Cookies and milk for Santa? Not everywhere.
Around the world, foods and Christmas — and other year-end holidays — are as diverse as an assortment of gifts under the holiday tree (or bush, or menorah, or hearth . . .). For instance, while we Americans do leave out those treats for Santa Claus, some Belgian children leave an empty shoe by the front door, in which hay would be stuffed for Sinterklass’s donkey.
Neither Austrians nor Norwegians have a Santa Claus, as we English speakers see him, whom they might feed sweets and treats. Maybe they should: Austrians eat braised or breaded fried carp for Christmas, and in Norway they dine on lutefisk (fish soaked in lye, the recipe for which begins “Saw the dried fish . . .”)
Full-on holiday meals are even more varied. At theirs, the Dutch chow down on oliebollen (“oil balls,” deep-fried flour and raisin pastries). In Poland, Christmas dinner consists of 12 courses — not including meat.
In Ireland, breakfast on Christmas Day is the big feed: eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes, potatoes, sausage links (blood sausage especially), fried bread and sautéed mushrooms, washed down with tea and ale.
By any measure, Christmas is one of the more food-filled of feast days in much of the Christian world.
Other religions and cultures aren’t slackers in the holiday pantry department, either.
Hanukkah is the much-appreciated December festivity for the Jewish people, with its signal foods such as chocolate gelt and dreidel-shaped cookies with colored frostings, or gribenes (crisped bits of chicken or goose skin) fried in schmaltz. In 2023, Hanukkah runs from sundown on Friday, December 7, through Friday, December 15.
But the most symbolic foods of Hanukkah are those, such as latkes (potato “pancakes”) or sufganiyot (jam-filled doughnuts), fried in oil.
“Hanukkah” translates to “rededication” and refers to the re-sanctification by the Maccabees of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in the 2nd century B.C.E. Until then, the ruling Syrian Greeks had disallowed Jews their religious practices, among which was the ever-burning menorah (candelabra) on the Temple grounds.
But after reconquering the Holy City, the triumphant Maccabees could find only sufficient unsullied oil to last one night. Miraculously, the menorah’s candelabra burned for eight days and nights, enough time to produce more and sufficient pure oil. Hence, the centrality for Hannukah of foods fried in oil, latkes being the most recurrent.
For Hanukkah, Jewish families ritualistically light a home menorah for eight evenings and, for this reason and because of its history, often nickname Hannukah “The Feast of Lights.”
Another year-end holiday, Kwanzaa, centers on the lighting of yet another candelabra called the kinara. Its seven candles represent both the seven days and the seven principles of Kwanzaa (Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith).
Kwanzaa began in the United States in the 1960s after the Watts riots as an alternative to the regnant Judeo-Christian December holidays. Kwanzaa aims to celebrate the history and presence of Black Americans. “Kwanzaa” is an East African (Swahili) name meaning “first fruits of the harvest.”
Kwanzaa’s week runs from December 26 until January 1st of the New Year, with a special meal and its foods observed on the sixth day, or December 31. Any food eaten at a Kwanzaa meal is “Kwanzaa food,” however preparations that more frequently appear include those foods that are pan-African, Black American (what is often called “soul food” such as catfish, greens or okra), Black Caribbean, and even Brazilian dishes such as feijoada.
The most important element of a Kwanzaa meal is not what sort of dish is eaten but that whatever it is, it is shared. Above all, Kwanzaa honors community.
The recipes here are three ornaments on a holiday tree of sorts, one each representing the overall Jewish, Kwanzaa, and Christian traditions.
Challah Bread Pudding
If available or able to be made, use challah that has been studded with candied fruit, raisins, sultanas or the like. Serves 8-10.
1 loaf challah, cut into 1-inch or slightly larger cubes, to make at least 8 cups, crusts included
3 large eggs
4 egg yolks from large eggs
4 cups half-and-half
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee, room temperature
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the challah cubes on a large cookie or baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper and brown the pieces in a 350-degree oven until slightly dried out but not toasted, about 15 minutes. Set aside to dry further.
In a large bowl, whip together the eggs, egg yolks and the remaining ingredients except the butter or ghee, setting aside to allow the sugar to dissolve.
Generously butter a large gratin or other deep baking dish large enough to accommodate all the challah pieces and the liquid custard. Put the challah pieces in the dish, pressing down and packing lightly, then slowly pour in the egg and cream mixture, pressing lightly again to burp out any air pockets.
Refrigerate the bread pudding overnight, covered in aluminum foil. When ready to cook, remove from the refrigerator 1 hour ahead of baking time.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees and place a large, deep roasting pan on the middle rack. Set to boil some water. Place the covered baking or gratin dish in the roasting pan and add enough boiling water to come up halfway on the sides of the bread pudding pan.
Bake for 30 minutes covered; remove the foil, then bake again for an additional 45 minutes, or until the pudding is nicely browned on top and the custard is set through. Serve, sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar is desired, but with plenty of unsalted butter and warmed maple syrup.
Fossolia (Ethiopian Green Beans, Carrots and Potatoes)
From Aida Nozick at Small Federations’ Ethiopian Israelis Learning Series. Recipe adapted to Colorado’s elevation. Serves 6-8 as a side dish.
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
3 large tomatoes (such as beefsteak), chopped (or 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch thick sticks
2 large potatoes (such as Yukon Gold or other yellow), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 pound (4 cups) fresh green beans, ends snapped off and cut or snapped into halves or thirds
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and chopped
In a large pot, heat the olive oil, add the diced onion and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and ginger and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and turmeric and cook for 5-8 minutes on medium-low heat.
Add the carrots and cook until medium-soft, about 10-12 minutes; then add the potatoes and cook until tender, about 12-14 minutes. Add the green beans and cover the pot. Allow everything to cook for another 10-12 minutes. Add the salt and jalapeño for the last 2 minutes of cooking.
Risgrynsgröt (Swedish Christmas Rice Porridge)
This is a traditional Swedish dessert for Christmas Eve. Tradition holds that “the one who finds the almond will be married before the next Christmas comes around,” so use your spoon knowingly. Serves 4. Adapted by Bill St. John from thespruceeats.com for Colorado’s elevation.
1 cup raw short-grain rice (such as jasmine)
1 cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 whole blanched almond
Wash the rice well under running water until the rinsing water runs fairly clear (about 3-4 times). Boil 1 cup of water, add the rice and the butter and cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring frequently, until all the water has been absorbed, about 15 minutes.
Add the milk and salt to the rice, stirring, cover and simmer over the lowest heat possible until the rice is tender and the milk has been absorbed, anywhere from 40-50 minutes, depending on elevation. Stir once or twice to prevent scorching. Remove from the heat and stir in the cream and almond.
Place the rice mixture in a serving dish and sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Serve with cold milk as a beverage.
Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]