Articles in Holidays
Easter is a moveable feast in both Eastern and Western church traditions — quite literally, since the date can vary by several weeks whether celebrated according to the Western (Roman Catholic) or Eastern (Orthodox Catholic) calendar: This year’s Roman Catholic Easter is March 31, and the Orthodox date is May 5. This can make for some confusion where the two groups intersect, as they often do in central Europe. Traditions in both camps, however, feature eggs as the universal symbol of rebirth.
A Russian Orthodox Easter as celebrated in the early 1990s by a self-sufficient farming family of Ruthenes living in Slovakia’s Tatras mountains on the borders of the Ukraine provided me with a lesson in maintaining national identity through festive traditions in a situation where church festivals were not officially celebrated at all.
The Ruthenes, Russian-speaking Ukrainians marooned in Slovakia in the aftermath of World War II, maintained their language and religion throughout the years of communism thanks, in all probability, to their minority status and the inaccessibility of their steep ravines and dense forest. Through the long winters, while the city dwellers of Eastern Europe endured shortages and bread queues, the peasant communities of the Tatras survived as they always had, through self-sufficiency and a well-stocked store cupboard. And at Easter, the most important festival of the Christian year, those who had moved to the cities to find work returned home to be with their families and enjoy the last of the stores, providing extra hands to plant the potato crop, the most important and labor-intensive task of the year.
At the time of my visit, my hostess, Anna Ludomirova — matriarch of a peasant farming family in the High Tatras — was preparing the Easter basket to be taken to the churchyard. Packed with good things — a tall round babka enriched with eggs and butter, decorated eggs, salt (a very important item in any self-sufficient household), the last of the ham from the brine pot — the basket was taken to be blessed with a sprinkling of holy water by the monks at the Russian Orthodox church on Easter Saturday. Once this ritual had been observed and the basket shown to the family ancestors buried in the churchyard, everyone returned home to unpack and share the contents.
Easter egg cheese part of traditional holiday meal
This picnic-style meal freed the ladies of the household to enjoy the company of visitors. But before the feast could begin, certain rituals had to be observed. A bowl of decorated Easter eggs painted with wax and dipped in colored dyes was set on the table and a ceremonial candle lit. Then Mama Anna sliced the top off a raw egg, mixed the contents with a little spoon and passed it round the table for everyone to take a little sip — a unifying gesture shared by all.
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These important rituals concluded, the company tucked into sliced ham and wind-cured sausage, spiced beetroot and gherkins in sweetened vinegar, grated horseradish in cream, eggs hard-boiled and saved in obedience to the prohibitions of Lent, thick slices of the buttery babka spread with more butter. Most unusual, however, was the centerpiece of the feast, egg cheese, a magnificent yellow globe as large and round as a soccer ball made by scrambling the first of the year’s eggs with the first of the year’s milk, tipping the result in a cloth and leaving it to drip overnight till firm and dry — a technique that mirrors the preparation of rennetted cheese later in the year, when the calves are weaned and the cows put out to grass. The eggshells did not go to waste, as they were emptied through pinholes to keep the shells intact and saved for the children to decorate with melted candle wax for the patterned Easter eggs sent to the churchyard in the basket.
After the collapse of the Russian empire and the splitting of Slovakia from the Czechs, the Ruthene communities returned to the Ukraine carrying with them traditions forgotten in their native land but preserved in all their ancient symbolism by a stroke of the politicians’ pencil all those years ago.
Wax-patterned Easter eggs
You need white rather than brown eggs for the patterns to be effective. You can use ready-blown eggshells from making egg cheese or cooled hard-boiled eggs. You’ll also need candle ends — plain, colored or both — food coloring and a pin with a large head.
1. Stick the pin in a cork to make a pen.
2. Melt the wax, keeping the colors separate.
3. Hold the egg firmly in one hand, big end upward. Dip the pen in the wax, and, starting half an inch below the apex of the egg, dab with the wax and drag it up toward the top to give a tadpole-shaped tick. Continue around the egg to make a sunburst pattern. If you use alternate lengths of stroke and different colored waxes, the pattern will be even prettier.
4. Repeat on the other end of the egg. (Hold it carefully or place in an egg cup so the warmth of your hand doesn’t melt the wax). Make more sunburst patterns around the sides.
5. Dip the eggs in diluted food coloring, as for batik.
6. Pile the eggs in a pretty bowl.
Easter egg cheese
This is a very unusual dish, a solid sphere of scrambled egg. It looks decorative, slices up neatly and goes very well with ham, the traditional Easter meat in northern and Eastern Europe.
1 liter of milk
12 free-range eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk all but one of the eggs with the salt.
2. When the milk boils, whisk in the egg. Keep whisking until the resulting custard is thoroughly scrambled.
3. Tip the mixture into a clean pudding cloth. Hang it in a warm place to drain with a bowl underneath to catch the whey, exactly as you would fresh cheese.
