The History Behind 6 Traditional Christmas Foods

The History Behind 6 Traditional Christmas Foods

1. Gingerbread

As told by PBS, the first known gingerbread recipe is from Greece in 2400 BC, followed by Chinese recipes in the 10th century, and finally hard gingerbread cookies cut out in shapes sold during medieval fairs in England, France, Holland, and Germany. It is said that Queen Elizabeth I ordered gingerbread cookies made and decorated to resemble visiting dignitaries. Elaborately decorated cookies were a symbol of wealth, often featuring gold leaf. The first gingerbread houses originated in 16th century Germany, though it is unclear whether the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel or the houses came first.

Ingredients

  • ¾ cup unsulphured molasses
  • ¾ cup butter
  • ¾ cup dark brown sugar
  • 4 ½ cups flour, plus more for rolling surface
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 3 ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • Royal icing (optional)
  • Sprinkles, cinnamon candies, or any other decorations of your choice (optional)

Directions

  1. In a medium saucepan, heat the molasses to the simmering point. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts. Stir in the brown sugar. Allow to cool.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ginger and cinnamon. Add the cooled molasses and the egg to the flour mixture and mix very well until a dough forms. You may need to use your hands to really incorporate the wet mixture into the dry mixture.
  3. Wrap dough in wax or parchment paper and chill for 1-2 hours, or until firm enough to roll.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Transfer chilled dough to a lightly floured rolling surface and roll out the dough to one-quarter inch thickness. Roll out a quarter of the dough at a time.
  5. Cut cookies with your choice of cookie cutter. I chose a traditional gingerbread man, but you can get creative with any kind of cookie cutter you’d like.
  6. Transfer cut dough to a baking sheet that has been lightly greased with nonstick cooking spray or lined with a silicone baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees F for 12-15 minutes. The cookies will puff up, but won’t spread much.
  7. Cool completely on a rack before decorating with royal icing, decorative sprinkles and candies.

Tips/Techniques

You will also need: medium saucepan, large mixing bowl, sifter, wax or parchment paper, rolling pin, cookie cutter(s) of your choice, baking sheet, nonstick cooking spray or silicone baking sheet.

2. Candy canes

The lore of a candy cane comes from the difficult task of keeping children quiet during long church services. In particular, the most commonly told story is that of a choirmaster from Germany who created the crooked candied to keep his choirboys silent and appeased during Christmas mass. The shape is either meant to replicate the shepherd’s crook or the letter J, for Jesus.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups/21 ounces granulated sugar
  • 1 cup/11 ounces light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup/2 ounces water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
  • Red food coloring (gel coloring recommended)
  • Optional: White food coloring (gel coloring recommended)

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

     
  2. Spray two rimmed baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray and set aside for now. Preheat your oven to 200 F/93 C.

     
  3. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a medium (2- to 3-quart) saucepan, and place the pan over medium-high heat; stir while the sugar dissolves.

     
  4. Then, brush down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to prevent sugar crystals from forming.

     
  5. Once the candy comes to a boil, insert a candy thermometer and continue to cook the sugar mixture, without stirring, until the candy reaches 285 F/141 C.

  6. Once the proper temperature is reached, remove the pan from the heat immediately. Let the bubbles subside in the candy, then stir in the peppermint extract. (Note that different extracts have different strengths, and you may want to adjust the amount of peppermint extract for subsequent batches. Unfortunately, there's no way to taste scalding sugar to determine whether you're adding enough flavoring when in the middle of the recipe!)

  7. When the mint flavor is mixed in, pour approximately half of the sugar syrup onto one of the prepared baking sheets and place it in the preheated oven to stay warm.

  8. Add a few drops of red food coloring to the remaining candy in the pan, and stir it to mix it in. Add more red color if necessary, until you have a vibrant red.

  9. Pour the candy onto the remaining baking sheet or a marble slab. Allow it to sit briefly just until it forms a “skin.”

  10. Spray a bench scraper or metal spatula with nonstick cooking spray, and use the tool to begin spreading the candy out and pushing it back together, working it across the board and allowing it to cool.

