Much of what we love about Christmastime is the opportunity it brings to surround ourselves with the seasonal foods and sweet treats that are special to this festive time of year. As the specialty foods buyer for our store, I look for the traditional holiday cakes, cookies and sweets from Europe that I personally love and that I know my customers will love also.
Europe is a fascinating composite of many countries and cultures, each of which is blessed with a proud and distinctive cuisine. Accordingly, at Christmastime, Europe contributes many special treats to the global Christmas table. As we import many of these holiday treats every year, we are thrilled to see that Americans have embraced many of these seasonal treats – both savory and sweet – and made them a part of our own family holiday traditions.
In fact, many of our customers begin their holiday shopping season by purchasing their personal favorite Christmas treats. Our savvy shoppers know that these items sell out very quickly, and that we will not be able to receive more of these treats until the following Christmas.
Here is a little primer on what holiday goodies to look for:
Plum Pudding: in merry ole England serving the Christmas goose and all the trimmings is a very old holiday custom. Rich stuffings, sauces and gravies give way to the sweets table, which might be composed of crystallized fruits, nuts, brandy snaps, Christmas trifle and perhaps a mincemeat tart. But the crowning touch of any good Christmas table is the plum pudding- dark, moist and warm, and redolant with chopped fruits, spices, and a good bit of ale or madeira, and decorated with small sprigs of holly. Warmed rum, kirsch or brandy should be poured over the pudding and set slight as the pudding makes a grand arrival at the table. Traditionally plum pudding is served with a good dose of brandy or rum butter.
Lebkuchen: has been a hallmark of the German baking tradition for centuries. In the 14th century, bakers began making a simple, dense and heavy honey cake-like cookie. Early German bakers did not yet have spices at their disposal, but as time passed, ships from Asia brought sweet and exotic spices to Venice, Italy. From there, a spice route was established over the Alps to Nurnberg, Germany. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamon, pepper, ginger, aniseseed, coriander, cloves and other spices began to appear in the formerly simple lebkuchen. Over time, Lebkuchen became very popular and lebkuchen bakers turned the cookies into an art. By official decree, lebkuchen bakers became a specialized profession, distinctly apart from that of other bakers. Loosely translated, lebkuchen means ‘gingerbread’, but it really means much more than that. Spices, honey, and finely ground almonds or hazelnuts are blended to produce a wonderfully aromatic flavor and soft, dense and chewy cake-like cookie. Lebkuchen has dozens of variations and in Germany small bakeries keep their sometimes centuries old prized lebkuchen recipes a closely-guarded family secret. Lebkuchen can be round, oblong, with a wafer bottom or not, plain, chocolate covered or sugar glazed. Very strict standards are set for the ingredients used in lebkuchen, and Nurenberg lebkuchen is still considered Germany’s finest.
Stollen: is one of the oldest Christmas cakes. Stollen was originally a simple cake, baked in celebration of the winter solstice. Over time, stollen gained it’s characteristic shape and fold, and it became a Christian symbol of the Christ child in swaddling clothers. The discovery of yeast in the 16th century gave stollen a more pleasing texture, and with this change came an increased use of butter and eggs. Today’s Christmas stollen is very rich and buttery, with a creamy texture gained from generous amounts of butter and eggs. Stollen should also contain chopped almonds, candied lemon and orange peel, raisins and a bit of dark rum. Variations might include pistachios or hazelnuts, marzipan, sultanas, etc., but all stollen are brushed after baking with melted butter, then dusted heavily with powdered sugar. The last bit of Christmas stollen is traditionally saved until Easter to ‘hurry the winter on by.’
Panforte: this is the quintessential Christmas cake of Tuscany. It is believed that the Montecelles Nunnery in Siena created the first panforte about 1,000 AD, and today this medieval sweet remains very much the same. Panforte is a dense, rich concentration of candied orange peel, citron, chopped almonds, spices, honey, butter and sugar. Several versions of panforte are made:
- Margherita is the most traditional panforte, and it is coated with a dense covering of powdered sugar.
- Nero is essentially the same cake at Margherita but it is dusted with a coating of cocoa power instead of powdered sugar.
- Fiorito introduces a layer of marzipan on top of the cake and it too is finished with a dense covering of powdered sugar.
- Dama is the latest panforte creation, and it incorporates chocolate into the cake . Just to gild the lily, the entire cake is covered in a layer of chocolate as well.
Ricciarelli: another specialty of Siena, these soft and indulgent, oval-shaped ( and very rich ) almond paste cookies are lightly dusted with powdered sugar. Riccciarelli are always prominently featured on Italian holiday tables in northern Italy.
Panettone: is the Milanese pride and joy. What can be more Italian than a soft and sweet slice of Panettone served with mascarpone and a cups of steaming hot espresso coffee ? The origins of Panettone are clouded in romantic legends, but a popular version is that a young nam named Toni fell in love with the baker’s daughter, and to win her father’s approval, he created a cake of such rare delicacy that people flocked to the bakery for it. ECCO !! Pani-de Toni !! Panettone is a delicate and tender sweet egg bread ( think challah ) that is traditionally studded with raisins, bits of candied citron and orange peel. It is instantly recognizable by it’s trademark domed shape – whether it is a low cake or a tall cake, panettone is wrapped in colorful paper and tied with a festive ribbon. Today, bakers are using their creative talents and panettone can be found containing all manner of dried fruits, chocolate, nuts and liquor-flavored cream fillings.
Torrone: is an egg-white and honey confection, recognizable by its long, rectangular shape. Torone hails from Verona in northern Italy, and it is also made in Sicily. The style of torrone from each place is similar but slightly different in style and texture. Torrone can be crunchy or soft, and it can contain chopped hazelnuts or almonds or pistachios or a combination of two or more types of nuts. Some torrone is chocolate covered and Sicilian torrone often contains pieces of candied fruits.