Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!! Welcome 2012!

Wishing you a happy ending to 2011 and all the best in 2012!!

Hope you'll be celebrating New Year's Eve with family and friends and lots of good food.

Looking for a couple of festive drink recipes?
How about a Candy Cane Martini or the ever popular Spiked Egg Nog!

Resolve to start the diet in 2012!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Anna Sultana's Anise Biscotti, Maltese Style



Happy New Year!!
Time to have a Biscotti.

Yes, if you're a faithful reader, I've posted Ma's Biscotti recipe already.

But, there are Biscotti and there are Biscotti.


This is a different Biscotti.
Yes it is.
This recipe used anise.


                        Anise Biscotti

Grease a large cookie sheet
Preheat oven to 400º 

Sift together
3 cups flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon anise seed, crushed
2 Tablespoons grated lemon rind
2 Tablespoons grated orange rind

In a large mixing bowl, beat until well blended
1/2 Cup butter
3/4 Cup sugar

Beat in, one at a time, until fluffy
3 large eggs

Add
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Stir in sifted ingredients until thoroughly mixed.

Add
1 Cup chopped blanched almonds

Preheat oven to 350º
Divide the dough into three even pieces.
Shape each piece into a roll, 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
Place the rolls on the cookie sheet.
Repeat with the remaining dough.

Bake 20 minutes until lightly golden.
Remove pans from the oven, but don't turn off the oven.
With a serrated knife cut each roll into 3/4 inch thick slices.

Place the slices, cut side down, on ungreased cookie sheet. 
Bake 15 minutes.
Cool on wire racks. 


See, it is different.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Anise Speculaas (Christmas Cookies) - Margaret Ullrich

A cookie recipe that uses anise.
Perfect.
One of your elderly relatives loves licorice.
One of your rich elderly relatives.

And he's coming over for New Year's Eve.
Time for somebody to rewrite his will.

Or that glass or knife.

The timing is for a cookie about 2 1/2 inches in diameter.
Adjust if your cutters make the cookies bigger or smaller.


                        Anise Speculaas

Makes about 4 dozen cookies
Grease 3 large baking sheets

In a large bowl sift together
4 Cups flour
1 Cup packed light brown sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground anise

In a larger mixer bowl beat until fluffy
1 Cup butter
2/3 Cup milk 
Gradually add the sifted dry ingredients.
Mix until it's just too thick.
Add the remaining sifted dry ingredients.
Add more milk if needed.
Knead thoroughly.

Preheat oven to 350º
On a floured surface, roll the dough 1/2 inch thick.  Cut.
Place the cookies 1 inch apart on the baking sheets.
Bake 25 minutes.
Let cool 1 minute.
Remove, place on racks and cool completely.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Anise (star anise and ground) - Margaret Ullrich

Pepper, Cloves, Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg.
Old favorites.
The only possible newbie was the Cardamom.
Unless you're Swedish.

Boring.

Well, say hello to your new little friend.

Anise hads a licorice-like flavor.  
If you like licorice, you'll love it.
If you don't, you won't.
So it goes.

Anise comes from the parsley family.
Star anise is from an evergreen shrub found in Asia.
It's the dominant flavor in Chinese five-spice powder. 

The shrub is called illicium, Latin for allurement.
I guess the Latins liked licorice.
The Romans chewed on anise to aid digestion when overindulging.
Perfect for this time of year.
There's also a liquere, anisette.
Some Italians add anisette to their coffee.
Some non-Italians do, too.

In the Middle East, anise was believed to chase away the 'Evil Eye'.
Also perfect for this time of year if you got a big screen TV in your stocking.

Anise was once considered so precious, it was taxed to repair London Bridge.
No, we shouldn't give the tax department any ideas.


If you've bought star anise and the recipe calls for ground, you can put some 
in a piece of foil and pound them with a hammer.
Or whirr them in a blender. 

And what to do with ground anise?
Sprinkle into cored apples before baking.
Add to fruit pies, fruit salads, canapes, cookies and cakes.
Add to sugar cookies and shortbread.
Use in meat loaf, fish sauces, sweet pickles and cream cheese.  


Seeds or star anise can be added to broths or tomato-based fish soup.
You can also stir them into puddings, or add to cooked or fresh plum 
or peach desserts.
Toss a few seeds with coconut, raisins and dried pineapple for a snack.