4. When it’s quite drained, tip it out onto a clean dish, paint it with the remaining egg, forked to blend, and place it into an oven preheated to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4) for 10 minutes to glaze. The result should look like a large, shiny, yellow Easter egg.
5. Slice thickly and serve with ham, butter and bread.
Illustration: Ruthene women. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
No sooner does Paris finish ringing in the New Year than its bakers and grocers unveil copious displays of galette des rois or king cakes. These commemorate the visit of the three Magi to the infant Jesus on Epiphany (Jan. 6), which marks the end of the Christmas season and the start of Carnival. However, they are so popular in the City of Light that they can be found there throughout the month of January.
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King cakes, also known as Twelfth Night cakes or Epiphany cakes, are found throughout the Christian world, with variations found through continental Europe, Great Britain, New Orleans and even Mexico, although the recipes vary widely from one place to another. The English variant, for example features preserved fruits and brandy, while the Provençal version uses a ring-shaped brioche base topped with candied fruit. The cake made in Paris and the rest of northern France since at least the early 14th century is composed of a frangipane or almond-cream filling sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry and should be served warm.
King of the bean
What all versions share is the inclusion of a fève (bean), which since the late 19th century is just as likely to be a porcelain or metal charm. Whoever finds it is crowned “king of the bean,” and all galettes des rois come with a handy cardboard crown for the “coronation.” Some cakes also had a hidden dried pea, whose discoverer became “queen” for the night.
The ritual often takes on the gender-bending hilarity of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” but, historically, this inversion of the social order released tensions accrued during the rest of the year.
At Versailles, the queen and king of the bean received magnificent outfits in which to dazzle during their short-lived “reigns.” One especially intricate party held there in 1684 included five twelfth-night courts, seated at separate tables, who appointed “ambassadors” to negotiate with their neighbors.
When the French Revolution of 1789 put the kibosh on kings in addition to Christianity, a brief but failed attempt was made to squelch out, or at least rename, kings’ cakes. The Revolutionary Committee would have done better to take their cue from the fourth-century church fathers, who fixed the date of Christmas as Dec. 25, although most scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably born in summer. The reason was a “if you can’t beat them, join them” acknowledgement that the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was too popular to stamp out. Instead, its raucous atmosphere, and, indeed the tradition of the “king of the bean” were co-opted and renamed, with a thin veneer of Christianity, Twelfth Night.
Traces of the tradition’s pagan origins survive in northern France, where it remains common for the youngest child of the household to sit under the table while an adult cuts the cake, calling out “Phoebe Domine, pour qui la part?” (“Lord Phoebus, for whom is this piece?”) The child replies by allocating the first slice to the Good Lord. This is also called the “piece of the poor,” or “the piece of the virgin,” which would be kept for the first needy person who requested it. The child then names the next person to whom each subsequent piece will be given.
King cakes a January treat
Parisians have a special attachment to the king cake that in part developed because an ancient law for centuries required the capital’s bakers to offer them free to clients as a form of étrennes, the requisite New Year’s gift, which is still popular in France. One early 20th-century baker complained that so-called “clients” appeared from the four corners of the city to claim a cake, never to be seen again.
The abolition of this onerous law in 1910 might well have killed off the galette des rois, which had already virtually disappeared in other cities. such as London. However, Parisians stood in line to pay for them and have done so ever since.
All January long bakeries sell them in dedicated, outdoor stands or stack their windows and display cases full of examples that range in size from the diameter of an English muffin to that of a truck’s wheel.
Monoprix, France’s version of an upscale Walmart, features them on the cover of their weekly bulletin, offering gift certificates as a prize to those who find a “golden bean.” Even the most pedestrian grocers offer a cheapo version.
However, according to the Jan. 5 edition of Le Parisien, the new trend in 2013 is for Parisians to bake their own. This phenomenon is evidenced by a recent spike in web searches for recipes for galette des rois, sales of frozen pâte feuilletée, and the surging popularity of cooking classes specializing in the cake.
In truth, it’s fairly easy and certainly lots of fun — just don’t forget the bean!
Parisian-Style Galette Des Rois
For this cake you need to make or buy two sheets of your favorite pâte feuilletée (puff pastry). Julia Child offers intricate, illustrated instructions, if you’ve never made this before. Roll them out and cut out two disks of equal size, whatever size you prefer. Place one disk on a baking tray.
Make your favorite filling. Frangipane (see below) or almond cream are the classics. In fact, the component parts of a galette des rois are the same as those of a Pithiviers, as described by Child. The galette, however, being a more rustic preparation, is easier to assemble.
Spread a thin layer or egg yolk or water along the border of the bottom pastry layer. Then, spread an even layer of the filling across middle, leaving a small border at the edge.
