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NORTH COUNTRY KITCHEN: Baking for the holidays

December 17, 2015
By YVONA FAST , Lake Placid News

This December, the weather has been so warm that it doesn't feel like holiday time. But Holiday time is here! Christmas concerts abound. Stores are filled with Santas, shoppers and holiday music. Christmas parties are everywhere. And homes are filled with the wonderful scent of fresh-baked holiday treats.

With summer's heat long gone, we're no longer reluctant to heat up the kitchen by using the oven. Instead, we welcome the extra warmth along with the pleasant scent wafting out of it, an extra bonus this time of year. The kitchen smells of fresh baked goods: cookies, pies, breads. Delectable sweets like Christmas cookies and special cakes ring in the holiday spirit and spread memorable good cheer. Such delicacies are part of Christmas parties and buffets. They also make great Christmas gifts! Slices of fresh, homemade sweetbread are a special breakfast treat on Christmas morning, when there's little time to cook as children awake early, eager to open gifts.

But the custom of serving baked goods in December began long before Christmas was a Christian holiday - with the pre-Christian civilizations like Germanic tribes, Celts, Gauls from northern Europe as well as the Romans. Winter Solstice feasts of ancient northern European cultures were filled with baked goodies. When Christianity took over the pagan traditions, cookies were imprinted with a "J" for Jesus, and cookie designs took on religious shapes and symbols.

Traditional holiday breads pre-date modern chemical leavening agents, and were made with yeast. Cakes with dried fruits and honey were a way to use preserved dried ingredients during the long winter when fresh fruits were not available.

During the Middle Ages, these treats used expensive things (white sugar and flour, butter, eggs, dried fruit, and rich fillings like almond paste), so they were saved for the holidays. The Slavic honeycake and the British fruitcake are examples. A good fruitcake should not be sticky-sweet and dry; it should be a mixture of fruits and nuts held together with a rich dough. In addition to Christmas, they were served for other celebrations, like weddings, and were a symbol of luck for the year to come.

Each European country has its own unique Christmas cookie treat. Traditional Italian cucciddati are stuffed with ground dates and figs. German families bake pans of Lebkuchen and buttery Spritz cookies along with decorated gingerbread that is made into houses and men. In Austria and Bavaria, Springerle are the anise-flavored sugar cookies made from plain egg-flour-sugar dough that is rolled and imprinted with designs using special molds. Swedes are fond of papparkakor, spicy ginger and black-pepper delights, and the Norwegians make krumkake, thin lemon and cardamom-scented wafers.

Breads and pastries also have cultural variants. There is French Buche de Noel, Finnish Pulla, Dutch Dreikonigsbrot, German king cake, Polish Babka and English Yule log. Panettone, a large loaf baked in a round, tall-sided pan, comes from the Milan region of Italy. Stollen, the famous German fruit-studded bread with a characteristic indentation meant to represent the swaddled Christ Child, originated in the city of Dresden. These regional specialties are all based on the same rich, sweet coffee-cake dough made with yeast, milk, eggs, sugar, and butter.

Central Europe's nut, poppyseed or fruit-filled roll is known by different names throughout the region: Strudla in Serbia; Povitica in Croatia; Potica in Slovenia Orehovnik or Makovnik in Slovakia; Makowiec in Poland. To make it, rich, sweet yeast dough is rolled with a filling of chopped nuts and honey, poppy seeds, honey, and raisins, or lekvar (prune butter).

Other special seasonal treats include the pretzel-like knotted filled Danish Kringle pastries; central European filled yeast Poteca rolls; Black Forest Cake, a chocolate, cherry-filled layer cake soaked in Kirsch liqueur; and English fruitcake.

Today, many people don't have time to make such elaborate cookies and cakes, and buy them for the holidays instead. Quick breads like cranberry-nut, made with baking powder instead of yeast, are easier, faster, and also ring in the holidays. There is nothing like the sweet scent of fresh baked goods filling your home!

What are your family's favorite holiday treats? Do you make or buy them?

Cranberry Apple

Nut Bread

Ingredients:

2 cups whole wheat flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 eggs

2/3 cup honey

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup butter

2/3 cup apple cider

3/4 cup chopped nuts

1 tart apple

1 - 2 cups cranberries

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8x4 inch loaf pans.

In a large bowl, stir together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl, bet the eggs, honey, and vanilla. Melt butter. Beat in sour cream, butter and apple cider.

Chop the nuts; wash, core and dice the apple (no need to peel). Stir fruit and nuts into flour mixture. Add liquid ingredients and fold in until just blended. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

Bake in preheated oven about 40 minutes (until a toothpick inserted into the crown comes out clean). Cool in the pans for a while, then remove from the pans and place on wire racks to cool completely.

Holiday Spiced Apple Nut Cookies

Ingredients:

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 cup butter or coconut oil

2/3 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup apple cider

2 small apples, cored but no need to peel (about 1 1/2 cups apples)

1 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In bowl, combine flours, baking soda, salt & spices.

In another bowl, cream together softened butter and sugar.

Combine the 2 mixtures, and add apple cider. Stir until smooth. Mixture will be very thick. Hands work best. Grate apples and stir in. Stir in raisins and nuts (if using).

Place balls of dough on lightly greased cookie sheet 2" apart and flatten with fingers. Bake at 350 for 10 - 12 minutes. They will be very soft and need to cool and harden on the cookie sheet about 5 minutes before removing them with a spatula.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers' Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

 
 
 

 

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