Christmas in Alsace and Germany

This Christmas, Bob and I celebrated our first real Christmas in 38 years.

Christmas Tree in Strasbourg, France

Christmas Tree in Strasbourg, France

Since we downsized our store this summer to a smaller space, we shed much responsibility and stress. Now our life is concentrated exclusively on our tea, and we have  something that we are not used to – some free time, and easier life-management. While we are far from retired, we have renewed energy and feel young and almost carefree again. So in a decision based on sheer fun and self-indulgence, we decided to do something that we have always longed to do – visit Christmas Market in the Alsace region of France and parts of Germany. So we made a plan, booked flights, hotels and  trains for late November and let the anticipation build. We were not disappointed.

Colmar, France

Colmar, France

Christmas Markets begin their festivities in the days right before Advent and continue up until Christmas Day. The markets continue a tradition of selling and trading and gathering people together for joyful celebration that began 400-500 years ago in medieval cities and towns across Europe. Today, this festive spirit continues in most cities and many small towns, in the main medieval market square or in the streets surrounding a cathedral or prominent church in the heart of old town. According to our friend Peter, who lives in Stuttgart, Germany, each village with more than 4,000 inhabitants has its own Christmas Market – or Weihnachtsmarkt – as they are known in Germany. Regional differences in the crafts and the foods sold bring different a flavor to each market, so it is best to visit several markets, both city and village, to experience the local specialties.

A vendor stall in front of Strasbourg Cathedral

A vendor stall in front of Strasbourg Cathedral

Christmas Market, Nurnberg, Germany

Christmas Market, Nurnberg, Germany

But no matter if the market is large or small, the air is scented with the sweet perfume of spices, honey, carmel, gingerbread, and hot spiced wine, and the savory aroma of sausages grilling over a wood fire. For us, after years of selling European holiday goodies in our store – Pan d’Epice and Fruit Breads from France; Marzipan, Lebkuchen, and Stollen from Germany – this trip allowed us to taste these goodies in their historical places, and to appreciate many variations of these celebrated treats.

Candies and confections in a shop window

Candies and confections in a shop window

Two varieties of Lebkuchen

Two varieties of Lebkuchen

While Christmas Market reflects the tastes of today, it embraces the traditional past and speaks to people of all ages from many countries. We heard many languages being spoken as we wandered in these lovely towns and cities, and we were astonished at the crowds – Christmas Market is very much alive and well. Merry-makers filled the streets day and night, but the best atmosphere was in the evening when the sun went down and the lights came on. Everything from vendor stalls to timbered houses are illuminated and wrapped in a warm cozy glow. Can you see the tidal-wave of people in this photograph?

Getting close to the Nurnberg Christmas Market!

Saturday afternoon – just arriving at the Nurnberg Christmas Market!

It was delightful to see people of all ages laughing, hoisting a glass together and singing along with the street choirs and having a joyful time. Shopping temptations were many and I saw a majority of  visitors carrying large tote bags filled with goodies and purchases. Grandparents found plenty of treats, edible and not, for their grandchildren. It was easy to fall in love with adorable wooden toys, carefully sewn stuffed animals, old-world inspired tree ornaments, elegant glass decorations, hand-crafted wool ornaments, stables and manger figures, and other lovely items.

Temptations

Glass Temptations

Lebkuchen Santa cookies

Lebkuchen Santa cookies

We shopped at vendor stalls and selected small, hand-crafted tree trimmings and decorations made of pewter, wood-shavings and lace; indulged in many kinds of local sausages; drank local wine and beer, and of course, also enjoyed many glasses of the holiday spiced wine known as Vin Chaud in France and Glühwein Germany.

A very popular Christmas Market stall

A very popular Christmas Market stall

We wandered in and out of charming old book stores, lusted over and purchased a few reproduction gingerbread cookie molds, visited nearly every church and cathedral to be found, and took in as much feeling and atmosphere of the old city streets as we could.
In both France and Germany, many food vendors work in their stalls – roasting chestnuts, caramelizing almonds, baking Lebkuchen gingerbread cookies, fruitbreads, etc. We were enthralled watching them work and the aromas of their foods was enticing. These displays of cakes and confections was very appealing, and shoppers were quick to snap up the best looking offerings.

Rich, honeyed fruit breads

Rich, honeyed fruit breads

In Germany, we watched a glass artist put the finishing touches on a richly colored piece of stained glass that depicted a drummer clad in medieval tunic and stockings keeping time on his drum. Around the corner we joined a crowd of onlookers who were mesmerized watching a baker who was giving the final decorative touches to a sheet pan of spicy Lebkuchen cookies.

