Now that the winds have cooled to icy temperatures and there is the threat of snow on the hills it seems acceptable to speak of Christmas and all its preparations. I know that some stores have had items for sale for almost a month now but I really do think that even a die-hard Yuletide fan knows they need to pace themselves.
If you do follow old-fashioned Christmas traditions then you might have made a Christmas cake, also known as fruitcake. Nowadays this specialty seems to be something people either adore or despise, but whether you think it is a nutty idea or a cherished tradition you must admit it is a symbol of the season. Thus it seemed a good theme for this week, as there is plenty of Christmas season trivia that will launch you into the holiday season…
If you think Christmas cake is awful in its current rendition, how about the original form of porridge that was eaten on Christmas Eve to cushion the stomach after a day of fasting as they did in the Middle Ages? (Seriously, that is what the history books say.) Gradually dried fruit and spices were added to liven it up a bit for the special day and eventually it became more solid. This version, what we now know as Christmas pudding, was tied in cloth and then boiled for hours before being eaten. In about the 16th century, they added eggs, butter and flour to create a cake that held together better on its own, and so arrived the Christmas cake.
You have to understand that cooking food in those days was a mighty task, and a recipe that contained many ingredients was something extravagant and treasured. The dried fruit and spices that went into the cake came all the way from Portugal and the Eastern Mediterranean; they were new luxuries. (You think I am trying to convert you into a Christmas cake fan, don’t you? Well, just keep reading – maybe you can gain a little respect for it, at least?) Listen to this description:
"Making a rich fruit cake in the 18th century was a major undertaking. The ingredients had to be carefully prepared. Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned [taking the pits out] if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being commonly directed. Yeast, or barm from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed to life. Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired baking ovens of that time. No wonder these cakes acquired such mystique..."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson
The interesting part about the history of this cake is that it was served all throughout the twelve days of the Christmas season, through to January 5. The cake was baked with a bean in it, and was usually served to guests during the holidays. The guest receiving the bean in their piece was supposed to be the guardian angel for the family for the coming year. The night of January 5th, the Twelfth Night, celebrates the Three Kings arriving in Bethlehem. It was common for the cake to be served as part of the feast on this night, and as the celebrations also entailed a blessing of the home on the Epiphany (the day following Twelfth Night), that meant the visiting clergy were often served fruitcake as well. By the end of the 17th century in Britain, this party had become the event of the year. Of course, as time passes trends change and a more Puritan culture meant Twelfth Night was declared as "unchristian"; Queen Victoria banned it as a feast day.
As you well know this is not the end of the Christmas cake story. Will it surprise you to discover that much of the reason it is still around is simple entrepreneurial spirit? The boiled fruitcake was featured as a special gift of the season, and was even sent to relatives who had left for “the colonies” (Canada, Australia, etc.) You see, it was a special treat that would last the long voyage. As generations of immigrants spread across the world, small bakeries opened up that made the specialty they remembered, making it available almost everywhere.
There are of course many other variations on the traditional fruitcake as a Christmas specialty. My husband Martin remembers the “Buche de Noel” as his special Christmas cake. I still make vinertarta, an Icelandic torte that is often served at Christmas. Any way you cut it, a special seasonal cake helps bring people together to share in the holiday spirit.
In closing, I leave you with a recipe I have received from friends who are not usually fans of the stuff, but they say this is a great one to try… maybe it will convert you to enjoying the odd piece.
You'll need the ingredients listed below. Please make sure to read all the instructions first as this is a complicated recipe.
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup of sugar
- 4 large brown eggs
- 2 cups of dried fruit
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- Lemon juice
- 1 bottle of whisky
Sample the whisky to check for quality. Take a large bowl. Check the whisky again. To be sure it's the highest quality, pour one level cup and drink. Repeat. Turn on the electric mixer, beat one cup of butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add one teaspoon of sugar and beat again. Make sure the whisky is still OK.
Cry another tup. Tune up the mixer. Beat two leggs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit. Mix on the turner. If the fired druit gets stuck in the beaterers, pry it goose with a drewscriver.
Sample the whisky to check for tonsisticity. Next, sift two cups of salt. Or something. Who cares?
Check the whisky. Now sift the lemon juice and strain your nuts. Add one table. Spoon the sugar or something. Whatever you can find. Grease the oven. Turn the cake tin to 350 degrees. Don't forget to beat off the turner. Throw the bowl out of the window. Check the whisky again and go to bed.
Merry Ho Ho!
This week I asked my husband The Chef Instead to weigh in on the relationship of men and women in the kitchen. He has some good pointers for men looking to cook up some interest in a lady they like :)
This past week I heard the funniest term on the radio. A guy mentioned it while being interviewed about his skills with the ladies in the kitchen. Originating from England, it represents a new trend for men that is appearing all over the world, including our peaceful Canada.