A few seeds stirred into warm, sweetened milk makes a soothing nightcap.
Something we could all use right about now.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Greetings and A Story about Santa Claus by Margaret Ullrich

Silent Night,  
Holy Night...

The big night is finally here!!

I hope you and your family and friends are enjoying a very Merry Christmas, 
full of love, peace, health and happiness.


Last year I posted a short story about my first Christmas in College Point
a small town in New York, when I was 5 years old.

If you have young children, they might enjoy it.
If you'd like to see what life was like in ancient times (1955), you might enjoy it.


In the story I mentioned many Maltese, Italian and German Christmas recipes.  
I've linked the recipes to their names.
Just click for the recipe, if you'd like to try something new this week.

Or maybe next year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Depression Cake (Christmas Raisin Fruitcake) - Margaret Ullrich

Nobody's touching the fruitcake.
But, a proper Christmas requires that everybody eats something 
that's got dried fuit in it.
Helps to keep things moving, so to speak.

And the dried fruit thingy should be spicy.
As in cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.

No, we don't want Mexican just yet.
Chili pepper would just make matters worse.
It's almost Christmas.
Everybody has enough agita.
The bottle of yukky pink bismuth is almost empty.


I've got just the thing.
Depression Cake.

No, I'm not being snarky.
This recipe is quick, easy and cheap.
And it has raisins.
It was a popular recipe during the Dirty Thirties.
That's why it's called Depression Cake.


Considering how the world's economy is, it's due for a comeback.
Big Time.


                        Depression Cake

Grease an 8 inch square pan
Preheat oven to 350º

In a large pot place
2 Cups water
1 Cup raisins
Let boil 5 minutes.
Stir in
1 Tablespoon oil
Let it cool.

Sift together
2 Cups flour
1 Cup sugar
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt

Add to cooled raisins and water
Pour into prepared pan.
Bake 35 minutes.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nutmeg Sugar Cookies (Christmas Cookies) - Margaret Ullrich

The kids are climbing the walls.
They need something to do.

Flour companies are saying that baking together is right up there 
with praying together.
It'll create wonderful memories.
Sure, at this point you're ready to try anything.


Good.
You'll need them for this recipe, too.
Pack away the sharp knife.
Now.


                        Sugar Cookies

Grease 3 large baking sheets

In a large bowl sift together
2 2/3 Cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

In a large mixer bowl cream together until fluffy
1/2 Cup butter 
1 Cup sugar

Add
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

Add alternately with the sifted ingredients
1/2 Cup sour cream
Store dough in a covered container in the refrigerator 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375º
On a floured surface, roll the dough 1/4 inch thick.  Cut.
Place the cookies 2 inches apart on the baking sheets.
Sprinkle with
Sugar
Place in the center of the cookies
raisins

Bake 10 to 12 minutes.
Let cool 1 minute.
Remove, place on racks and cool completely.


I know, it's just what the kids need.
A sugar high.
But making the cookies kept them busy.
And they'll drink some milk.


Hey, nothing's perfect.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nutmeg & Mace - Margaret Ullrich

It's almost Christmas.
So, I'm giving you a two-fer.
Merry Christmas!!

What with all the fancy coffees that are out there, even at good old Micky D, 
a cup of egg nog - or a coffee with whipped cream - looks downright naked 
unless it has some brown flecks on top of it.

This is nutmeg's moment to shine!

Ah, but what do you know about nutmeg?

The seed is known as nutmeg, and the red membrane around the seed is mace.
In the tropics, natives eat the pulp of the fruit.

This spice was once so costly that people would carry a nutmeg and a small grater 
that could be folded to the size of a lipstick.
Guess they drank a lot of fancy coffees.


Freshly grated nutmeg (you can use the fine holes of a metal grater) has a 
more intense flavor.
Nutmeg and mace can be used interchangeably.
Still, mace is more potent than nutmeg.

A bit of trivia while you're nogging...
In Egypt mace is sometimes used as hashish.
Maybe that's how it gets us into that holiday spirit!


The nutty flavor of nutmeg goes well with sweet desserts, custards, 
fruit cakes, pies and cookies.
Sprinkle nutmeg onto vanilla ice cream before serving.
You can also flavor an apple or pear pie with nutmeg in place of cinnamon.

