never actually seen him. He lives in the barn loft, and sees and hears everything. On Christmas Eve they tiptoe to the loft with a big bowl of rice pudding for Julenisse’s supper and, although they peer into all the dark corners, they never even catch a glimpse of his little, red cap. By morning the pudding is always gone and the bowl polished clean.

Whether you intend to celebrate Christmas Norwegian style, with fourteen different kinds of cakes, or just with two or three, fattigmands bakkelse should be included. Here is my favorite recipe:

Fattigmands

6 yolks

1/2C vanilla sugar

1 Tbsp. melted butter

1/4C cognac

2 tsp. lemon zest, finely chopped

1/3C cream, whipped to soft peaks

2C flour

1/2 tsp. salt

4 tsp. ground cardamom

oil (to fry in)

sifted powdered sugar

Beat the yolks 20 minutes until light and lemon-colored. Add the sugar gradually and beat for 15 minutes more. Gently stir in the butter, cognac and lemon zest. Fold the whipped cream into the yolk mixture.

Mix the flour, salt and cardamom together and gently fold into the yolk mixture. The dough should be stiff. Refrigerate overnight.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out 1/8" thick. Cut in diamond shapes 3-4" long. Cut a slit in the middle of each triangle and pull one end of the dough through. Fry cookies in hot (375°F) oil until light golden—about 1-1/2 minutes. Drain on paper towels, transfer to platters and dust with sifted powdered sugar.

MAKES: 5 dozen

Pannettone

In Italy, pannettone, a rich, sweet holiday bread, fruit-filled and decorated with almonds, is as much a part of the Babino Gesu’s Holy Feast as the presepio, or Christmas crib.

The preparation of the presepio is probably the most beautiful, as well as the most typical, of all Italian Christmas customs. Tradition says that Saint Francis of Assisi inaugurated the presepio custom on Christmas Eve, 1223, when he held Mass beside the crib, at the woodland sanctuary at Greccio. Children usually fashion their presepi from such simple materials as cardboard and moss, lichens, stones and twigs. Clay or whittled wooden figures represent the Holy Family, the shepherds and their flocks.

Well before Christmas, street vendors in every town sell presepio figures. But in many families the Nativity characters are precious heirlooms handed down and added to during many years. In Sicily and southern Italy, zampognari, or wandering shepherd bagpipers, come down from the mountains to visit village presepi. They go from house to house to kneel before the cribs and pipe tunes to the Child.

Pannettone, the loaf that appears on every holiday table, really belongs to the North, although nowadays its popularity has spread to the South. Each region has its favorite way of making their rich, sweet bread. Some add piñon nuts to the citron, raisins, or currants that make the loaf as delicious as fruit cake. In other areas the shiny top crust is elaborately decorated with blanched almonds, and many modern housewives now include candied cherries in the batter. Serve your pannetone as the Italians do—for breakfast, with coffee, chocolate or tea; with marsala for dessert or for afternoon tea. Pannettone keeps fresh a long time and as native housewives say, is "just as good stale as fresh!" If the urge to make it strikes you, here is a great recipe:

Pannettone

2 pkg. dry yeast

1/2C warm water

1/3C sugar

1/4C warm milk

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

2/3C butter, softened

2 tsp. lemon peel, finely chopped

1 tsp. vanilla

3-3/4C flour

2 eggs + 2 yolks

1/4C marsala wine

1/2C golden raisins

2/3C diced mixed candied fruits

1/4C toasted pine nuts

sifted powdered sugar

Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a small measuring cup, add 1 tsp. of the sugar, cover and let stand 5 minutes or until foamy. Mix the remaining sugar, 2C flour, warm milk, salt, nutmeg, butter, lemon zest, vanilla and yeast mixture together. Beat until smooth and elastic—about 5 minutes.

Beat in the eggs and yolks, one at a time. Gradually beat in the remaining 1-3/4C flour. When all has been added, beat at medium speed until the batter is elastic—about 3 minutes.

Transfer the batter to a greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until bubbly—about 1 hour. While the batter is rising, pour the marsala over the raisins in a small bowl and set aside.