"Gastro Sexual Men" have realized that if they put the right amount of effort into it women go all soft in the knees just by watching them cook a nice meal. The trend of men being more and more present in the kitchen is not that new, but now men are using this power for the greater good and they have a term to call themselves!
Houses of today are built with the kitchen being the focal point… we have huge open spaces, we have shiny expensive appliances, we have wine cellars connected to the cooking area and now we even have seats for people to watch the Gastro Sexual men do their thing. It is obviously different for every man, but the main idea is for non-professional chefs (“commoners”) to cook great meals in front of women who can’t seem to get enough of it. Men wear simple clothes, no aprons; nothing that could look too girly - the lumberjack look of testosterone-filled jeans and frumpy shirts with sleeves rolled up works best. The sexiness of a man cooking is increased by 100% if the man manages to look like he knows what he’s doing, so some showmanship is a plus. You can see the ladies don’t want to watch him pull out a ready meal from the oven once they show up; their primal instinct would rather see him chop veggies, flambé a sauce or even stuff some big piece of meat with his bare hands. The more the man touches food in front of them the weaker they get!
I think it’s about time that men see the power of food and the effects it can have on women. I have experienced that phenomenon many times in my life and especially since I started doing dinner parties in people’s homes. I don’t exactly consider myself a Brad Pit kind of guy, but more than once I got offers which you could say made me blush a bit. I have seen firsthand the power of ingredients like chocolate or even crab or olives, but the difference with me is that I am a professionally trained chef, married and no longer in that single men market! As for single men, I totally understand why they would gravitate towards unconventional tools like cooking. Anything that can showcase a man’s skills in the house is always going to score big with the ladies.
This is my chef’s advice to men trying to add this skill to their repertoire of tools to find the women of their dreams:
- Don’t ever try a new recipe for the first time on a potential candidate.
- Don’t ever buy a ready meal to serve your audience (bad idea).
- Don’t grill, as it will be expected. Keep the lady back on her heels.
- Don’t cheap out on food, buy good ingredients - it will show that you care.
- Don’t dump the food on the plate, try to work some sort of presentation that can blow her mind and make her go, “wow this man might be bald, but he sure can cook”.
- Use powerful ingredients like chocolate to finish the meal and seal the deal.
- Think simple food prepared well, and leave some stuff to do while she watches. Leave time for her imagination to do half the job for you.
- Think comfort food like lasagna, pot roast, seafood chowder … all of these dishes have the potential to put the lady in a nesting, comfort kind of feeling.
Send me an email if you need meal ideas, I am there for you.
I have a biased opinion on this topic as I have had a man showing off in my kitchen for almost two decades. Our shared interest in food was one of the main things that helped develop our relationship when we first met, and I did go weak in the knees when he served me chocolate desserts. I think the reason so many women are excited now is that this is one more way a man can show that he is interested in being well-rounded. Women have been out there, getting untraditional jobs and “breaking the glass ceiling” and maybe having men in the kitchen is just the male version of that. You know what they say about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes – it does wonders for your perspective.
I am a firm believer that this sense of adventure should be enhanced, and we can start young. If your man starts out interested in grilling, so be it! Let him get comfortable and he may move inside to cook things in the winter. Let him step outside the box if he wants to try a recipe, and be forgiving if it doesn’t quite turn out as planned. He will be a bigger man if you can be a bigger woman. On the flip side, how about us women taking an interest in some of their things? I don’t think that men necessarily want us with them all the time but a girl who is willing to roll her sleeves up and get dirty or put some waders on for a day fishing is sometimes as attractive as that same girl in a sexy dress and high heels. We used to call that being a tom boy – I’m sure there is a more trendy term now.
Despite the fact that children today are exposed to a world where their gender is not a consideration in many things they choose, I often see the girls still choosing pink and the boys choosing blue. It is important we remember to show them the real secret is in being as complete a person as you can be, and that means exploring opportunities in both camps. As Martin said, the most attractive man in the kitchen is proven to be the one who still wears his lumberjack shirt and jeans – he doesn’t have to let anyone, especially himself, forget he is a man. Women can get their sculpted nails dirty too as they adjust their own spark plugs, and I am sure the guys would find them attractive in the garage. At the end of the day, we’ll meet at the same dinner table.
That got your attention, didn't it? But this is a family column, so I'm not going to get all kinky. I just wanted to talk about the striking beauty of late fall, and the way the colours of nature can transform a day - one moment can be flat and dreary and the next can be breathtaking in its intensity.
The transition of summer to autumn and then hinting at winter is one so subtle it can span our full range of emotions. Melancholy, joy, passion, anger, depression... like the shades of leaves fallen from the trees, or the flavours of dishes served at the table. We go from sumptuous harvest flavours in tomatoes and peppers, to the softer sweeter taste of roasted root vegetables, and then we warm ourselves with rich stews and soups accompanied by breads and biscuits. As the days get shorter it can be a daunting task to maintain our joie de vivre, to stay above the grey. Perhaps though, if we use the greyness as a foundation for our own bright spots to shine through then the cold dark season won't seem so bad.