Don’t forget the bean! You can use a dried bean, or any sort of small charm(s) that won’t melt in the oven.
Quickly cover with the second layer of pastry, and pinch them together gently but firmly, pressing slightly inward so that the two sides stick together well.
For a golden sheen, glaze it with a thin layer or egg yolk diluted with a bit of water
Cut diamonds or whatever pattern you’d like along the top with a sharp knife.
Bake in a hot (425 F) oven until golden brown; for a medium or large galette this will take approximately 30 to 40 minutes.
Let it cool only slightly before serving, or, if prepared in advance, reheat it for a few minutes in a moderate oven.
True frangipane is a mixture of ⅓ crème patisserie and ⅔ almond cream.
For the crème patisserie:
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons. sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon flour
1. As you gently bring the milk to a boil, beat the sugar into the egg yolk for 2 or 3 minutes.
2. Beat in flour until it is very smooth and ribbon-like.
3. Pour the boiling milk over the mixture in a thin stream and whisk in a saucepan over low heat until smooth and thick.
For the almond cream:
½ cup melted butter (unsalted)
¾ cup sugar
1 cup ground almonds
Optional: a splash of rum or almond extract
1. Add the almond cream ingredients together.
2. Add the two creams together and refrigerate until ready to use.
Two-person galette des rois by Régis Colin, 53 rue Montmartre, Paris, who won the 2008 prize for best galette in the Île de France. Credit: Carolin Young
Mardi Gras is around the corner, and if you can’t make it to New Orleans, try to create the spirit of Fat Tuesday with a homemade king cake, the traditional cake for Epiphany, the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi, the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
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The origin of king cake is rooted in the French gâteau des rois and probably arrived in New Orleans with the Acadians expelled from Canada by the British in the mid-18th century. Today, Mardi Gras seems more a venue for drunken excess by college boys and Epiphany, while joyous, was never decadent. The eve of Epiphany is known as Twelfth Night (counted from Christmas Eve) and king cake season extends to Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before the start of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence lasting six weeks until Easter.
New Orleans king cake is a round ring cake, sometimes braided. It is a cross between Danish pastry and brioche, with three-color sugar frosting: purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power). It is lavished with Rococo garnishes and served either plain or with a rich filling. Hidden in the cake is a fava bean, or a plastic baby in modern versions. Whoever finds this hidden treasure is anointed the maker of the next king cake.
My New Orleans-enamored friend Michelle van Vliet, photographer by trade, culinary alchemist by avocation, believes her king cake might just be, appropriately, epiphanic. It better be. She’s been “perfecting” it for years, making king cakes until it came out of our ears.
Michelle’s joie de vivre found its expression in the avatar represented by king cake because, she explained, “it represents the spiritual, musical, and cultural gumbo that is New Orleans all in one lavish cake.” Her search for perfection rests upon the influence of her scientist father, seeded by dating a pastry chef long ago, and forged by her spirited artistic talent.
Michelle says: “Not all king cakes are created equally. Some are sophisticated and mild-mannered, favoring muted tones and elegant sugar sprinkles, but not mine. I indulge in the bright colors of Mardi Gras, and my king cake does not go unnoticed. I was given the ultimate compliment when [art consultant] Barbara Guggenheim told me that my cake reminded her of a Jackson Pollock painting!” Michelle’s advice is to “throw some color around.” Also remember, “this is not some snobby French patisserie, but just a popular cake.”
“I use sweetened condensed milk for the caramel sauce because the taste is a nostalgic warm and fuzzy for me,” she said. “It reminds me of the ’60s when it was a staple ingredient in my mother’s kitchen.”
I finally enticed her to give me the “secret” recipe. As she would say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
Michelle’s King Cake
For the filling
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup roughly chopped raw pecans
1 fairly firm banana, diced into ¼-inch pieces
For the cake:
1 cup warm whole milk (105 to 110 F)
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry active yeast
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 plastic baby or dried fava bean
For the icing:
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon evaporated milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
1. Prepare the caramel sauce for the filling. In the top of a double boiler, pour in the condensed milk, place over the bottom portion of boiling water, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick and caramel-colored, about 2½ hours. Cool 20 minutes before using.
2. Prepare the cake. In a bowl, whisk milk with sugar, yeast and 1 heaping tablespoon flour until smooth and the yeast is dissolved. Let rest until the mixture gets bubbly, then whisk in butter, egg yolks, vanilla, and orange zest.
3. In a separate bowl, mix remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Fold this mixture into the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula. Once combined and the dough begins to pull away from the bowl, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until smooth, about 20 minutes of kneading. Form into a ball and place in a clean bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and allow it to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.
Spoon and spread some caramel sauce across the bottom lengthwise half of the dough rectangle then sprinkle the pecan bits and banana pieces on top. Flip the top half over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn’t a seam.