  11. As soon as the candy is cool enough to handle, but still quite hot, put on your food-safe plastic gloves. There are specially made heat-safe gloves available that can be purchased online, but if you don't have these, consider wearing several pairs of gloves on top of each other to protect your hands from the heat. Take the candy in both hands and pull the hands in opposite directions, stretching the candy into a long rope.

  12. Bring the ends of the strands together and twist the candy into a rope, then pull the rope out into a long strand.

  13. Continue to twist and pull the candy until it has a satin-like finish, is an opaque red color, and is becoming difficult to pull.

  14. Once the candy is still pliable, but barely warm, pull it into a strand about 2 inches thick, and place it on the remaining sprayed baking sheet. Put this sheet back into the oven and turn off the heat. The pulled candy will remain pliable in the warm oven while you work the second portion.

  15. Remove the baking sheet with the other half of the candy syrup. If you have white food coloring, add a few drops on top of the second portion. The white color isn't necessary, it just makes the white of the candy canes "pop" a bit more.

  16. Knead the white into the candy, then repeat the pulling procedure.

  17. By the end, the candy should be a pearly white color. Form it into a log 2-inch in diameter, just like the red candy.

  18. Remove the red candy from the oven. Cut a 2-inch segment from the white and the red log, and put the rest of the candy back in the oven to stay warm.

  19. Place them next to each other and press them together so they are one log.

  20. Begin to twist the candies together, pulling and twisting gradually to form the familiar candy stripes.

  21. Once the twisted candy is the thickness you want, use oiled kitchen shears to cut them into smaller lengths.

  22. Immediately form the hook at the top of the cane, and place it on a baking sheet to firm up at room temperature.

  23. Repeat the twisting with the remaining candy.

  24. If the candy gets too hard to pull, place it in the warm oven for a few minutes to soften, but don’t let it sit too long and melt. They should be as hard as regular candy canes at room temperature, but just like regular candy canes, they will get sticky if left out for long periods of time.

  25. Be sure to wrap them in cling wrap or cellophane once they are set to preserve their shelf life.

  26. Enjoy!

3. Panettone

An Italian Christmas tradition, panettone is a sweet, enriched, cake-like bread with currants or raisins and citrus peel. Dating back to the 1500s, it is said — according to a story retold by old Italian bakery Flamigni — that a baker named Toni in the service of the Duke of Milan burnt the cake meant to be presented at the Christmas feast. Taking the yeast he’d been saving for his own Christmas meal, he created a bread with flour, eggs, sugar, raisins, and candied fruit. It was such a success that it was named Pan de Toni, or panettone.

Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp warm milk
  • 2 x 7g sachets fast-action dried yeast
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 250g butter , softened
  • 5 medium eggs , lightly beaten
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • grated zest of 1 orange
  • 500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 80g raisins
  • 80g sultanas
  • 3 tbsp dark rum
  • 100g good-quality candied lemon and orange peel, finely chopped

For the topping

  • 30g whole blanched almonds , roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp egg white
  • 1 tbsp icing sugar

Method

  1. Grease a panettone tin (see Tip) or a 20cm deep cake tin, or use a panettone case.

  2. Place the warm milk in a bowl and add the yeast and 1 tsp of sugar and leave for a few minutes.

  3. Put the remaining sugar in a large bowl and beat together with the butter and vanilla extract until really light, creamy and pale.

  4. Stir in the lemon and orange zest. Add the eggs a little at a time until all are well incorporated. Spoon in a tablespoon of the flour if the mixture starts to curdle and beat this in with the eggs.

  5. Place the flour in a large bowl and mix with a good pinch of salt and make a well in the centre. Add the yeast mixture then the butter and egg mixture, folding in with a large spoon to make a soft dough. Knead for 5 mins in the bowl until it all starts to come together. It will be a pretty sticky dough at this stage.

  6. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead for a further 10 mins, until everything has come together and you have a very soft and stretchy dough. Add a light sprinkling of flour to the surface and your hands as you go to stop the mixture sticking, but try not to add too much. Place in a lightly greased bowl and cover with cling film. Leave in a warm place for 2 hrs until doubled in size.