Add a pinch of nutmeg to the crust of a meat pie for a gourmet touch.
Stir a pinch into cream sauces or soups.
It's great with winter squash, mashed sweet potatoes, glazed carrots or parsnips.
Sprinkle some on green beans, spinach or into mashed potatoes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Oh, Christmas Tree!! - Margaret Ullrich

Continued from part 1

I thought I had dressed warmly.  

That fink, the ditzy receptionist, showed up looking like the Michelin Man.  She was ready to march to Thompson if necessary.  So were the three other women co-workers.  The other wives - who all knew better - had begged off.  I was alone with four career women who were full of the 'I am woman, hear me roar' career fever.  While they talked shop I felt as welcome as a lump of coal in a Christmas stocking.  

The Jewish co-workers - who I had hoped would keep the tree hunt frenzy within limits - had turned into lumberjacks.  They were also ready to march to Thompson if necessary.  After walking five minutes I couldn't feel my toes.  
We hadn't even gotten out of the parking lot.  I was doomed. 

I didn't know it could get that cold.  

We marched.  Finally, someone approved of a tree.  The men chopped.  The tree crashed.  The branches that hit the ground broke off the tree.  I said the bare side could be placed against a wall.  The heat from their glares should have restored my circulation.  It didn't.  We marched.  Someone approved of another tree.  
The men chopped.  The tree crashed.  It broke.        

God, it was cold.  

We were doomed to spend all day wandering like Flying Dutchmen on a quest to find the perfect unbreakable tree.  
The lot was littered with other broken felled trees.  Some trees had landed across their comrades in a criss cross pattern that looked like a cradle.  
A cradle, something soft, something to receive and hold... hold it - something to catch a damn tree!  

Nose drip and tears had frozen my mouth shut.  If I'd had the equipment I would've written my idea in the snow.  I slapped my face trying to restore circulation to my lower jaw.  Finally my lips parted.  I clutched Paul's arm.

"Cradle... tree... cradle," I mumbled and criss crossed my arms.  
The women thought I was pregnant and wanted a homemade cradle.  
Thank God, months of marriage and love had united Paul's mind to mine.  Months of marriage had also taught us that Paul was no carpenter so he knew the homemade cradle idea was bunk.  Paul caught on to my pantomime and told the others.  

Someone approved of another tree.  It would land on four broken trees.  
The men chopped.  The tree crashed.  It survived.  We marched.  
Someone approved of another tree.  It, too, survived.  

Christmas was saved.   

God, it was cold.
I didn't know it could get that cold.
     
Some fool was planning the next year's tree chopping expedition.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Our First Winnipeg Christmas Tree - Margaret Ullrich

God, it was cold.

I didn't know it could get that cold.
I didn't know I'd ever be stupid enough to be outdoors in that kind of cold.
I didn't know I'd been stupid enough to marry someone stupid enough to work with people stupid enough to be out in that kind of cold.

It was our first December in Winnipeg.

We had grown up in New York City.  There people went to an empty parking lot 
where the trees had magically appeared, like the ground beef at the local market.  
No questions asked.  No one wanted to get too personal with an ornament.  

At the New York parking lot we'd browse, find a tree we liked and switch the price tag with the cheaper tree which no liked.  Then we'd carry the tree to the clerk, who gave us the fish eye as he noticed the fullness of such a good find, sighed and took our money.  The whole deal was done in ten minutes.  Another Christmas had begun.

Apparently, that isn't good enough for Winnipeggers.  
Oh, no, they have to get down and dirty with their holiday bushes.

I'll never forget how happy Paul was when he came home and told me we'd been invited to join a group of Winnipeggers for a real, old fashioned Christmas experience.  If I'd had a clue I'd have realized that giving birth in a barn, unaided, would've been 
an easier old fashioned Christmas experience.  
We were going to chop down a real Christmas trees, just like our ancestors.

Well, my parents are from Malta, a sunny Mediterranean island.  It just wasn't in my genes to know how to dress for a freezing, miserable, forced march through a blizzard-hit forest.  The windchill - which I still didn't understand - was in the 'exposed skin can freeze in 2 minutes' range.  That didn't sound good, so I said thanks, but no thanks.  

Somehow Paul convinced me that his entire future career prospects, our unborn kids' college fund and our golden years would all go up in smoke if I didn't join the mighty tree hunt.  His Jewish co-workers were going.  Everybody, even that ditzy receptionist who always dressed like a showgirl wannabe with skirts up to there, was going.  
So, we were going.    