6. Carefully transfer the ring to the prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap allowing the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. Bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook!) Remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before decorating. Gently lift up the edge of the cake, and hide the plastic baby or dried fava bean somewhere through the bottom.
7. Prepare the icing. In a bowl, combine the confectioner’s sugar, condensed milk, evaporated milk and almond extract and mix well. If too thick you may add more evaporated milk ½ teaspoon at a time. Divide the icing into 3 bowls, and color them with food coloring, one green, one yellow and one purple. Keep the bowls covered with plastic wrap until ready to use because the icing will harden quickly. Use a spatula or spoon to apply the icing, depending on whether you’re smearing or doing the Jackson Pollock by throwing with the spoon with a slightly thinned icing in alternating colors. Tip: Just go crazy with the color. Don’t hold back. Transfer to a cake platter. The cake will keep for several days covered with plastic wrap.
Note: The excess caramel sauce can be refrigerated and drizzled on ice cream. Serve leftover cake by gently heating.
Photo: King cake. Credit: Michelle van Vliet
Sometimes luck is in the pantry. On New Year’s Day, good friends from distant parts phoned to say they’d be in town unexpectedly. Could they come for lunch? They’d bring a bottle of wine left over from celebrations the night before. But, with nothing open except the local 7-Eleven, what on earth would we eat?
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But a determined search yielded treasures. Fortunately I found in the pantry cupboard a package of little fagioli del Purgatorio, purgatory beans. Gustiamo.com imports them from Umbria in Italy, and they’re so tiny they need almost no soaking at all. I set them in a small bowl, poured boiling water over and let them sit for an hour or so while I rummaged for something appropriate to add to them. There were the scallops, of course, but only three-quarters of a pound, plenty for two, not really enough for four.
Frozen treasure when there’s nothing to eat
But way in the back of the freezer was a half-pound bag of sweet little Maine shrimp, left over from the last harvest a year ago.
And I can almost always drum up an onion or a leek, a piece of celery, a carrot or two and inevitably several cloves of garlic. So the beans got drained and steamed until tender, with a clove of garlic, several sprigs of thyme from the winter garden, and a dollop of new olive oil, then lightly crushed and mixed with the vegetables, including half a red pepper I managed to rescue from a terminal state, all chopped and sautéed in olive oil to bring out their sweet flavors. Then it was time for the shrimp, by now somewhat softened
. Turned into the warm beans, they immediately loosened up and released their briny aromas without any further cooking at all.
The dish was evolving but definitely lacking something — a hint of acid perhaps? Lemon juice helped, but then I found the most fortuitous serendipity in a package I’d only just received — sun-dried California tomatoes, cut in julienne strips. Put up by Mooney Farms in Chico, Calif., they’re marketed as Bella Sun Luci. They provided the very zing that the beans had been lacking — a good thing, I think, to keep on the pantry shelf for just such an occasion.
In praise of the wok
By now, things were starting to look better, but lunch was less than an hour away. The scallops got seared in the wok in olive oil. (I have an ongoing argument about olive oil in the wok with wok star Grace Young, author of “The Breath of a Wok.” I’m all for it. She’s just as firmly against it.) And let me add a word in praise of that incredible kitchen vessel — nothing at all, in my experience, beats a wok for frying. The way it concentrates and focuses the heat, the frying medium (olive oil or not, depending on your taste), and the subject of the exercise, whether scallops or tofu or onions and ginger, is quite incredible. More and more often these days, I find myself turning to my old wok, bought in Hong Kong many decades ago and still a faithful companion in the kitchen.
Those scallops for example: They had no need for any dredging in flour or cornstarch. Thoroughly dried with paper towels and dropped into oil so hot it was just starting to break out a wisp of smoke, they seared almost instantly into crisp golden-brown disks that were crusty on the outside, tender within. So I spread the shrimp and bean mix in a fairly deep gratin dish, first dribbling oil over the bottom, then nestled the browned scallops in wherever they would fit, and topped the whole with toasted breadcrumbs, a fresh grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and another dribble of olive oil backward and forward over the top. Into a very hot oven it all went, just long enough to produce a gratin, a bubbling crust on the surface, and there I was, ready for unexpected guests.
Who, in the end, called and said they actually had misjudged the distance and the threat of snow and wouldn’t be coming after all. Tant pis pour eux, we invited in the neighbors and ate to our hearts’ (or our bellies’) content. A good way to start off a new year.
Gratin of What I Found in the Pantry
The best shrimp to use are small Maine shrimp. If you must use larger shrimp, buy wild ones if you can. They will have been frozen, but they still have much nicer flavor than farmed shrimp, which are unfortunately quite ubiquitous.