  7. Place the raisins and sultanas in a small saucepan with the rum and heat gently for 5 – 7 mins until the fruit has absorbed the liquid and is plump and juicy. Set aside to cool.

  8. When the dough is risen, tip it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for another 5 mins. Gradually knead in the soaked raisins, sultanas and chopped candied peel. Shape the dough into a ball and pop into the prepared tin. If using a 20cm cake tin, wrap a layer of baking parchment around the outside of the tin, to come up about 5cm above the rim, and secure the paper with string. This will help contain the dough as it rises. Cover lightly with cling film and leave to rise for another hour until it has risen to the top of the tin or paper.

  9. Preheat the oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Adjust the oven shelf to the right height. Mix together the almonds, caster sugar and egg white for the topping and gently brush over the top of the panettone. Place in the oven and bake for 40 - 50 mins until golden and risen and a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 mins before turning out onto a wire rack. Leave to cool completely before dusting lightly with icing sugar and cutting into wedges to serve.

4. Eggnog

There are two possible origin stories for eggnog, according to In Depth Info. Both start with the commonality of old world milk and wine punches. In one, it’s theorized that rum, called grog in Colonial America, was a descriptor for the booze in an egg-thickened milk punch. It’s easy to see how a drunken slur can turn egg-and-grog into egg-n-grog and then to eggnog. In the second theory, the actual drinking vessel is considered: a small wooden cup used for drinking at tables (versus the fireside) in taverns was call a “noggin.” A third possibility is a mashup of the two, which leads to egg-and-grog in a noggin, and it’s clear that if that were the case, it would absolutely need to be shortened to eggnog.

 

Eggnog was reputed to be George Washington’s favorite drink. His recipe, found in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, is as follows:

One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry — mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.

5. Fruitcake

If there’s one butt-of-the-joke dish at Christmas, it’s fruitcake. The fruitcake as we (mostly) know it began, according t0 the Smithsonian, in the Middle Ages when dried fruits became more available. Traditionally, fruitcakes are made well in advance and “aged,” wrapped up and left up to a year, with alcohol as a preservative. A tutorial on proper fruitcake making from A World of Baking by Dolores Casella via What’s Cooking America claims that a fruitcake must be aged for no less than a month to mellow, though it seems that it will take a lot longer than that since you’re supposed to unwrap and brush the cake with alcohol once a week! Want to unearth a fruitcake like you would a celebratory bottle of wine laid down to age for an occasion? Casella offers insight:

 

Fruitcakes taste better with age! This is called “ripening.” Liquor based cakes may be stored several months in advance in a cool place prior to serving. Non-liquor soaked cakes may be kept in a cool place or in refrigerator for short term storage or a or freezer for long storage. Be sure to ripen fruit cakes a few weeks before freezing. For very long storage, bury the liquor-soaked cake in powdered sugar and place in a tightly covered tin in a cool place (fruit cakes can be enjoyed as long as 25 years this way.) Check liquored-soaked cakes periodically and rewrap in liquor soaked cloth.

That’s one fruitcake with a history all its own.

INGREDIENTS

FRUIT

  • 1 1/2 cups diced dried pineapple
  • 1 1/2 cups raisins, golden or regular
  • 1 cup diced dried apricots
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped dates
  • heaping 1 cup candied red cherries, plus additional for decoration, if desired
  • 1/3 cup diced crystallized ginger, optional
  • 3/4 cup rum, brandy, apple juice, or cranberry juice

BATTER

  • 1 cup (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa, black cocoa preferred; optional, for color
  • 1/4 cup golden syrup, boiled cider, or dark corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup apple juice, cranberry juice or water
  • 2 cups chopped, toasted nuts (almonds, pecans, or walnuts)

TOPPING/GLAZE (OPTIONAL)