My solution is to make a list of 50 ways to make the grey exciting (wink wink)... I'm putting the first ten in this week's column, and I'm going to list more in a couple of weeks when we might start to get bogged down again. I will also put some on my blog and on my Facebook page, just to share the good news. If you have any ideas of your own, dear reader, I'd love to hear from you.
- Grab some of the last harvest flavours and preserve them - bottle homemade tomato sauce, or oven-roast tomatoes or pickle peppers.
- Buy a good bread, some tasty cheese and serve with slices of pear and apple (and local wine or beer, of course!)
- Try new ways to enjoy the roasted squash like this lovely tart recipe
- Take a drive and enjoy the views through the orchards and vineyards of the beautiful Okanagan valley.
- Buy yourself a new scarf or hat or pair of gloves or mittens - preferably in a bright colour!
- Visit a fall craft fair.
- Enjoy homemade "apple goop" for breakfast.
- Eat in for dinner, cooking something seasonal. Stuffed squash? Roast pork tenderloin with apples?
- Eat out for dinner at one of the many local restaurants offering seasonal cuisine.
- Stay warm and still think of summer moments by adding warm caramel or chocolate sauce to your ice cream :)
Most of all, smile and enjoy the moment. The next one coming could be entirely different, so it's important not to miss something that you might not experience again, at least for a while.
When I was a kid, that's what we shouted as we went door to door. Because if you shouted, "Trick or Treat!" then the people opening the door could respond with "Trick!" and then we'd have to come up with one. The standard my brother and I had was to sing "Mary had a little lamb" which was just surreal, dressed up as a Martian and a cowboy or a clown and a leopard. But such are the joys of childhood, right?
Nowadays, many kids don't go door to door. Heck, they don't walk to school, so why would we think they would walk around the neighbourhood in the dark? The norm seems more to have a party, or taking the kids to the mall or other public spot for them to get a bit of swag. My Dad would have said that was a cop out, and that walking down the streets was a right of passage, a badge of honour you earned :)
In Canada, weather alone was always a huge consideration. Costume planning growing up in Calgary involved what could work over a pair of long johns and a winter coat. I think that's why many boys were dressed up as hockey players. Then there was the treat container to be considered. When I was small we had cute pumpkin buckets, but as I got older we discovered that they were a bit small. It took away from our available time to have to go home and dump out our buckets, so we switched over to the less stylish but more common and efficient pillowcase :) In retrospect it was all a bit silly. I don't think I ever ate all the candy I collected.
Speaking of candy... I am actually old enough to remember the days when there were still a few neighbours who gave out homemade treats. One older lady down the block made puffed wheat balls and included a note with her name, address and phone number. That was enough to make it safe to eat. The only thing was, I don't like puffed wheat balls. I prefer chocolate, and maybe the odd bite of licorice. To this day small packets of Smarties are a secret joy. My little brother loved lollipops and sticky candy like Tootsie Rolls so we would trade to maximize our supply. Our games of "Hallowe'en poker" were often as much fun as our trips out on the street!
"Hallowe'en apples" seemed to imply the tradition of bobbing for apples, which I never did until I was in university. It apparently does relate to the Medieval custom of "souling", receiving food in return for saying prayers for the dead as All Souls Day approached on November 2. Dressing up seems to derive from the Celtic tradition called "guising" where people would imitate evil spirits as a way to placate them on the day when they roamed the earth free. Did you know the costumers carried lanterns made from scooped out pumpkins, the forerunner of the modern jack o'lantern?
"Trick or treat" is a modern adaptation, and involves the pranks that have become an intrinsic part of Hallowe'en. I remember my Dad's stories of soaping the windows of the ill-tempered neighbour, or moving outhouses. We didn't dare try such things for fear of being caught, although I think now that my Dad might have had a giggle if the culprit was a curmudgeon.
Whether you are a grown up or more of a big kid, if you are giving out treats or dressing up, I hope you can enjoy the whimsy of Hallowe'en and all its rich traditions. This is one day when I recommend you have more than a healthy apple, regardless of what you shout at the door.
Read more Happy Gourmand articles
- Chef's thanks for hunting season Oct 18
- Giving thanks for the weirdest things Oct 11
- Cheers! Oct 4
- Sustainability and responsibility Sep 27
- Indian Summer Sep 20
- How to eat your peas & quinoa Sep 13
- Pork Jam Sep 6
- The dog days of summer Aug 30
- Etiquette - it's not about being a jerk Aug 16
- Stop and smell the flowers Aug 2
- Does there have to be an app for that? Jul 26
- Rock around the clock Jul 19
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