Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Holiday Traditions and St. Nicholas (part 1 by Margaret Ullrich)

As far as I'm concerned, there are two questions no one should ever ask a woman.  
The first is "How old are you?"  
The second is "Have you done your holiday baking yet?"  

Why is it that, when the thermometer falls, we're supposed to bake?  
Does the Queen whip up a fruitcake before writing her speech?
I don't think so.  

I really admire women who can bake things that look good enough to keep, let alone eat.  I'm what you might call 'cooking challenged'.  
Now, don't get me wrong.  I can cook some things.  They just aren't pretty.    

I've always been curious about holiday recipes.  I've done some research.  
Ginger was popular in Greece over 5000 years ago.  The Egyptians were eating gingerbread when the great pyramid of Cheops was just a brick and a prayer.  

A few years after Egypt's building boom, an English King and his hunting party got lost in a blizzard on Christmas Eve.  Well, they were clever lads, so they threw everything they had - meat, flour, sugar, apples, ale and brandy - into a bag and cooked it.  Wallah!!  Plum pudding.  The Iron Chef would've been proud.  

On Christmas Day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he had risen earlier than his wife 'who was desirous to sleep having sat up till four this morning seeing her maids make mince pies.'  I really admire Mrs. P.  She just sat and watched the maids do the work, yet her husband felt guilty about her workload.  How did she do it?   

Some Christmas carols seem a little too focused on food.  For example:
     Now bring us some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer!
     We won't go until we get some, so bring it out here.
Those were somebody's friends?  Somebody should've called the cops.  

Traditional holiday baking is just fine if every woman stays in her own country and knows what to do.  Baking on a level cookie sheet, so to speak.  
But, it can be a problem for folks just off the boat. 

My parents and I immigrated to New York in 1950.  A few years later, when I was in school, I asked why we didn't have anything pretty to eat for Christmas.  
My Ma told me that in Malta, Christmas was a religious celebration.  The focus was on God becoming man, not on cookies.  

Now, the Catholic Church has caused some problems in history, but it shouldn't take the rap for Maltese recipes.  No, I'll bite the biscuit and admit that Maltese cooking is not in the same league with Italian or Chinese.  Check the phone book in any city.  There aren't any Maltese restaurants.

Maltese desserts are simple - fresh fruit and cheese with an occasional cookie.  One Maltese cookie, the biskuttini tar rahal, could be described as hardened library paste with a hint of lemon and a dash of royal icing.  A variation on the biskuttini cuts the sugar by half and replaces the royal icing with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.  
Both cookies are wonderful teething rings.  

Another favorite is the anise biscotti.  The big thrill with a biscotti is seeing how much milk it can suck up before breaking in half and falling into your glass.  
It's like eating the sinking Titanic.  
For the holidays, we borrow from the Sicilians and make kannoli tar-rikotta (ricotta in a fried pastry tube) or a qassata (vanilla custard shmeared over a sponge cake).  
How lame is that?  

I knew my German friends ended their meals with more oomph.  

Our parish, St. Fidelis, was a cookie heaven.  The most amazing homemade cookies were brought to every church and school function by my friends' Moms.  They were rich and gorgeous - the cookies, I mean.  They were loaded with spices, fruits, nuts and jams.  They were covered with thick layers of frosting and all sorts of sprinkles.  

When my Ma saw the competition she admitted defeat and took over the job of bringing coffee.  I was free to eat whatever caught my eye.  
While I gushed, my friends' Moms all beamed.  
My friends thought I was nuttier than the cookies.  

My husband is a third generation American - half Swedish and half German.  
Okay, I was marrying into the Cookie Big Leagues.  
I thought, along with the change of name, I'd return from my honeymoon a 
changed woman able to make cookies with a capital C.  
To paraphrase the biblical story of Ruth, I believed, 
"What thou eatest, I will eat.  Thy cookies shall be my cookies."

Well, you get the picture.  Thanks to the movie The Sound of Music, I just knew 
we'd celebrate Christmas a la von Trapp: sitting beneath a huge, glowing tree, 
singing Edelweiss and munching beautiful cookies, my favorite things. 

There's an old German saying: That which really tastes oft us trouble makes.  
Now, there's truth in advertising.  
Clear as a bell, they were warning me to not even go there.  
If I'd had half a brain I'd have just thrown in the mixing bowl and placed a 
huge order at the local German bakery for a deluxe assorted cookie platter, 
with some stollen on the side.  

Nope, I didn't take the hint.  I studied every German and Swedish cookbook I could find.  The biggest surprise was that there were other days that had to be celebrated.  Okay, I thought, practice makes perfect.
Maybe it's like opening a Broadway show in Boston.
I learned about their holiday customs.  

The first Advent biggie was December 6.  St. Nicholas' Day.  That called for small presents in Paul's shoes and some hot chocolate and buns for breakfast.  No problem.  The morning went without a hitch.  
Huzzah!!  One day I'd bake cookies that looked like jewels!  

I spent more nights baking instead of sleeping.

Please continue with part 2

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