Be sure to ask for “dry” scallops — scallops that have not been soaked in STP (sodium tri-polyphosphate), a bath that keeps them white. While apparently harmless, STP causes scallops to exude a milky liquid when sautéing and they will never brown properly.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 cup small white dried beans, preferably fagioli del Purgatorio
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 cup mixed chopped vegetables, such as, onion, garlic, celery, red or green pepper, carrot
2 or 3 tablespoons chopped green herbs (e.g., basil, parsley, thyme)
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of chili pepper (optional)
½ to ¾ pound shrimp (see note above)
Juice of half a lemon
¾ pound dry sea scallops
¼ cup dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Put the beans in a small bowl and pour boiling water over. Let them sit for about an hour to soften slightly. Then drain and transfer to a saucepan with more water to cover, plus 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and 1 crushed garlic clove. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and simmer, covered, until tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, add a good pinch of salt to the beans.
2. While the beans are cooking, prepare the vegetables, chopping them all into regular dice. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the vegetables until they are softened and releasing their perfume. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of herbs, a little more salt, and black pepper. Add a pinch of ground chili pepper if you wish.
3. When the beans are done, drain excess water, leaving just a small amount of liquid. Stir in the prepared vegetables.
4. If using Maine shrimp or other small shrimp, stir them into the beans while they’re still hot. If you must use larger shrimp, cut them into half-inch pieces and stir into the beans. Taste the beans and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and/or pepper, and a spritz of lemon juice.
5. In a sauté pan or a wok, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil. While the oil is heating, slice the scallops in half horizontally and dry them thoroughly with paper towels. As soon as the oil is hot, slide the scallops in and cook quickly, turning once, until the scallops are golden-brown on both sides. You may have to do this in batches.
6. Turn the oven on to 425 F. Have ready an oval gratin dish. Rub a little more olive oil over the bottom of the dish, then spoon the shrimp-bean mixture into the dish. Tuck the browned scallops into the bean mixture so that just their curving tops stick out. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and grated cheese and dribble the remaining olive oil over the top.
7. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake until the top is crisp and bubbly. Remove and serve immediately.
Top photo: Wok. Credit: Flickr / avlxyz
Hogmanay, as the last day of the old year is known in Scotland, is celebrated with an enthusiasm unmatched south of the Border in England, where Christmas is the main event of the holiday season.
The midwinter rituals of the cold lands of the north, where the growing season is short and winter lasts about half the year, have to do with lighting fires to encourage the return of the sun so it can warm the earth and refill the cupboard. In Scotland, however, there was also a real need to defend the household against uninvited guests, particularly those wearing cow’s horns on their helmets, which explains the Scottish custom of First-Footing.
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Fear of marauding Norsemen lies behind the gathering together of rowdy groups of merrymakers to knock on doors demanding reward in much the same way as trick-or-treaters at Halloween. Never mind that this now takes place in towns and cities rather than isolated rural households who needed safety in numbers at a time of year when families were at their most vulnerable.
Hogmanay a time to give token gifts as a gesture of friendship
As a token of friendship, First-Footers are expected to arrive at the door with a log of wood or a piece of coal in return for a slice of cake and a dram of whisky. Furthermore, because it’s advisable that the first person to step over the threshold be a dark-haired Celt rather than a blond-maned Viking, any First-Footer with appropriate coloring will find himself bundled out of the door and refused readmission till the year has turned, thereby guaranteeing the household good luck (and absence of Vikings) for the next twelvemonth.
The first Christmas of which I have any memory was spent with my Scottish grandmother. Though she had married and settled south of the Border, she kept Christmas as a strictly religious festival and reserved the fun and games for Hogmanay, when she wore a sash in her own soft green tartan over a long dress as blue as her eyes. And there was music and dancing and special things to eat and drink, most important of which was fruitcake and whisky toddy for the grownups and baked apples and hot lemon barley water for the children. And instead of salt with the breakfast porridge — my grandmother didn’t permit sugar — there was treacle and cream. And on the back of the stove was a simmering pot of cockaleekie, a thick leek-and-chicken soup made with an old boiling fowl culled from her flock of Rhode Island Reds.
But for us children, the fun really started at dusk, when we were allowed to go First-Footing with a lantern around the neighborhood, ringing on doorbells and bothering people we didn’t know for sweets and coins, though we usually had to explain ourselves, this being England. On our return home, the house had already filled up with ex-patriot Scots and there was pipe music on the gramophone, a wind-up affair, and lines of grownups dancing the Gay Gordons and Strip the Willow.
