Here we are, coming up quick on the Big Day, and everyone is running at mach speed trying to check everything off the list and be sure that they are ready to fulfill all their holiday obligations. Fight the traffic to get to the mall, wait in line to buy the gifts, attend the kids' Christmas concert, stay up 'til midnight wrapping and baking and decorating... so that it’s all according to plan for Christmas Eve. You barely have time to get to the parties to see people, and then do you relax? You are probably thinking of the million other things that need doing when you get home. The problem is, Christmas is all over too soon and many of us are left feeling symptoms of withdrawal when - all too soon - things are just back to the usual rat race. So, fear not, Gentle Reader – I have a simple solution for you to save the spirit of Christmas, and your sanity!
Here it is – are you ready? Stop the rushing. Just listen, look and enjoy.
You think I am a bit nuts, don’t you? I can’t stop, you say, or I shall never get it all done. Well, so what? Isn’t the most important thing to be able to enjoy the season, to spend time with family and friends, to be grateful for what we have? There are many movies, stories and songs about the magic and mystery that is in the true spirit of Christmas. It seems to me Christmas loses its mystery when we lose sight of its true significance.
Instead of worrying about all the gifts from the store, remember that Christmas is about gratitude. If you are stuck on gifts, think of a simple meaningful gift for your loved ones (maybe it is a “gift certificate” for an afternoon spent sharing a coffee). Stuck on dinner? Instead of the complicated holiday menu, try the shortcuts you can find all over the internet or on the Food Network. Stuck on all the chores?? Ask the kids to help wrap gifts or clean the house or shovel the walk... and then spend the time gained sharing a hot chocolate or humming a carol or two. You will find that even the smallest moment spent simply enjoying the fun of the holiday season gives your heart a boost that will broaden your smile and increase your stamina, not to mention your Christmas spirit.
Author Tom Robbins said:
“It is contrary to the nature of mystery to stand still. Yet it’s always there, somewhere, a world on the other side of the mirror…, a promise in the next pair of eyes that smile at us. We glimpse it when we stand still.”
Take the time to stand still and enjoy Christmas and you will realize another truth this same author wrote:
“It is never too late to have a happy childhood.”
As a closing note, here is a simple treat for you to enjoy – fun to share with guests, and it can be a great gift when packaged in a tin or gift bag, too!
You can use hazelnuts or walnuts too (many of us have trees – include the recipe with some nuts from your tree and you have a very personal gift for a friend or neighbour!)
- 1 cup sugar
- 3/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ginger
- 10 rasp strokes of freshly grated nutmeg (or 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg)
- 1/8 tsp ground cloves (optional - cloves have an intense flavour)
- 1/3 cup evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 cups nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds - or a mix, if you like)
In a heavy saucepan mix sugar, spices and evaporated milk. Place over medium heat; cook, stirring constantly until mixture comes to a boil and sugar is dissolved. Continue cooking until candy reaches 234F on a candy thermometer, or until a few drops of the mixture form a soft ball when dropped into cold water.
Remove from heat, add water and vanilla, mix well. Stir in nuts until they are coated. Spread onto one layer of parchment paper or a silicone mat and work quickly to separate nuts with a spatula or spoon. Let cool.
Break pieces into portion or bite-size pieces. Serve in a bowl for nibbling, or portion into bags for gifts.
A very Merry Christmas to you all!
We all would love to have our cake and look good too (did you see how I manoeuvred that expression?!) However, we know that is unrealistic. Don't worry though... were you afraid I was going to suggest the best way to achieve this is some ab exercise or extreme diet? You should know me better than that!
I'm the first one to admit that my exercise program has a lot to do with vanity; I like butter and cheese and I work out like a fiend so I can :) But I know that method isn't for everyone, so here are a few tips to manage your consumption and not feel punished ...
1. Drink a glass of water before you go to the Christmas party, and have one in between drinks. (This helps manage your drinking and keeps your system working efficiently so it can process calories.)
2. Eat something savoury first. (Remember, sugar puts your body on a roller coaster. Let it warm up to the idea of sweets.)
3. Reduce your portion. (If it's a buffet think about how much food would fit on a plate, like a regular dinner. When in doubt about taking more, don't. You can always go back.)
4. Take the stairs on your way home, or maybe walk the dog after a meal. (Seriously, moving around helps your body work and you'll feel refreshed.)
5. Drink a glass of water before you to bed, and have another when you get up. (Staying hydrated is a big bonus for your body; it will help you stay healthy overall and it makes you feel more full when you first increase your consumption.)
We fight an uphill battle during the holiday season; indulgence is encouraged and we don't want to miss out. It's winter, so we yearn for richer foods to keep us warm. And hardest of all, the trend has been to increase portions overall so we are used to eating more. (Did you know that if we compare portions from the Last Supper, they are 69% larger today? Even in the last ten years, most packaged foods suggest portions from 15-50% larger than before!)
