Saturday, December 3, 2016

Holiday Baking and The First Maltese Lucia Queen by Margaret Ullrich


Along with being a co-host for the CKUW radio show ‘2000 & Counting’ from 1999 to 2007, I wrote stories and essays, which I then read live on air.
Last week I posted a story about Christmas shopping that I wrote back in 2002.  
I also wrote this about the joys of holiday baking….


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. 

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 favourite 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 classmates 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, and 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. Ethnic things.
The ethnic bit nearly ended my marriage.

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. My next goal was an authentic Swedish Saint Lucia Day for our first December 13. 
Maybe the lack of sleep was affecting my mind.  

According to one big fat book, a good Swedish wife got up at four a.m. to start tossing her cookies. God forbid any sunlight should shine on the dough or disaster would befall the household. Every hefty housefrau hoped a crescent moon was hovering on the horizon to bring good luck to the baking.  

No kidding. Without that sliver of light she could get killed, stumbling around in the dark like that. I really thought that if I followed the customs, my baking would get better. I got up at four a.m. and baked. Okay, I cheated. I used electric lights.  

Then I ran into a slight problem. According to tradition, saffron buns and coffee were served between three and four a.m. by the eldest daughter, who was dressed as the Lucia Queen. We didn't have children and I couldn't borrow a neighbour's kid for that ungodly hour. I had to make some changes in the sacred customs. I, as an eldest daughter, became the first Maltese Lucia Queen. Ever.

I stitched up a long white robe and tied shining red balls to our Advent wreath. I memorized the traditional poem. Then, when I saw how much saffron cost, I made another teeny change. I made cinnamon buns. What harm could it do?

The days flew. Finally, it was December 13, 3:45 a.m. Show Time! 
I was clad in white, balancing an advent wreath with bouncing red balls and gleaming white candles upon my head. I was a glowing, flaming cherries jubilee, clutching a tray laden with coffee and cinnamon buns and walking ever so slowly to our bed.  

Hovering over Paul, I chanted: "Night goes with silent steps..."
Hmmph... No answer. He was snoring. No Swedish genes were making him wake up to behold his Lucia Queen.  
Well, after all that work, this Lucia Queen required an audience.
Creating my own liturgy, I ad libbed. "Wake up, Paul."
Still no answer. 
I set the tray down, gave him a push and repeated: "Night goes with silent steps... Damn it, wake up."
He snorted, turned and faced me. It took him a while to focus. 
Okay, finally, I, the Lucia Queen, was getting the respect I deserved.  

I went back to chanting, my voice building to an impressive boom.
"Night goes with silent steps round house and cottage.
O'er earth that sun forgot, Dark shadows linger.      
Then on our threshold stands white clad in candlelight,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia."

He looked. He blinked. He screamed.
He said something that no one should ever say to a Lucia Queen.

I blamed the cinnamon. Maybe the Swedish mojo just doesn't work with cinnamon.
Look, if my Ma can blame religion, I can blame spices. 

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