Saturday, December 25, 2010

The story behind favorite Christmas traditions (part 3) Baking

At Christmastime, one of the main fixtures are the cookies. The gingerbread house is one of the trademarks of the season, along with gingerbread men.
Christmas cookies are a worldwide phenomenon. In every place where Christmas is celebrated, families mix, stir, and bake.
Alfajores, a shortbread and caramel sandwich cookie from Peru
From alfajores to zimtsterne, every country has its own distinct Christmas cookies.

Zimtsterne, a traditional star-shaped cookie from Sweden
And not only cookies, but also trifles, sweetbreads, pies, and cakes fill our tables.
Why do we bake so plentifully at Christmastime, of all times?
In the ninth or tenth centuries, Christmas Eve was a time of fasting, as a way of celebrating Christ's birth. As a result, everyone felt famished when they woke on Christmas morning. And at the beginning, a thick bland porridge was served for breakfast. But later, some mothers thought of adding dried fruits, honey, and spices to the mixture to make it more of a special meal. The porridge was too stiff to stir, and so it was wrapped in cloth, and dunked in boiling water to soften it up. And so, pudding was invented.
Around the time of the Crusades, wheat flour began to replace the porridge, and eggs were added to make it stick together. The English used the word plum to mean any dried fruit, so the dish became known as plum pudding. Soon, other sweet confections were made to break the fast on Christmas morning.
Since I have Italian roots, most of my favorite Christmas confections are things like strufoli, pizzeles, but most of all, panettone.
Panettone, a traditional Italian sweetbread.
It's a sweetbread from Milan, and is fluffy in texture, with candied orange zest and raisins. Some kinds have chocolate instead.
No matter what, I always have a large slice every Christmas.
What are your favorite Christmas treats?

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