Stir the batter down, then stir in the raisin mixture, candied fruits and pine nuts until well distributed. Spread the batter in a PAM-coated 9-1/2C charlotte mold, cover with a towel and set in a warm place. Let rise until doubled—30-45 minutes. Preheat oven to 325°F.

Bake until the bread is well-browned—about 1 hour. Let stand in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool (rounded side up). Dust with sifted powdered sugar while still warm.

MAKES: 10-12 servings

Yule Spice Cake

Holiday wassailers in Yorkshire, England, sing the following old Yule song from door to door. The song has almost as many versions as Yorkshire has recipes for the cake the singers demand!

We wish ye a Merry Christmas

And a happy New Year,

We are all tee-totalers and don’t drink beer.

A little bit o’ spice cake,

And a little bit o’ cheese,

A glass o’ cold water

And a penny, if ye please.

If ye haven’t got a penny

A ha’penny will do.

If ye haven’t got a ha’penny,

God bless you!

Yorkshire is the largest of England’s counties and divided into three ridings—North, East and West. Each riding has its special dialect, maintains its folk identity and observes its own unique customs. Each makes Yule spice cake according to local tradition. This superb Christmas loaf bursts with sultanas, currants, candied peels and spices, and cooks from the different ridings quibble endlessly about essential ingredients and methods of preparation. Every housewife, however, agrees to the old superstition that she will have as many happy months—or more likely, days—in the coming years as she has requests for her holiday cake.

West Riding women insist that the cake must be made a day or so before the holidays, and that it must be eaten on Christmas Eve. It should be baked three inches thick in a round loaf as big as a dinner plate. With a sharp knife, the housewife traces a cross on the yellow surface but no one is allowed to sample this cake before Christmas Eve unless they want some bad luck bestowed upon them.

Mince Pies

Christmas in England is unthinkable without plenty of little mince pies. According to an old superstition, the Twelve Days—the period between Christmas and Epiphany—mirror the entire year, and country people predict one happy month during the next twelve for each pie you eat at a neighbor’s house between December 25 and January 6.

The ancestor of the modern little mince pie was a high affair that sometimes weighed over a hundred pounds and bulged with chicken eggs, raisins, and orange and lemon peel, in addition to vast quantities of sugar and spice. Robert Herrick wrote a motto in which he whimsically suggests that we bury our sorrows in the Christmas pie:

Without the door let Sorrow lie,

And if for cold it hap to die,

We’ll bury it in a Christmas pie

And evermore be merry!

The Christmas pie was so important in early English holiday celebrations that in Herrick’s time a night watch was appointed to guard the pies against thieves. The British style is to make traditional mincemeat with beef fat (suet) and not additional meat, American and French to make it with beef fat and additional minced meat. The more common mincemeat contains finely chopped fruits, raisins, candied citrus peel, nuts, rum or brandy, brown sugar, spices and beef suet. Commercially made mincemeat is readily available in jars in supermarkets, especially around the holidays.

Today mince pies are universally popular but in Cromwell’s time, the Puritans condemned them as "an hodgepodge of superstition." The crust, or "coffin," as early English cookbooks call it, was rectangular in shape. This, it was claimed, represented the Christ Child’s manger, while the costly spices in the filling symbolized the offerings of the Magi.

The little mince pies of modern England bear slight resemblance to the huge creations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Individual mince pies are a happy reminder of holiday entertaining.

St. Lucia Buns

In Sweden, Christmas begins on December 13, Luciadagen, or Saint Lucia’s Day, with a charming ceremony that originated in an ancient legend of hospitality and goodness. Among rich and poor in every corner of the country, a daughter of the household rises before dawn and dresses in a white robe with crimson girdle, red stockings and a crown of green leaves bearing nine lighted white candles. The girl, who impersonates Saint Lucia, announces the opening of Yuletide by visiting the bedside of each member of the family with a tray of coffee, buns and cakes.

Although the rite of offering refreshments on December 13 is primarily a family custom, some villages have one Lucia Bride who visits all the neighborhood houses, while in large cities there are many Brides. In smaller communities, Lucia either makes rounds alone or in company with other parish young people, who sing Christmas carols. Often the group is accompanied by baker boys who have trays of ginger cookies and the traditional Lussekatter, or Lucia Cats. These are rich, sweet buns, shaped like the letter X and flavored with cardamom. They bear no resemblance to cats, save for their raisin eyes, but suggest, rather some kind of ancient ceremonial bread. Their X-shape might be interpreted as the Greek letter chi which looks like X and stands for the name of Christ.

