Festive Feasts

by Liam Cannon - Your friendly neighborhood cashier

The holiday season is upon us.  Whether you observe the religious aspect or secular winter festivities or something in between, this time of year is special to many of us,  our thoughts may turn to sumptuous feasts and great times with family and friends.  There is nothing like the wonderful smell of roasting turkey wafting through the air, freshly baked bread and pumpkin pie cooling on the table.  I bet you can’t resist snaking a few nibbles.  Holiday dinner wouldn’t be complete without baked yams (which are really sweet potatoes – more on that in another article), and can-shaped cranberry sauce.

Many of our early settlers in this country didn’t get to enjoy holiday celebrations.  In fact, the Puritan governor of Plymouth colony, William Bradford had religious beliefs that frowned on his English expatriates celebrating Christmas in any form, including eating anything out of the ordinary.  Mincemeat pie was considered sacrilegious and not allowed.  They did eat the precursor to pumpkin pie though, by filling a hollowed out pumpkin shell with milk, honey and spices, and then baking it in hot ashes.  Turkey, an abundant game bird at that time, was considered acceptable food.  Massachusetts also found Christmas frivolity to be unacceptable and imposed a five-shilling penalty.  Dutch settlers there had to secretly celebrate their secular winter festivities, eating their sweets behind locked doors.

As you can see, a “traditional” Christmas dinner in this country, was not always traditional.  We can thank Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol for shaping what we consider a traditional holiday feast.  Not only did Dickens change forever our concept of Christmas feasting, but he also encouraged us to take a moment to see how we impact the people around us.  One Vermont factory owner in 1867 was so moved after hearing Dickens read his novella in Boston, that he changed his Puritan tradition of leaving his factory running on Christmas and the next year he instituted the tradition of giving a holiday turkey to each employee.  By the late 1800’s, charities all over American were providing Dickens’ “traditional” holiday dinners to the poor, orphans, and newly arriving immigrants.

Let’s take a brief look at some of our feasting favorites.

Eggnog:  Eggnog originated from the early medieval drink, posset which was made with hot milk curdled with ale, flavored with spices and served as a cold and flu remedy.  Over time, it evolved into a much creamier, tastier drink.  Food historians have several theories on the etymology of eggnog.  The most probable is that alcohol used to be served in small, carved wooden mugs called noggins.  In this country rum was added to this once common drink.  During the American Revolution, rum was scarce, and spices became very expensive, making it an occasional indulgence,  usually at Christmas.

Chestnuts:  Sometimes roasting on an open fire, fresh chestnuts have always been a holiday delicacy in this country until the turn of the twentieth century.  Over 200 million acres in the United States were once covered in American chestnut trees.  In 1904, a destructive fungus caused a swift and almost complete destruction of all of the chestnut trees.  They have never completely recovered.  Today.  Americans now depend on imports, mostly from Italy.

Stuffing:  The first written reference to stuffing is from the roman cookbook Apicius De Re Coquinaria, which contains recipes for stuffed chicken, dormouse, hare, and pig.  Most of the stuffings contained vegetables, herbs and spices, nuts, and spelt, and often included chopped liver, brains (for those zombie holiday goers), and other organ meats.

Mashed Potatoes:  Many of the native Americans ate the starchy tuber, but the Incas seem to be the first to eat theirs mashed.  English recipes of the 1600’s included making gravy.  If you want truly tasty mashed potatoes, add cream cheese, butter, and garlic.

Now bring us some figgy Pudding:  This delicious treat can be traced back to 16th century England.  Interestingly, it was made from raisins or plums and not necessarily figs.  As far as that goes, plum pudding, another holiday favorite, was made from raisins and not plums.  There was something else dancing in children’s heads besides sugar plums.

Let’s make some figgy pudding.  Originally it was prepared by boiling or steaming which can be daunting the first time that you make it.  Here is a baked version that is easier to make and just as tasty.

Ingredients - Pudding:

1 ½ cups               chopped dried figs
½ cup                    chopped dried pitted dates
2 cups                   water
1 tsp                      baking powder
7 T                          butter, softened
1 cup                     granulated sugar
2 ea                       medium or large eggs
2 ½ cups               self-rising flour
                                (if you don’t have self-rising flour, add 1 ½ tsp of baking powder and ½ tsp of salt to each
                                cup of all-purpose flour.)
¼ tsp                     vanilla extract
butter for coating ramekins

Ingredients – Sauce:

2 cups                   brown sugar
2 cups                   heavy cream (whipping)
14 T                        butter (everything is better with butter)
¼ tsp                     vanilla extrace

Preparation:

1.        Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2.       Add the figs, dates and water to a medium saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the baking powder.  Let cool for 5 minutes, then add to a blender and puree.

3.       Using a mixer, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla extract in a large bowl.  Add the eggs and beat well.  Fold in the flour and pureed fig mixture.

4.       Put the mixture into buttered ramekins, filling halfway or slightly under.  Put in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

5.       Prepare the sauce by stirring the sugar and cream in a medium saucepan over low heat.  Simmer until the sugar dissolves.  Raise the heat and bring to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add the butter and vanilla extract, stir until incorporated.

6.       Remove the ramekins from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes.  Can be served in the ramekin or unmolded onto a small serving plate.  With a paring knife, cut a cross in the top of the puddings for the sauce.

7.       Pour the sauce into the cross in the center of each pudding, then pour more sauce over the puddings and allow to soak in slightly.  Serve warm.

FUN FACTS

  • In Japan, Christmas (considered a romantic holiday similar to our Valentine’s Day here) is celebrated by eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.  The demand is so high for those secret herbs and spices, that orders for KFC have to be placed months in advance.

  • The world’s record for the largest mincemeat pie weighed 2260 pounds.

  • The largest Christmas pudding in history was made in Aughton, Lancashire, in 1992, and weighed a whopping 7,231 pounds.

  • The price of all of the milk and cookies left out for Santa around the world is estimated at $189 million annually.

  • Animal crackers are from 1902 and were originally put in a stringed boxex and hung from Christmas trees like ornaments.

Bless us, one and all.