God, it was cold.

part 2

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Gingerbread and Seven Minute Frosting / Buttermilk Substitute for Baking - Margaret Ullrich

I've never understood Gingerbread.
It seems a bit sweet to call a bread.
I sure wouldn't make a sandwich with it.


It's an old recipe.
Maybe, in those days, people just needed more calories.
Or had bigger sweet tooths.

So, I'll stick to calling it Gingerbread.
Gingercake just doesn't sound right.


Don't have sour milk?
Just pour a Tablespoon of white vinegar into a measuring cup.
Add enough milk to make 1/2 cup.
Stir and let sit a few minutes.
This also works when a recipe calls for buttermilk.
Just don't drink it.


                        Gingerbread

Grease an 8 inch square pan
Preheat oven to 350º

In a large bowl sift together
1 3/4 Cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ginger

In a large mixer bowl cream together
1/4 Cup oil
1/2 Cup sugar

Add
1 large egg

Stir in
1/2 Cup molasses

Add alternately with the sifted ingredients
1/2 Cup sour milk
Pour into prepared pan.
Bake 30 minutes.

Gingerbread is just fine warm from the oven.
It also goes nicely with

Seven Minute Frosting

In top of a double boiler combine
3/4 Cup sugar
pinch of cream of tartar
pinch of salt
3 Tablespoons cold water
1 egg white

Cook over boiling water, beating constantly with an
electric mixer or rotary beater,
(scraping the sides and bottom of the pan occasionally)
until the frosting forms stiff peaks (4 to 7 minutes).

Remove from heat and fold in
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Let cool and spread.

If you really want to go all Christmasy on this, 
you can add with the sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
a pinch of nutmeg or ginger

or use

3 or 4 drops of peppermint extract instead of vanilla
and tint it a pale green.


Peppermint frosting on bread?
See why I get confused?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gingerbread Cookies (Christmas Cookies) and Royal Frosting - Margaret Ullrich

I know, I know... 
If someone says "Gingerbread", "men" is what usually comes to mind.
Heck, there's even a fairy tale about a running Gingerbread man who could've 
been in the Olympics.

But, it's a bit of a bother to buy cookie cutters you don't use regularly.
And sometimes you've got lots of cutters, but they're in a nice safe place.
Yeah, like that's the first thing a crook wants to steal.


Don't worry.
This works just as well with any cutters you have.
Even if it's just an upended glass, dipped in flour.
Or a sharp knife.

Small hint...
Make the cookies about the same size.
Smaller cookies take a little less time.
Bigger cookies take a little more time.
This is an approximate time for medium-sized cookies.


                        Gingerbread Cookies

Have 2 large baking sheets, ungreased

In a large saucepan combine
2/3 Cup packed light brown sugar
2/3 Cup dark corn syrup (or molasses)
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
Bring to a boil.

Add
1 1/2  teaspoons baking soda
2/3 Cup margarine (or butter)
Stir until margarine melts.

Stir in
1 large egg
4 Cups flour
Mix well.
Store dough in a covered container in the refrigerator overnight or longer.

Preheat oven to 325º
On a floured surface, roll the dough 1/4 inch thick.  Cut.
Place them on the cookie sheets.
Bake 15 minutes, more or less.
Let cool on racks and cool completely.

Royal Frosting
Combine
1 Egg white
1 Cup + 2 Tablespoons confectioners' sugar

This frosting is that hard as a rock candy type.
Just decorate.
As in a smiley face.
Don't cover the whole cookie.
Trust me.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ginger (Fresh and Ground) - Margaret Ullrich

Ah!  Ginger!!
No, I'm not thinking about Gilligan's Island.

Ginger is another old favorite spice.
Especially at this time of year.

Who hasn't chomped off the head of a gingerbread man?
Or built and decorated a gingerbread house?
Speaking of building...
Egyptians were eating ginger when the pyramid of Cheops was new.

Gingerbread was popular in Greece 5,000 years ago.
By the twelfth century it was being enjoyed by the rich in England.

In India ginger was used as protection against disease and to aid digestion.
Ginger is still great at settling upset tummies.
Who hasn't been handed a glass of ginger ale while recovering from a stomach bug?

Don't like soda?
Ginger has been used by herbalists for more than 2500 years to create invigorating - and stomach settling - teas.


Ginger can be bought fresh in the produce section.
Just slice and use, much as you would fresh garlic.
If you're substituting, 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh ginger equals 1 teaspoon ground.