So, once again my message is to share this season. Consider it a random act of kindness to make your dishes go farther by making your portions smaller.
If you're looking for a new holiday recipe to try, how about Ultra Divine Cape Brandy Pudding? It's similar to the increasingly popular Sticky Toffee Pudding you see on many menus now. It also goes by the name "Tipsy Tart", in case you needed more enticement to try it :)
I was thinking about a topic for this week, and I remembered that December 6th was the Feast of St. Nicholas, another day that is celebrated amidst the many that make up the festive season. That made me think about the traditions of the holidays and how they got to be….
Do you know, the real St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Turkey in the 4th century, a particularly generous man who was especially devoted to children? His popularity increased to such a point that by the 12th century, he had become a Patron Saint in most European countries and a church holiday was created in his honour, one that became known for gift-giving and charity. The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings was apparently started because St. Nicholas helped out three young ladies whose father had squandered the family fortune after the death of his wife. This prevented the girls from having dowries and being able to marry. St. Nicholas wanted to help them anonymously, as was his custom, and so he rode his white horse to the nobleman’s house and dropped gold coins down the chimney, where they were caught in the stockings hanging by the fire to dry.
Were you aware that mistletoe has been a symbol of winter celebrations since Druid times, before the time of Christ? It was said that ancient Romans would lay down their weapons if they encountered an enemy under a branch of mistletoe. The Celtics believed it had magical powers and could ward off evil spirits, and the Scandinavians included it as a symbol for their goddess of love. It is thought that this link is the beginning of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. This act is said to give those lucky kissers good fortune in the coming year. (I am proud to be from such sociable roots!)
Here’s another one for you… poinsettias are another giving gesture for the season. Legend says a small Mexican boy heading to the nativity scene in his town realized he had no gift for the baby Jesus. So, he gathered green branches that were by the side of the road. The other children teased him but once the branches were laid in the cradle, red, star-shaped flowers appeared on the end of each branch.
There’s more! Candy canes were invented alongside Christmas trees, but there is a bit of a twist to this story (full pun intended here). Cookies and candies were used to decorate the first Christmas trees, Apparently it was a choirmaster at a cathedral in Cologne who suggested twisting the plain sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s crook. This not only made them easier to hang on the tree, but it also provided a treat for children. It became a custom to hand candy canes out to children at church ceremonies across Europe, to help keep them quiet. And I really can’t resist – I have to tell you that there is another ironic twist to this piece of history: it was another man of the church who automated the process of making candy canes – Catholic priest, Gregory Keller.
I am sure you see the running theme here…that the season seems always to be about sharing with others. Whether you share your wealth, your generosity of spirit or the fruits of your labour, the result is all the same: we are all better for it. So, in case the aforementioned ideas don’t do enough for you, here is my bit of sharing for this week – one of my favourite recipes for Christmas. My brother and I used to both help my Mom make and decorate these cookies; great discussions sometimes went into the decorating details. My Mom placed the completed cookies in the oven like they were works of art created by Michelangelo.
If you don’t have someone to help make these cookies, give some away to friends or colleagues – they are a bit different than the usual shortbread but still melt in your mouth. Decorate them with candied cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, coloured sugar, almonds… as inspiration strikes you.
- 1 cup Butter
- ½ cup Brown sugar, firmly packed
- ½ teaspoon Vanilla extract
- 2-1/4 cups Flour
- ½ teaspoon Almond extract (optional)
Preheat oven to 325F.
Cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until fluffy. Add extract(s) and mix well. Add flour ¼ cup at a time, saving ¼ cup or so for the rolling.
Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Place one portion on a well-floured surface. Pat it down and turn it over. Roll out to ¼ inch thickness. (Do not roll too thin or the cookies will burn.) Cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheet. (If you have a silicone baking sheet you can still use that on the pan.) Decorate cookies and bake for approximately 12 minutes or until golden. Store in a sealed cookie jar.
A few wise words from Chef Martin:
Living in Quebec, traditional food was a big deal at Christmas but not so much baking cookies. In my family tourtiere (meat pie) is what we did and sometimes if my Mom had a not so hard year she baked homemade mashed potato donuts, which is a sweet donut that uses mashed potatoes in the dough!
My birth father is also a chef - well, was a chef before he retired. He is now 70 years old and in his retirement is still making 200 tourtieres for friends, family and neighbours. Way to go, Dad!
I hope that all of you with younger kids have started teaching them some of the family recipes. The best gift you can give a child is a recipe book of all the fun dishes you made during their childhood. My mom died when I was 10 years old and I have zero recipes from her. Don’t wait, do it today! Christmas is a great time to start those things you keep meaning to do.
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!
Read more Happy Gourmand articles
- Gastro sexual Nov 15
- The other 50 shades of grey Nov 1
- Hallowe'en apples! Oct 25
- 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
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