Since Luciadagen is the official opening of Yule, everything on the farms must be in order by this day. The farmer mends fences and harnesses, greases squeaky cart wheels and ends the threshing. The wife finishes the year’s spinning and weaving and makes tallow dips for the holiday table.

Then she buries the Christmas cod in beech ashes so it will be tender and sweet for the Christmas Even supper. Most important of all, perhaps, she concludes her weeks of baking the fancy breads and rich cookies without which no Swedish Christmas is complete.

The Luciadagen ceremony recalls Lucia, the Sicilian saint whose name means "light." According to tradition, Lucia was condemned to death as a Christian in 304. The legend tells of how Lucia’s eyes were plucked out because their beauty attracted a pagan noble, and how eventually she was martyred by the sword. Such a legend has taken root in popular imagination. Santa Lucia of the South gradually became the Lucia Bride of the North and people persisted in saying that the Lucia Bride might be seen early on the morning of her day, gliding across icebound lakes with food and drink for the parish poor. In time the youthful saint came to be associated with the idea of hospitality.

Stollen

December 24, Weihnachtsabend, Christmas Eve, is a meatless fast day for German Catholics and the specialty is carp, served hot, poached and with lightly whipped cream and freshly grated horseradish. Rice pudding is also often served on Christmas Eve, with only one portion containing an almond—and the one who receives it gets a special prize.

December 25, Weihnachtstag, is a day honoring the German talent for superb baking. Dozens of kinds of cookies, large and small cakes, sweet yeast breads like Dresden Stollen and fruit breads are all prepared for this day. Dusted in powdered sugar, the Stollen symbolizes the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. When times were poor, Stollen was made with rough bread flour, water and a few raisins, but when the years were rich, Stollen became more elaborate, with butter, spices and sugar. The famous Dresden Stollen, when correctly made, consists of just enough dryish dough to hold together a treasure of the strongly flavored tidbits of Christmas—almonds, raisins, currants and glacé fruit. It was a custom, still observed at the beginning of this century, to bake several Stollen, and give them as gifts for Christmas. Stollen is best baked one or two weeks before Christmas, as it will improve with age.

Buche de Noel

An article about Christmas cakes and breads could never be complete without mentioning the traditional French Christmas Yule Log or Buche de Noel. This famous cake is made from a chocolate genoise cake baked in a jelly-roll pan and rolled into its log shape. When cool, the cake is unrolled, filled with a rich chocolate buttercream, rolled up again and piped with strips of creme au beurre (buttercream icing) to simulate bark on a log, then further decorated with meringue mushrooms, powdered sugar, marzipan holly leaves and berries.

Mooncake

The mooncake, although associated with China’s mid-autumn Moon Festival, has become the Chinese version of Christmas fruitcake, a seasonal delicacy passed from person to person, sometimes wending its way back to the original giver.

In the 14th century, Chinese rebels tucked secret messages inside the cakes, urging the overthrow of their Mongolian rulers. Today the messages have more to do with glad tidings. The traditional mooncake is a small disk of dough, deep-fried in pork fat and filled with salted duck egg yolks—a cholesterol nightmare! As tastes and traditions have waxed and waned, mooncake makers have had to come up with something tastier—and more healthful. The well-known Daoxiangcun shop in Beijing offered 14 alternative fillings this year, including white lotus seed, strawberry and plum. The ritual of giving mooncakes to family and friends, or bosses and colleagues, to thank people for past favors or to sweeten them up for future ones, is still very much observed today. The largest of Shanghai’s many mooncake makers, Xinhualou, sold 275 tons of mooncakes this year—nearly enough to let each of the city’s 13 million people eat cake.

If you’d like, you can order a book of holiday bread recipes online, and whatever way you choose to celebrate the holidays—Joyeux Noel, Frohliche Weihnachten and Merry Christmas to you!

Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris’ Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim’s. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.