Ground ginger, like cinnamon, can go on or in just about everything:

Stir ginger into lemonade or iced tea.
Mix into fresh fruit salads.
Combine ginger with sugar and sprinkle on grapefruit halves before broiling.

Sprinkle salmon fillets with lime juice and ginger before baking.

Add ginger to cooking water for broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts to cut the cabbagey flavor.
Stir ginger into mashed sweet potatoes or squash.

Sprinkle slices of refrigerated cookie dough with ginger and sugar before baking.
Add ginger to sweetened whipped cream.
Use it in preparing custards.


And crystalized ginger is a healthier treat than most.

Oh, and don't forget to bake some gingerbread and cookies!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Swedish Cardamom Wreath for Saint Lucia Day (Christmas Bread) - Margaret Ullrich

What's a holiday without a fancy bread?

This is a lovely loaf of holiday bread.
And it's Swedish.

If you're baking ahead, the dough can be frozen.
Allow the braids to thaw and rise before baking.
The baked braids can be frozen, uniced.
Warm them in the microwave and ice.
Who's to know? 


Serve a wreath on December 13.
At a decent hour.
Who really wants to wake up at 3 a.m. anyway?

For an extra touch, bruise a couple of cardamom seeds and add them to 
the coffee grounds while brewing.
Happy Saint Lucia Day!


                        Swedish Cardamom Wreath

Grease 2 large baking sheets

In a small pot, melt and cool
3/4 Cup margarine

In a large bowl combine
1 Tablespoon yeast
1/4 Cup warm water
Let sit 10 minutes

Stir in
2 1/2 Cups warm milk
the melted margarine
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Cup sugar
2 teaspoons cardamom
7 - 7 1/2 Cups flour

Mix until blended.
Knead thoroughly, about 20 minutes.
Place dough in a greased bowl and let rise 2 hours.

Divide the dough into six even pieces.
Roll a piece between your hands into a 24 inch rope.
Take 3 ropes, fasten together at one end, make a braid, form the braid 
into a wreath and tuck the loose ends under the fastened end.
Place the braid on the cookie sheet.
Repeat with the remaining dough.
Cover and let rise 40 minutes. 

Preheat oven to 350º
Bake 40 minutes until lightly golden.
Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes.

Frosting
Combine
1 Cup confectioners' sugar
2 Tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cardamom Cinnamon Cookies (slice and bake Christmas Cookies) - Margaret Ullrich

This is a handy slice and bake cookie recipe.
Great for this time of year.

Make the dough when you're watching television.
Slice and bake for a warm treat when company's coming.
They'll never know.

Well, they might notice there aren't any dirty bowls around.


For a little variety...
Make slightly fatter logs, then flatten the dough to form a long rectangle which, when cut, would make square cookies.
Or you can leave it as a long log, to make regular round cookies.


                        Cardamom Cinnamon Cookies

Have 2 large baking sheets, ungreased

In a large bowl sift together
1 1/4 Cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/8 teaspoon salt

In a large mixer bowl beat together until light and fluffy
1/2 Cup margarine 
1/4 Cup packed brown sugar

Add the sifted dry ingredients.
Mix until blended.

Roll the dough between your hands to form logs
8 inches long, 1 1/2 inches wide (see above).

Wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight or longer.

Slice cookies about 1/4 inch thick with a sharp knife, dipped in flour.
Place them on the cookie sheets about 1 inch apart.

Preheat oven to 350º
Bake 12 minutes until lightly golden.
Transfer to racks and cool completely.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cardamom / Sugar & Spice Christmas Blend - Margaret Ullrich

When it comes to spices, Swedes are big spenders.
I've already said enough about Saint Lucia and saffron.
Making real Swedish saffron buns is still on my Bucket List.

Saffron is often not found among the usual spices.
I've heard of women asking, weeks in advance, if it could be ordered for their 
holiday recipes.
Tradition is a bitch.


Now we're going to take a look at cardamom.
Don't panic.

Cardamom can be found year round.
Well, it can, if your grocery store has a large spice section.
It's costly, but a little goes a long way.

In Scandinavia cardamom is used in pastries, much as North Americans use cinnamon.
A favorite in India, it was brought to Scandinavia by the Vikings.
East Indians use cardamom in curry and desserts.