The next day, the first of the New Year, we — children and grandmother (no one ever made our grandfather do anything he didn’t want) — gathered up the debris and built a huge bonfire in the garden, warming our hands against the flames while our grandmother told us stories of Hogmanay when she was a girl and lived in a draughty castle in the Highlands at the time when Queen Victoria was on the throne. This wasn’t as romantic as it sounds, she said, because all the wood for cooking had to be fetched from the log pile in the yard and you had to have a bath in front of the kitchen fire and the bedclothes were always wringing wet. In those days, she added, First-Footers had to walk for miles to visit their neighbours, though some of them were very handsome and came because they were courting. We asked whether our grandfather was one of these handsome young visitors.
“Mind your own business,” said granny.
Fortify your First-Footers against marauding longshipmen with this oatmeal caudle, as the preparation is known south of the Border.
1 bottle Scotch whisky
12 ounces runny honey
12 ounces thick cream
1 heaped tablespoon fine oatmeal or porridge oats
2 cups water
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
1. Mix the whisky with the honey and cream and whisk until smooth.
2. Stir the oats into the water in a pan, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.
3. Whisk in the whisky mixture and serve hot. A scraping of nutmeg can be sprinkled on top, and you might care to add a little more cream.
Black Bun, fruitcake batter enclosed in a pastry cake, is traditional at Hogmanay on the East Coast and in the Lowlands, where coal-fired ovens came into general use in the 1900s. On the West Coast, the Highlands and islands where my grandmother lived as a girl, cakes were mostly boiled and came in the form of a clootie dumpling. (Find a clootie dumpling recipe here.) The pastry covering serves much the same purpose as the huff-crust used to protect delicate meats from the heat of the fire when turning on the spit. Old habits die hard.
Serves at least a dozen
For the pastry:
8 ounces plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces cold butter, diced
3 to 4 tablespoons iced water
For the batter:
8 ounces self-rising flour
Pinch of salt
12 ounces raisins
12 ounces sultanas
4 ounces prunes, stoned and chopped
4 ounces crystallized peel
4 ounces blanched almonds, roughly chopped
4 ounces soft brown sugar
1 egg, forked to blend
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 small glass brandy or milk
1. Make the pastry by tossing the flour with the salt and rubbing in the butter with your fingertips.
2. Mix in enough water to make softish dough and work it lightly into a ball — don’t overwork. Cover in cling film and leave to rest in a cool place for half an hour or so.
3. Roll out two-thirds and use to line a cake tin 8 inches in diameter and roll out the other third to make a lid.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4).
5. Meanwhile, make the cake batter by picking over the fruit and nuts and tossing them in a little flour. (This helps prevent the solids sinking to the bottom of the cake.)
6. Beat the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy — the more you beat, the easier the adding of the eggs.
7. Beat in the egg, stirring in a spoonful of flour if it looks like curdling.
8. Sieve in the flour with the salt, add the powdered almonds and fold gently.
9. Fold in the fruit, nuts and spices and enough liquor or milk to make a softish dough.
10. Spoon the mixture into the pastry case, top with the lid and pinch the edges together with a wet finger to make a wavy edge.
11. Brush the top with a beaten egg and prick the surface with a fork in 2 or 3 places.
12. Bake for 2½ to 3 hours, until the top is well-browned and firm to the touch. If it looks as if it is browning too early, cover with grease-proof paper.
Top illustration: A Scottish Hogmanay celebration. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
The Danish Christmas is a whole month of celebrations, not only on Christmas Eve and the days after. We really mean business when it comes to Christmas, so we celebrate all four Advent Sundays before Christmas also.
Every year, I have a Sunday afternoon party on one of these Sundays, where I serve homemade Christmas doughnuts that we call æbleskiver and a hot drink called gløgg, a kind of mulled wine.
Both æbleskiver and gløgg part of Danish food history
The æbleskiver has a long history as part of our food culture. As the name suggests, they are slices of apples in a kind of pancake batter fried on both sides in a pan.
Nowadays, most æbleskiver are bought frozen and heated up in the oven, and because of that they all have the same taste of artificial cardamom and vanilla.
I must admit that for years I bought these frozen ones until I realized I actually never ate them myself. I did not like them. So I found our old family recipe and started making them, and that has become part of my Christmas repertoire. It’s important to continue with tradition so the original and regional ways of baking and cooking do not disappear. When we end up with too many premade industrial products, we start forgetting what things originally tasted like, and unfortunately people start only to like the bland, premade products.
The recipe for æbleskiver varies from region to region in Denmark. In some areas you still bake them with slices of apples inside. My Auntie Sarah, who now is in her 90s and lives on the Island Ærø in the southern part of Denmark, made them with prunes when she was still cooking. The baking of æbleskiver is in general a famous Christmas tradition. Hans Christian Andersen wrote about them in one of his fairytales describing Christmas, “At Manor House.” (You can find the story here.)
Hot alcohol drinks accent Danish dishes
The gløgg is of course part of an old European tradition to drink hot alcohol drinks in the winter. The French drank cognac with sugar, and the Greeks in ancient times drank hot red wine with spices — a bit similar to the Scandinavian drink.
