Lights are being strung and red cups abound. Every corner of the world seems to have a unique food tradition to ring in the holiday season. After all, great food is one of the best parts of any celebration.
Panettone, which translates to ‘big loaf,’ is a traditional Italian Christmas dessert. A large, dome-shaped cake that has been leavened with yeast, it has a light and airy texture, with a rich and buttery taste, but it isn’t overly sweet. Some are made with raisins and candied fruits and you can find them in other parts of Europe, as well as Australia and North America. They can be quite expensive, mainly due to how labor intensive they are to make, but it’s a worthwhile indulgence if you can afford it.
If you live in the Netherlands, you’re bound to have a sweet, dense cake called Boterkoek (AKA Dutch Buttercake), that basically consists of butter, almond, sugar and flour.
Medivnyk, also known as honey cake, and other honey pastries are traditional for Ukranian holiday festivities. The scarcity of sugar from the old days forced bakers in this part of the world to experiment with honey as a sweetener, a rather happy outcome.
A traditional German bread is called Weihnachtsstollen during the Christmas season, but you likely know it as stollen. This fruit bread is made of nuts, spices, and dried fruit, coated with icing sugar, and dates back to the 16th century.
A British Christmas wouldn’t be complete without Christmas cake, a rich, heavily spiced cake with dried fruits that have been marinated in brandy or rum. Preparation usually begins in October or November, so that the flavors have time to mellow out before Christmas. Other traditional holiday sweets include marzipan in Spain and shortbread in Scotland.
A traditional German bread is called Weihnachtsstollen during the Christmas season, but you likely know it as stollen.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” The buttery and nutty fragrance of roasted chestnuts was synonymous with Christmas in America for most of the 20th century. This was largely because Italian immigrants carried on their native tradition of ending holiday meals with roasted chestnuts and a glass of wine.
Sadly, overtime, disease overtook chestnut trees so, while they are still enjoyed by Americans, the sweet snack is now imported from China, Korea and Italy. Chestnuts roasting on street corners is a common sight in many parts of Europe, as well as in the U.K. The mild flavored nuts have a lot of moisture and chewy texture, but they are definitely an acquired taste.
Chestnuts roasting on street corners is a common sight in many parts of Europe, as well as in the U.K.
Kwanzaa is a celebration, observed in the United States, from December 26th to January 1st, that honors African-American culture. Kwanzaa culminates in gift giving and a feast on December 31st, which can be held at home, church or a community center. The food is served buffet-style and the menu typically consists of traditional African recipes that have been passed down through the generations. Examples of dishes include catfish, jerk chicken, collard greens and candied yams. Muhindi (ears of corn) are also commonly part of the meal, symbolizing fertility.
While most countries celebrate Christmas on December 25th, Russia celebrates this holiday on January 7th. On this day, you’re likely to find Shuba, otherwise referred to as “herring under a fur coat.” This popular Russian holiday dish consists of pickled herring, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and vegetables like beets and potatoes.
Hanukkah is the eight-day Jewish festival wintertime celebration that occurs during the month of December. During Hanukkah, latkes (potato pancakes) are a delicious staple of the dinner table. Fried in hot oil, latkes are made from only a few simple ingredients – potatoes, onions, eggs and breadcrumbs or matzo meal. Matzo meal is unleavened flatbread that is ground into fine crumbs. Latkes are meant to be served warm with applesauce and/ or sour cream.
During Hanukkah, latkes (potato pancakes) are a delicious staple of the dinner table.
THE SPICE DEPARTMENT
When cold weather strikes, there are a few warm, wintery spices that are commonly used in many parts of the world. These include nutmeg, cloves and cardamon. Nutmeg is a versatile spice that works equally well in sweet and savory dishes. Derived from a shelled, dried seed, its nutty, warm flavour makes it indispensable to eggnog, pies, cookies and custards. It is also used in savory cooking and pairs particularly well with egg and cheese dishes. You’re very likely to find this spice in French pantries, as it is commonly included in baked goods, soups and sauce recipes like béchamel.
The word clove means “nail” and they are often pinned into foods for dramatic presentation.
A signature winter spice, cloves are the flower buds of an evergreen tree, and offer endless benefits. Originating in Indonesia, cloves have a strong smell of pepper and can cause a numbing sensation – use very conservatively to prevent overpowering the flavours in a dish. Try them with roasted meats, baked beans, stewed fruits and pickles. The word clove means “nail” and they are often pinned into foods for dramatic presentation. Cloves are a wonderful addition to hot beverages like mulled wine and they pair well with many ingredients, including cinnamon, vanilla, citrus peel and star anise.
Referred to as the “Queen of Spices” in India, cardamom is typically used as a winter spice. It is fragrant, warming and can be used in a variety of drinks and recipes, including teas, curries and soups. Containing hints of mint and lemon, it pairs particularly well with citrus. It comes in brown and green forms but green cardamom is the traditional winter spice. Ground cardamom loses flavor very quickly so you are better off adding the whole pods to dishes cooked with liquids. Just remember to remove them before serving. Alternatively, you can split the pods to remove the seeds and grind them in a coffee grinder. Add cardamom to homemade eggnog for a pleasant surprise, or chew on its seeds or pods to freshen your breath.