  • rum, brandy, simple syrup, vanilla syrup, or ginger syrup

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. To prepare the fruit: Combine the fruit with the liquid of your choice in a non-reactive bowl; cover and let rest overnight. Too impatient to wait until tomorrow? Microwave everything for 1 minute (or until it's very hot), cover, and let rest 1 hour.
  2. Preheat the oven to 300°F. This recipe makes enough batter for ONE (not all!) of the following: 3 dozen individual (muffin pan) cakes; 16 mini loaves (about 3 3/4" x 2 1/2"); 6 to 8 medium loaves (about 3" x 5"); or 2 standard 9" x 5" loaves. Choose your pans (or combinations), and lightly grease them. If you're making muffin-size cakes in a standard muffin pan, line the pan with muffin papers, and lightly grease the papers.
  3. To make the batter: Place the the butter and sugar in a large bowl (at least 6-quart), and beat together until well combined.
  4. Beat in the salt, spices, and baking powder.
  5. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition.
  6. In a separate bowl whisk together the flour and cocoa.
  7. Add the flour mixture and the syrup (or boiled cider) to the mixture in the bowl, beating gently to combine.
  8. Stir in the juice or water, then the fruit with any collected liquid, and the nuts. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and stir until everything is well combined.
  9. Spoon the batter into the pans, filling them about 3/4 full.
  10. Bake the cakes on the middle shelf of the oven, as follows: about 60 minutes for the individual cakes; 65 to 70 minutes for the small loaves; 75 minutes for the medium loaves, and 2 hours + 10 to 15 minutes for the 9" x 5" loaves. The cakes are done when a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.
  11. Remove the cakes from the oven. Fruitcake can remain in its pan for storage, if desired. Or carefully remove cake from the pan after about 5 minutes, loosening its edges first.
  12. Brush the warm cake with rum or brandy. Or simple syrup, or flavored simple syrup (vanilla, rum-flavored, etc.). If you like just a hint of rum or brandy flavor, add 1 tablespoon of liquor to 3/4 cup vanilla syrup or simple syrup, and brush this mixture on the cakes.
  13. When the cakes are completely cool, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, and store at room temperature for up to 6 to 8 weeks.

6. Chestnuts

We’ll start off with chestnuts, since mentioning chestnuts roasting on an open fire is bound to get a certain theme-appropriate soundtrack stuck in your head for the remainder of this article! Chestnuts are likely one of the first foods eaten by mankind; they’re native to the Mediterranean, where other cereal grains like wheat and oats have more trouble growing, and they’re a nutritional powerhouse. According to Self Nutrition Data, chestnuts are relatively low in calories while also being packed full of vitamin C, copper, and manganese. Though the exact reason this is such a Christmas classic is a little hazy, it’s thought that their humble, versatile nature and cheap nutrition is a factor in their prevalence at the Christmas table. Benedictine nuns in Tuscany traditionally prepare Pieno di Natale, a Christmas dessert made with chestnuts.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb raw chestnuts, in shell

Recipe Notes:

You will also need: Serrated bread knife, cutting board, saucepan, mesh strainer, slotted spoon, baking sheet.

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. To prepare your chestnuts, grasp them firmly between your thumb and index finger and carefully make a long slice across the rounded top of the chestnut with a sharp serrated bread knife. Careful, the shell is slippery. You should be able to slice it in one motion. If you have trouble cutting through, use gentle sawing motions, don't force the blade down or you run the risk of cutting your hand.

  2. Be sure to cut all the way through the shell.

  3. Once all of your chestnuts have been cut, place them into a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer.

  4. Once the water begins to simmer, remove the chestnuts from the water using a mesh strainer or slotted spoon and transfer them to a baking sheet.

  5. Roast for 15 minutes, or until the shells begin to peel back where you cut into them.

  6. Remove the chestnuts from the oven. Place them into a bowl and cover with a towel for 15 minutes. Allowing them to steam a bit will make them easier to peel.

  7. Once the 15 minutes have passed, simply pull on the shell and slip the chestnut out. Some will be easier to peel than others. Both the outer shell and the tough brown skin around the chestnuts should be peeled off. If you run into any nuts that seem gooey or disintegrated inside, it means that they have spoiled. Chestnuts tend to have a short shelf life, spoiled nuts should be tossed.

  8. Voila! You now have freshly roasted and peeled chestnuts. They're not the easiest things to peel, but these tender, sweet and fragrant nuts are a welcome treat during the winter months.