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Swedish alcohol factories pushed gløgg heavily around 1900, when they started making it into a product marketed at Christmas with particular Christmas themes and colors. That worked. It helped gløgg to become widespread and very popular.
The butter-fried æbleskiver doughnuts are cooked in a special pan that has 7 to 9 ball-like indentations; the pan is sold on the Internet and in shops around the U.S. Noma serves the æbleskiver as a savory with a whole anchovy inside. There are many cookbooks about æbleskiver and how to make them in many different ways. Here is my family’s recipe:
For the æbleskiver:
2 teaspoons dry yeast
3½ cups lukewarm milk
3 cups plain wheat flour
2 teaspoons salt
1½ teaspoons ground cardamom
2 whole vanilla pods
2 tablespoons caster sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 stick of butter for frying
1. In a bowl, dissolve the yeast in the milk. In another mixing bowl, sift together the flour, salt and cardamom.
2. Slit the vanilla pods lengthways, scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife and add them to the dry ingredients along with the sugar.
3. Whisk the egg yolks into the milk mixture, using an electric mixer if possible. Add the dry ingredients and beat to make a dough.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold them into the dough.
5. Leave the batter to stand for 40 minutes.
6. Heat the æbleskiver pan over medium heat. Put a little butter in each indentation, and when it has melted pour in some of the batter. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until golden underneath, then turn the doughnuts over so they form a ball.
7. Continue frying for about 5 minutes, then remove from the pan and repeat with the remaining batter.
8. Dust with a little icing sugar and serve the æbleskiver in a serving dish. Serve icing sugar and raspberry jam on the side.
Hot mulled wine
For the extract:
2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick, smashed
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 lemon in slices
1 orange in slices
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped cardamom pods
1 cup sugar
For the gløgg:
2 bottles red wine
2 to 4 tablespoons caster sugar
1 cup aquavit or vodka (optional)
2 cups raisins
1 cup blanched almonds, chopped
1. Make the extract by combining the water, cinnamon stick, cloves, lemon, orange and cardamom pods in a saucepan and bringing it slowly to a boil.
2. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, then turn the heat off and leave to stand for another 15 minutes before draining the mixture through a sieve.
3. Discard the spices and save the liquid.
4. In a saucepan, combine the spiced liquid extract, red wine and sugar and bring slowly to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
5. Add the aquavit or vodka, if using, the raisins and almonds and simmer gently for 5 minutes, but do not let it boil. If you prefer a sweeter drink, add more sugar.
6. Serve in tall glasses with spoons so you can catch the raisins and almonds.
Top photo: Gløgg, a mulled wine. Credit: iStockPhoto
Although everyone in my family loves crown roast of pork, and baked ham, and everything else one is suppose to eat at Christmas, we do have a go-to menu every year simply because after many discussions we can never decide and we’re all too exhausted from Thanksgiving anyway. And this is no time to experiment. So we opt for a delicious but simple classic prime rib for Christmas dinner with Yorkshire pudding and creamed spinach. Appetizers, punches, desserts and guests may change every year, but these three dishes get made over and over again and we never regret it.
A prime standing rib roast is a given. It’s very expensive, but well worth the splurge, and you don’t have to do a thing to it. If prime rib is prohibitively expensive, you can always use USDA choice rib, which is what you’re likely to be offered in the supermarket anyway.
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Remember that one rib feeds two people, so a three-rib standing rib roast will feed six or seven people generously. Ask the butcher for a standing rib roast cut from the loin end and not the fattier shoulder end. Ask them to “French” the roast, which means to cut the fat away from one end of the rib bone to expose it.
Prime rib should always be cooked rare to medium rare. If you cook it beyond this point you are destroying the reason you bought such a tender — and expensive — piece of meat in the first place. If you like beef cooked medium to well then buy the appropriate kind of cut, which will benefit from longer cooking, such as round or chuck steak.
Prime Rib Roast With Horseradish Sauce
For the roast:
One 3-rib (7- to 8-pound) prime or choice standing rib roast
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
2. Place the roast, fat side up, in a roasting pan in the middle of the oven. Check the roast after 30 minutes to make sure things look OK. Baste the ends with the accumulated juices. Once the internal temperature reaches 110 F, after about an hour, you need to be very attentive as the cooking can quickly finish. At some point remove ½ cup pan drippings for the Yorkshire pudding. Test the rib’s doneness by putting an instant-read thermometer into the meat (not touching a bone) in two places, leaving it there for 15 seconds. It should be 120 F. Immediately remove the roast from the oven.
3. Remove the roast to a carving platter and let rest 20 minutes. Serve with horseradish sauce.
For the horseradish sauce:
This is the simplest way to do it, the traditional accompaniment to prime rib.
