Christmas traditions at the table don’t end solely with dessert on Christmas Day. In fact, they extend right through to January 6th. We will celebrate this season—the Twelve Days of Christmas with great recipes.
Tradition has, for almost a millennium, called for Christmas Eve to be celebrated with seafood and most of Europe’s Catholics, particularly those in the Mediterranean region prepare fish. From Portugal to Italy, salted cod has been a long-standing tradition. However, more cooks today avoid it because it has a fairly pungent odor, though they substitute other fish or shellfish in its place.
Now truthfully, the tradition has little to do with religion, faith or Christian history and more to do with 15th Century fishmongers guilds approaching a contemporary Pope to push the consumption of fish (and increase their sales), resulting in Fish Friday and the Christmas Eve fish tradition. It has more to do with early Renaissance marketing than dogma. Still, a good tradition is worth keeping, even if its roots are clouded in controversy. Examples of cod for the holidays include Bacalaitos, from Portugal and Bacalao a la Viszcaina, a Basque recipe, while in Spain, they have made Bunuelitos de Bacalao for centuries. Italian cooks have been making Bacala in a wide variety of ways, with no two communities using the same recipe.
Depending on where your family comes from, traditions for the Christmas meal are equally varied, ranging from roasted venison or goose to turkey or standing rib roasts and tenderloin of beef. Personal economies always play a role though, as one might expect. In northern European countries like Germany and Denmark, Christmas Goose is most common, while in England, they celebrate with Goose, Turkey or a Standing Rib Roast. Scotland, France and most of Scandinavia will feast upon venison, duck or pheasant.
In Italy, the Christmas day feast begins around 3 in the afternoon, and ends around 9 in the evening, with a large gathering of family at the table, often four generations, with everyone contributing to the cooking. Starting with an Antipasto platter, and ending with a variety of desserts, including Struffoli, the Italian Christmas meal may be nine to twelve courses.
Desserts play a major role in the holidays, no matter what the country or region. Christmas is a season for sweets, whether candies, cakes, cookies or fruitcakes and many share common roots such as the fruitcake, which has sister recipes from Russia to California. Many jokes about about fruitcakes which last for years (which some do), but in truth, fruitcake is quite tasty and many wedding cakes are made of variations of the holiday treat. We really enjoyed Apricot, Fig and Spice Cake, a more contemporary edition that is seriously good.
In Britain, the fruitcake transformed into the Christmas Pudding, a steamed pudding made with fruits, including prunes (which seem hardly Christmas-like). Served with flaming brandy and a sweet “Hard Sauce“, the Christmas pudding or Steamed Plum Pudding is still a family tradition, though many Britons are more likely to buy theirs from Harrods or local bakers than to make their own. Also on the British holiday sideboard you are likely to find a delicious Trifle.
Trifles are, no pun intended, nothing to trifle about. A layered dessert made with cake, pudding, liquor or wine, fruit and topping, the typical trifle is an intoxicating treat. Today, contemporary British chefs, among them some of the finest in the world as they were hundreds of years past are creating new versions of the classic trifle, incorporating international flavors, such as the Pear and Chocolate Tiramisu Trifle.
On the menu, beverages should not be overlooked. From the classic eggnog to Glogg, Syllabubs and Coquitos, the Christmas season is one full of fine punches, egg drinks and plenty of creamy, sweet concoctions, many with liquor, fortified wines or wine bases. All of them wonderful.
Appetizers too, as well as canapes and hors d’ oeuvres play a serious part in the Twelve Days, particularly with New Year’s Eve falling just a week from Christmas Eve. While finger foods do not have many Christmas traditions, the Pates and Terrines on the other hand do have many holiday connections, with many of them made and decorated for holiday tables. Starting as early as medieval times, such dishes as A Grete Pye evolved over time to become holiday traditions.
Gastronomic impressarios from Vatel through Gordon Ramsay have created pates and terrines that celebrate the season, though the 19th century must be the apex of this tradition, not the 20th or 21st. One recipe, Yorkshire Christmas Pye was a great dish very popular in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, made with a variety of wild game, was rich in flavor and very much evocative of the season.
While so many traditions are passed from mother to daughter or father to son in holiday cookery, some have lost their way. One of these is the aspic which seems to have been replaced by the incorrect notion that all gelatin-based foods come from a small box and must be fruit-flavored desserts. Such great dishes as Tomato Aspic, while not a holiday dish, were made in ways that celebrated the holidays. Often aspics were made by those on a budget, because a small amount of food could be easily extended with a rich meat, fish or vegetable flavored gelatin. Candidly, we miss those great recipes and the moulds in which they were formed. You might be surprised to know that this tradition was lost, literally, with the popularity of those little gelatin boxes we all know. As late as the 1950’s gelatin-based holiday salads, almost all of them savory in nature were still being served.
Of course one Christmas tradition, originally from Germany is the Gingerbread House. Made today throughout Europe and the Americas, these gastronomic creations of architectural whimsy are often so elaborately made that one must not confuse pastry skills for those of an engineer or master builder. Decorated with candies, royal icing, cookies and other sweet treats, the modern Gingerbread House is relatively constant to its historic roots.
Germany, Austria and Switzerland each developed unique holiday traditions. We all know of Stollen, a German bread for Christmas, and Pfeffernusse, as well as Springerle cookies, but so many more were developed over the years.
France, the epicenter of European gastronomy (at least according to the French) is noted for such glorious Christmas creations as Buche de Noel and the Croquembouche, the latter shaped like a Christmas tree and also traditionally served at French weddings and christenings.
Italians seem to have the greatest expertise with Christmas cookery though, having a repertoire of more than 2,000 recipes for the holiday. But many others from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Latvia and Lithunania, Greece and even Iraq exist today. Americans and Canadians too get well into the act with a wide variety of recipes custom designed for the glories of the holiday season, literally from soup to nuts.
‘Tis the season, they say, but what they fail to mention is… for cooking, feasting and joyous bounty at the table. And so, from Christmas Day through January 6th, we’ll keep publishing appropriate holiday recipes for you to enjoy.
In these difficult times, we can only hope that Epicurus.com can provide you with recipes that are economical and allow you to enjoy a bountiful, joyous holiday. May peace, joy, health and success be a part of your life, and those of your family every day of the year.