Cardamom is a member of the ginger family.
It's often sold as is, in pods.
Each pod holds about 20 tiny black seeds.
Open the pods over a bowl.
At these prices, you don't want to lose even one.
Bruise 2 or 3 seeds and add to coffee grounds while brewing.

The seeds can be ground and used the same as you would any ground spice.
Cardamom combines well with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg in cakes and cookies, 
as well as in pumpkin and apple pies.
Ground cardamom is also excellent in mashed potatoes and squash.
Mix it with sugar and sprinkle on French toast, or on hot or cold fruit compote.
Add some cardamom to waffle batter.


You can also nibble the seeds after a rich meal.
Just like anise, which the Romans chewed after a big meal.
Handy at this time of year.

We'll get to anise later this month.
Just in time for New Year's.


Sugar & Spice Christmas Blend

1/2 Cup granulated sugar
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Makes a scant 2/3 Cup

Sugar & Spice Blend would also add a nice touch to rice pudding.
Or egg nog.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Holiday Traditions and The First Maltese Lucia Queen (part 2 by Margaret Ullrich)

Continued from part 1


Maybe the lack of sleep was affecting my mind.  

My next goal was an authentic Swedish Saint Lucia Day for our first December 13.  

According to one big fat book, a good Swedish wife got up at four a.m. to start tossing her cookies.  God forbid any sunlight should shine on the dough or disaster would befall the household.  Every hefty housefrau hoped a crescent moon was hovering on the horizon to bring good luck to the baking.  

No kidding.  Without that sliver of light she could get killed, stumbling around in the dark like that.  I really thought that if I followed the customs, my baking would get better.  I got up at four a.m. and baked.  
Okay, I cheated.  I used electric lights.  

I stitched up a long white robe and tied shining red balls to our Advent wreath.  

Then I ran into a slight problem.  According to tradition, saffron buns and coffee were served between three and four a.m. by the eldest daughter, who was dressed as the Lucia Queen.  We didn't have children and I couldn't borrow a neighbor's kid for that ungodly hour.  I had to make some changes in the sacred customs.  So, I became the first Maltese Lucia Queen in history.  I memorized the traditional poem.  

Then, when I saw how much saffron cost, I made another teeny change.  
I made cinnamon buns.   What harm could it do?  

  
The days flew.  It was December 13.  I was clad in white, balancing the advent wreath with bouncing red balls and gleaming white candles upon my head.  
Three a.m.  Show Time!  
I was a glowing, flaming cherries jubilee, clutching a tray laden with coffee and cinnamon buns and walking ever so slowly to our bed.  


Hovering over Paul, I began chanting:  "Night goes with silent steps..."
Hmmph.  He was snoring.  
No Swedish genes were making him wake up to behold his Lucia Queen.  
Well, after all that work, this Lucia Queen required an audience.  
Creating my own liturgy, I ad libbed. 
"Wake up, Paul." 
Still no answer.  
I set the tray down, gave him a shove that nearly pushed him out of bed and repeated: "Night goes with silent steps... Damn it!  Wake up!!"
He snorted, turned and faced me.  It took him a while to focus.  


Okay, finally, I, the Lucia Queen, was getting the respect I deserved.  
I went back to chanting, my voice building to an impressive boom.

"Night goes with silent steps round house and cottage.
O'er earth that sun forgot, Dark shadows linger.      
Then on our threshold stands white clad in candlelight,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia."

He looked.  He blinked.  He screamed.  
He said something that no one should ever say to a Lucia Queen.  


I blamed the cinnamon.  Maybe the Swedish mojo just doesn't work if one substitutes cinnamon for saffron.  There could be a dark reason behind the choice of seasoning.  
As far as I was concerned, the power unleashed by the cinnamon doomed my Christmas dreams. 

Look, if my Ma can blame religion, I can blame spices. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Holiday Traditions and St. Nicholas (part 1 by Margaret Ullrich)

As far as I'm concerned, there are two questions no one should ever ask a woman.  
The first is "How old are you?"  
The second is "Have you done your holiday baking yet?"  

Why is it that, when the thermometer falls, we're supposed to bake?  
Does the Queen whip up a fruitcake before writing her speech?
I don't think so.  

I really admire women who can bake things that look good enough to keep, let alone eat.  I'm what you might call 'cooking challenged'.  
Now, don't get me wrong.  I can cook some things.  They just aren't pretty.    