5 tablespoons bottled horseradish
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1½ cups whipped cream
½ teaspoon white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
In a bowl, vigorously stir together all the ingredients.
4 pounds fresh spinach, heaviest stems removed, washed well
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cup heavy cream
¾ cup milk
1 large garlic clove, very finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
1. Put the spinach leaves in a large pot with only the water adhering to them from their last rinsing, then cook, covered, over high heat until the leaves begin to wilt, about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain very well in a colander, pressing out the liquid with the back of a wooden spoon, saving 1 cup of the spinach water you press out. Finely chop the spinach using a mezzaluna or a chef’s knife.
2. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, then stir in the flour to form a roux, cooking for 2 minutes while stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low and slowly add the cream and milk. Whisk until smooth, then add the garlic, salt, and pepper and cook for 5 minutes. As it thickens add some of the reserved spinach water and stir and continue cooking until it is like a very thick pancake batter.
3. Add the spinach, stir, and cook until it is heated through, about 2 minutes. Add the nutmeg, stir, correct the seasoning and serve.
1½ cups whole milk, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup reserved prime rib roast pan-drippings
1. In a blender, blend the milk, eggs and salt for 15 seconds. With the blender running add the flour, a little at a time and blend the mixture at high speed for 2 minutes. Let the batter stand at room temperature, in the blender, covered, for 3 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
3. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, heat the reserved pan drippings in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until it is just smoking. Blend the batter at high speed for 10 seconds and pour it into the skillet.
4. Bake the pudding in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 F and bake the pudding 10 minutes more or until the top is all puffed up and a deep golden brown. Transfer the pudding to a platter and serve immediately.
Photo: Prime rib. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
We tend to overindulge during the holidays. “The more the merrier” is the prevailing theme, after all. So wouldn’t it be great if a cocktail could cure what ails the holiday partygoer?
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Alex Ott thinks so. An organic chemist and master mixologist who has created cocktail menus for restaurants and bars around the world, Ott’s new book, “Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind & Body,” offers entire sections devoted to hangover cures, healing juices, anti-stress cocktails and health elixirs.
He learned a lot about natural flavors and scents native to India, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and the South Pacific as a child, traveling the world with his parents (she a nutritionist, he a musician), soaking up obscure ingredients.
After earning a degree in organic chemistry, he launched the cocktail menu at Buddha Bar in Paris and has since served as the brand ambassador for Svedka Vodka, New Amsterdam Gin and Moët Hennessy. He later made a name for himself in New York City, his current home, at Sushi Samba (even appearing in the TV show “Sex and the City”).
His goal in the book is to focus less on the alcohol and more on the natural spices, herbs and flavor compounds used in the cocktails. He considers his chapter on anti-stress drinks to be the most important one of all.
After surviving a plane crash in Thailand in 1998, he says, “I was left with extreme post-traumatic stress. For the next three years, I tried everything physicians told me to take to relieve my anxiety of flying, heights and the recurring nightmares I began having.”
He spent the next 10 years experimenting with alternatives to strong medication. The result is a dozen anti-anxiety elixirs included in his book, including Tranquili-Tea, a drink that blends chamomile and Armagnac, a brandy from the region of the same name in southwest France.
“Chamomile relaxes the muscles in the body, particularly muscle spasms caused by stress,” Ott explains. “A main compound in chamomile is apigenin. In the central nervous system, apigenin reacts the same way a pharmaceutical tranquilizer such as Valium would, thus relaxing the mind and body without the side effects or risk of addiction. It also works as an excellent sleep aid.”
Chamomile flowers also contain an important compound called azulene, a blue crystalline substance used since early Roman times as a calming aid. Ott adds that chamomile also stimulates digestion.
“My grandmother suffered from severe migraines and stress — raising a ton of children, dealing with the war, and generally looking after everybody,” Ott explains. “My mother took after my grandmother and also suffered from migraines and stress from running her own business. Whenever they needed to calm down, they drank chamomile tea. I can still smell the scent and it calms me down today just thinking about it. This drink is dedicated to the strong women of my family.”
Courtesy of Alex Ott
8 ounces water
1 bag chamomile tea
3 teaspoons sugar
2 ounces Armagnac or Cognac
2 ounces apple cider (or apple juice)
Splash of fresh lemon juice
Slice of apple
- Boil the water in a small saucepan.
- Once the water boils, add the chamomile tea bag and sugar.
- Reduce heat and stir. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat and let cool.
- Combine 3½ ounces of the cooled tea and remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
- Shake vigorously and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.
- Garnish with an apple slice.
Note: This cocktail can also be served hot. Instead of shaking, combine all ingredients in a small saucepan with a lid and heat slowly. Serve in a tea glass.
Photo: Tranquili-tea. Credit: Reprinted with permission from Dr. Cocktail ©2012 by Alex Ott, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.