Decorating a tray of ready-to-bake Lebkuchen

Decorating a tray of ready-to-bake Lebkuchen

Old poster in a shop window

Old Lebkuchen-vendor poster in a shop window

In Alsace, city streets leading to the old square are festooned with lights and decorations, and shopkeepers add to the magical atmosphere by decorating buildings and storefronts with elaborate decorations and themes.

Strasbourg,France

Pedestrian street Strasbourg, France

specialty food shop in Strasbourg, France

Above the awning of a specialty food shop in Strasbourg, France

Elegant Christmas-inspired  storefront decorations

Elegant Christmas-inspired storefront decorations

In Nurnberg, we awoke on our last full day to an overnight snowfall. It continued to snow throughout the day, adding to the fairy-tale feeling of this place. We feel truly blessed to have been able to experience a little taste of European Christmas and look forward to more years of such adventures.

My new friend!

My new friend!

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Christmas Panettone

°°Panettoneimage courtesy of the Guardian UK

Christmas day at last. And it is a winter wonderland white Christmas indeed. Everyone awakened this morning to a blustery but brilliantly sunny day. Our store is shuttered and quiet today and we have a long awaited day off to do just about nothing. Except declutter our desks, and send woefully tardy emails to friends and colleagues. And eat a little bit. It is back to work tomorrow, so we will wait until the weekend to get back into the kitchen and cook a Christmas feast.

In our store, one of our most sought-after Christmas treats is Italian Panettone – the soft, eggy, fruit-studded sweet bread that is wonderful cut into thick slabs and accompanied by a hot fragrant cup of tea, coffee, or a glass of Vin Santo. Customers run in and out of our store all during the month of December and grab panettones on the fly for hostess gifts, teachers gifts, etc. Each bread is beautifully wrapped in festive paper and ribbons, befitting of the delicious treat nestled inside.

Interestingly, this year I have encountered recipes using panettone as the base for french toast and bread pudding – inspired ! Here are some of those recipes, just in case you have an extra panettone on hand.

Panettone French Toast

3 slices from a 1 lb panettone, cut 1-inch thick
1 large egg
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch cinnamon
butter for sautéing

Mix all ingredients ( except bread ) in a large bowl. Melt the butter in a saute pan or skillet and keep the heat on low. Throughly soak each piece of bread in the in egg mixture and add to the saute pan. Cook until golden brown and serve warm with fresh fruit or maple syrup.

Panettone Bread Pudding – from January ’09 Gourmet magazine
serves 8

1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup brandy, heated
1/2 sticl unsalted butter, softened
1 lb panettone, sliced 1-inch thick
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 & 1/2 cups half-and-half
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract

1. Soak raisins in hot brandy for 15 minutes, the drain.
2. Butter panettone on both sides and cook in batches on a large heavy skillet over medium heat until golden brown on both sides.
3. Whisk together the remaining ingredients.
4. Tear panettone into bite-sized pieces and spread evenly in a buttered 13×9-inch baking dish. Scatter raisins over top, then pour in egg mixture. Let stand 30 minutes.
5. Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle position.
6. Bake until pudding is golden and just set, about 35 to 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Panettone Upside Down Cake
serves 4-6

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
8 cups cubed pieces panettone ( about 8 slices )
5 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ginger

1. Line a 8x8x2 pan with aluminum foil, allowing excess foil to hang over the sides of the pan. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Melt the butter in a small skillet and pour it into the prepared pan. Tilt pan to cover the entire botton. Sprinkle brown sugar over the melted butter, and distribute the pecans over the top of the brown sugar. Place the panettone cubes evenly over the pecans.
3. In a medium bowl, combine eggs, milk, vanilla and ginger, whisking well. Pour the mixture over the bread cubes, pressing down to ensure cubes are well coated. Bring the ends of the aluminum wrap up to cover, and cover all with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 8 hours.
4. Remove from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Remove plastic wrap.
5. Preheat the over to 350°F. Cover the casserole with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until the cake is set.
6. Peel back the aluminum foil and carefully invert the cake onto a serving platter. Remove the foil, cut into squares and serve immediately.

We wish everyone a lovely and joyous holiday season, filled with love, friendship and good food. As Tiny Tim said so prophetically many years ago:
” God Bless us every one. “

European Christmas Treats

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:

England:

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.

Germany:

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.’

Italy:

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.