I've always been curious about holiday recipes.  I've done some research.  
Ginger was popular in Greece over 5000 years ago.  The Egyptians were eating gingerbread when the great pyramid of Cheops was just a brick and a prayer.  

A few years after Egypt's building boom, an English King and his hunting party got lost in a blizzard on Christmas Eve.  Well, they were clever lads, so they threw everything they had - meat, flour, sugar, apples, ale and brandy - into a bag and cooked it.  Wallah!!  Plum pudding.  The Iron Chef would've been proud.  

On Christmas Day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he had risen earlier than his wife 'who was desirous to sleep having sat up till four this morning seeing her maids make mince pies.'  I really admire Mrs. P.  She just sat and watched the maids do the work, yet her husband felt guilty about her workload.  How did she do it?   

Some Christmas carols seem a little too focused on food.  For example:
     Now bring us some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer!
     We won't go until we get some, so bring it out here.
Those were somebody's friends?  Somebody should've called the cops.  


Traditional holiday baking is just fine if every woman stays in her own country and knows what to do.  Baking on a level cookie sheet, so to speak.  
But, it can be a problem for folks just off the boat. 

My parents and I immigrated to New York in 1950.  A few years later, when I was in school, I asked why we didn't have anything pretty to eat for Christmas.  
My Ma told me that in Malta, Christmas was a religious celebration.  The focus was on God becoming man, not on cookies.  

Now, the Catholic Church has caused some problems in history, but it shouldn't take the rap for Maltese recipes.  No, I'll bite the biscuit and admit that Maltese cooking is not in the same league with Italian or Chinese.  Check the phone book in any city.  There aren't any Maltese restaurants.

Maltese desserts are simple - fresh fruit and cheese with an occasional cookie.  One Maltese cookie, the biskuttini tar rahal, could be described as hardened library paste with a hint of lemon and a dash of royal icing.  A variation on the biskuttini cuts the sugar by half and replaces the royal icing with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.  
Both cookies are wonderful teething rings.  

Another favorite is the anise biscotti.  The big thrill with a biscotti is seeing how much milk it can suck up before breaking in half and falling into your glass.  
It's like eating the sinking Titanic.  
For the holidays, we borrow from the Sicilians and make kannoli tar-rikotta (ricotta in a fried pastry tube) or a qassata (vanilla custard shmeared over a sponge cake).  
How lame is that?  

   
I knew my German friends ended their meals with more oomph.  

Our parish, St. Fidelis, was a cookie heaven.  The most amazing homemade cookies were brought to every church and school function by my friends' Moms.  They were rich and gorgeous - the cookies, I mean.  They were loaded with spices, fruits, nuts and jams.  They were covered with thick layers of frosting and all sorts of sprinkles.  

When my Ma saw the competition she admitted defeat and took over the job of bringing coffee.  I was free to eat whatever caught my eye.  
While I gushed, my friends' Moms all beamed.  
My friends thought I was nuttier than the cookies.  


My husband is a third generation American - half Swedish and half German.  
Okay, I was marrying into the Cookie Big Leagues.  
I thought, along with the change of name, I'd return from my honeymoon a 
changed woman able to make cookies with a capital C.  
To paraphrase the biblical story of Ruth, I believed, 
"What thou eatest, I will eat.  Thy cookies shall be my cookies."

Well, you get the picture.  Thanks to the movie The Sound of Music, I just knew 
we'd celebrate Christmas a la von Trapp: sitting beneath a huge, glowing tree, 
singing Edelweiss and munching beautiful cookies, my favorite things. 


There's an old German saying: That which really tastes oft us trouble makes.  
Now, there's truth in advertising.  
Clear as a bell, they were warning me to not even go there.  
If I'd had half a brain I'd have just thrown in the mixing bowl and placed a 
huge order at the local German bakery for a deluxe assorted cookie platter, 
with some stollen on the side.  

Nope, I didn't take the hint.  I studied every German and Swedish cookbook I could find.  The biggest surprise was that there were other days that had to be celebrated.  Okay, I thought, practice makes perfect.
Maybe it's like opening a Broadway show in Boston.
I learned about their holiday customs.  

The first Advent biggie was December 6.  St. Nicholas' Day.  That called for small presents in Paul's shoes and some hot chocolate and buns for breakfast.  No problem.  The morning went without a hitch.  
Huzzah!!  One day I'd bake cookies that looked like jewels!  

I spent more nights baking instead of sleeping.


Please continue with part 2