Wednesday, December 15, 2004

That Time Again: Holiday Baking

Christmas is the one time of year my family's cooking traditions emerge. Yes, we have the stuffed celery on the relish tray for Thanksgiving, but that's more a throwback to the 1950s than an actual tradition. The only recipe I knew of in our family that had been handed down was for Lebkuken, a spicy cookie with an anise flavor that my grandmother always made (and always spelled incorrectly). As kids, we instantly turned up our noses to anything remotely licoricey, so these were not our favorites. Nor did we want to touch my mother's plum pudding with a ten foot pole. As my sisters and I have grown older, the cookies have become an important part of the holiday. Whether this means our palates have become more refined or we've just lost most of our taste buds, it is hard to say. But now there is nothing more Christmasy than the scent and taste of the Lebkuken.

Lebkuchen is simply a German word that means "spice cookie." There are probably dozens of recipes for it, so my family recipe is definitely our own. And much as I'd like to claim that it is hundreds of years old, my family is not German so it was probably just adopted by my great-grandmother who liked a neighbor's recipe. But hey, that's how life in the cookbook goes.

As for the plum pudding, I still can't say I love it, even if it is more authentically of my family's British heritage than the German Lebkuken. It probably doesn't help that mom buys it from the grocery store, heats it up in the microwave and uncerimoniously dumps jarred hard sauce over it. I briefly contemplated making a homemade plum pudding this year to see if I actually like REAL plum pudding, as the home-made version is pretty much always going to be better than the store bought. However, it turns out it takes oh, about a year for plum pudding to be ready to consume. So I guess I better get started now for next year if I plan on trying it out anytime soon.

Instead of trying to make and eat prematurely ripened plum pudding, I decided to tackle stollen instead, a kind of German sweetbread. It was fun to make but a fair amount of work, namely because dicing the peels of four oranges is no small task. But it makes an enormous amount of stollen, easily enough for two families plus leftovers for gifts. And it is so much better than the stale dried out version I've had from the store. I'll try to post a photo of it tomorrow.

I also enjoy making chocolate truffles for the holiday. They are remarkably easy to make and, I believe, once again much better tasting than any truffles you can buy in the store. Yes, I'm even talking about the big fancy places. I think it has to do with the fact that they are fresh and they have no need for shelf stabilizers. And you can flavor them any way you like.

I also tried making some flavored nuts this year for a party and gifts. The Spicy Rosemary Cashews were a hit. Last night I made pralines from Joy of Cooking, which were alarmingly good and pretty simple. My first intention was just those spiced nuts, but the recipe from Joy was more like a candy. Well, I don't think anyone will complain about not getting a straightforward spiced nuts.

Anyhow, I'm having fun. I love holiday baking.

No comments: