Drool over Christmas delights
Baking traditions around the world during Christmas
Sana Masood Ebrahim, 05-12- 2021
Come December and we are drawn to the immense Yuletide offerings the world has to offer. Tourists have been known to plan vacations months ahead to ring in the Christmas cheer at the celebrated and traditional Christmas markets of Zagreb, Austria, Goa, Germany, France, London and many more strewn across the globe for some of the best Christmas cakes, cookies and pastries from around the world.
The baked treats found at Christmas markets are traditional comfort foods and usually reveal what people enjoy the most in the local regions. Given how important food is to the Christmas market experience, the local flavour adapted over the years has kept its fame and intrinsic flavour. Travel and the hungry-for-experiences tourists have added more to its charm and fame.
Depending on where you live or where your family comes from, these recipes vary from family to family. Baking cookies and cakes around the Christmas period have become nothing short of legendary family traditions that become bigger and fun-filled with each passing year. Cookies have been part of the festive holiday rituals long before Christmas to mark significant occasions. The history of Christmas cookies can be traced back to the recipes from Medieval Europe. During that time many new ingredients were introduced to the west such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, black pepper, almonds and dried fruits. These ingredients were highly-priced and families could only afford to incorporate them into baked goods during the most important holidays leading to extensive baking during the Christmas season.
By the 16th century, Christmas cookies had become popular across Europe and families baked up cookies in various sizes and shapes related to Christmas. They were then shared with friends, family and neighbours. Cookies have been there since eternity as legends say that they probably started off as drops of grain paste spilt on hot rocks around a fire, but it became associated with Christmas in Europe only during the late 1500s.
The German and Dutch settlers introduced cookie cutters and decorative moulds to the Americans during the 17th century. The availability of these utensils furthered the increase in recipes in popular cookbooks. The cookie-baking tradition has come a long way, but certain things never change. The modern Christmas cookies still have the traditional spices that are sourced from Southeast Asia, Mexico and India. So, your humble Christmas cookie or cake can safely be said to be an amalgamation of many cultures.
Ever wondered why rotund Santa is left with cookies to fuel him on his one-night journey? Food historians believe that the tradition began during the Great Depression, as a way for parents to encourage generosity in their children. The tradition is held, and Santa isn’t in jeopardy of needing a smaller suit any time soon.
Gingerbread is the most famous Christmas cookie in Germany, and it has evolved over the years into a cake-like pastry. Its origin dates back to the crusades when soldiers brought spices back to Europe. Eventually, it became associated with Christmas when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert included it with a variety of other German Christmas traditions. As for gingerbread houses, they became popular after the Grimm brothers published Hansel and Gretel, though it's uncertain whether the edible edifices kickstarted as a fairy tale invention.
You could see dozens of people, even international tourists lined up outside the famous Italian and German bakeries for their festive specials such as the Vanilla-Kipferl cookies, the Italian Pannetone or the melt in the mouth Bethmannchen from Berlin.
The 'King Cake' which is a big Christmas favourite in lots of countries with, French and Spanish roots, is a cake that is usually round with a hole in the middle to resemble the crown and with the abundance of crystallised and dried fruits that symbolise the jewels in the crown. The king is of course little Jesus as it’s his birthday we’re celebrating.
One of the main reasons to head to Spain during Christmas has to be Turron. This thick glutinous white loaf is sometimes brittle and sometimes soft as brie, but it’s always stuffed with lots of almonds.
The tradition of Weihnachts Stollen baking goes back to the 15th century. The dried fruit cake aka Stollen has walnuts, raisins, spices and rum; it comes with a marzipan core and is drenched in a shower of confectioner’s sugar.
There are plenty of legends on how Panettone became associated with Christmas. Some say that the sweet Milanese bread was developed in the 1400s by the Duke's falconer and his love Adalgisa, a poor baker's lass. Working in secret at night, the two created a rich bread that revived the bakery's business. At Christmas, they added dried fruit and citron, a resounding success that made the baker prosperous and eased the couple getting married. A less romantic possibility is that as a 'Pane di Tono' or luxury bread, the lofty loaf - with its expensive ingredients and long proofing and preparation time was reserved only for Christmas.
The Bûche de Noël is a log-shaped roll cake meant to evoke the Yule log that once burned in European homes throughout Christmas as well as the massive decorated logs that Celts used to burn outside to celebrate the winter solstice. The term 'Yule' refers to this day of the year.
To honour this tradition in an edible and decadent way, sweet cakes were baked and rolled to mimic the aspect of a log. Nowadays, chocolate Yule logs are commonly made of layered or rolled genoise filled with mousse or buttercream. Often decorated with marzipan or meringue mushrooms, forest creatures, or holly leaves, the log can be simply dusted with powdered sugar and decorated with a few red berries. It ascribes its origins to the French.
In Nicaragua, the rum cake known as PioQuinto is a loved Christmas dessert. It’s covered in custard and cinnamon. More like an alcoholic version of the sponge cake and custard served at dinners in North America.
In Italy, the Panforte is like a denser version of fruitcake, but with less bread, and more fruit and nuts. Sometimes there’s a whole lot of chocolate involved. Panforte is popular at Christmas, but it’s so good that people want it all year round too.
The Swedish kitchen and climate come into their own at Christmas time. As sub-zero temperatures turn outside into a winter wonderland, gently spiced baking and coffee entice weary revellers in from the cold for a slice of Swedish 'Lagom' or satiated bliss. This is a country that fittingly knows how to bake, boasting a striking choice of Swedish Christmas desserts such as the Saffron Buns, Fruktkaka or Swedish fruit cake, Polkagriskola (peppermint studded toffee) and Pepperkakor or ginger snaps.
These Christmas treats are pretty contagious, the traditions of sharing rich soaked fruit-laden cakes with friends and family are not constrained only to the European and American countries, but as we move further down south we discover more such yummy treats that are exclusive to this joyous festive season.
During Christmas, people in the Philippines enjoy Bibingka, a rice cake made with coconut milk that’s baked while wrapped in a banana leaf. The Goan version made in India comes very close separated only by its richness, upped with egg yolks.
The Southeast Asian region is probably the second place beside the Middle East where halal tourists can safely try non-alcoholic cakes made in compliance with the halal guidelines.
Moving on to India, where as early as 1880, in the small coastal town of Thalasserry in the southern state of Kerala, a businessman who shipped milk, tea and bread to British troops in Egypt decided to set up his own little Borma (bakery). Here is where you can trace the foundation of the very famous ‘Kerala fruit cake’ characterised by its deep dark burnt caramel colour, topped with soaked fruits with a hint of nutmeg and pepper.
Chronicled in the iconic work The Calcutta Cook Book, the Karamcha Cake or Calcutta fruit cake from Kolkata derives its name from the basic ingredient karmacha (Calcutta cherries) that feigns to be a red cherry but is actually a sour kumquat cooked in red sugar syrup. Karamcha, black raisins and mixed fruit peels are left to dry under the sun for a week. Then there are cashew nuts, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, petha or candied ash-gourd, crystallised ginger and citrus peels that come together to bring you the dense, decadent Calcutta Plum Cake. Folks from outside the city can pick these freshly baked plum cakes wrapped humbly in greaseproof paper from the famous local bakeries such as Nahoums’, Flury's, etc.
The warm and sunny weather in the southern hemisphere adds to the festive bonhomie. Traditional sweets include White Christmas slices made with shortening and mixed fruit. The warmer weather makes Christmas Day the perfect opportunity for a picnic. Many holiday traditions in South Africa follow the British style, like making a Christmas pudding and baking biscuits famously known as African ‘Soetkoekies’. These sweet crispy cookies are Dutch-influenced and are traditionally made with ground spices and sweet wine.
Christmas in New Zealand also coincides with summer which means their traditions, although inspired by the European customs have been altered to suit the climate. The Australians and New Zealanders indulge in Pavlova loaded with fresh fruits, and their traditional steamed Christmas pudding is served with a scoop of cold custard.
Every year during this time of the year, millions of pounds of butter, sugar, flour and loads of fruits contribute to the creation of spectacular treats for holiday celebrations. Even if someone is not ordinarily a baker, many people venture into the kitchen before the holidays to make sure that they’ve got plenty of homemade treats to offer to families and friends.
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