Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Christmas Around the World, Part 1

I am sorry for those of you who are bored by the homeschool stuff. It is totally the type of thing that would have bored me before I began doing it. Like I've said, I am so not a teacher personality. But a lot of my friends are when I think about it. I think I am drawn to the teacher personality because it is so different from me. Maybe? When I think about all of my friends with some type of education major! Speaking of majors, mine was English, and I sure do use a lot of fragments (the last "sentence" was one). My journalism and English teacher in high school promised to fail anyone's paper that was turned in with a fragment, no matter how good the paper was. I remember wondering who in the world would turn in a paper with a fragment. And then it happened. It happened to Jesse Larrison. And I remember all the guys in the class begging Mrs. Carroll on his behalf not to fail him. But she stood firm. Poor Jesse. But I reckon we could've used a few more teachers standing firm about things. Well, anyway, I never did have to worry about fragments back then. I was taught well. But I use them all the time now. And every time I think, "Wow! What would Mrs. Carroll think of her yearbook editor now?" And I wonder what a lot of my old teachers would think about me being a teacher (of sorts) now. It really is amusing.

Alright, this is what we've been up to this week:

Netherlands day was our first day for Christmas around the world. It was appropriate as the children are one quarter Dutch. It seems like they are more than just a quarter Dutch with their blond hair and Dutch last name, but that's really it. Dutch got mingled in with Hungarian in the last generation, and Dutch-Hungarian married Scottish-French. But Netherlands day had us talking about all the familiar things from George's childhood in Dutch Michigan. Sinterklaas is the Dutch Saint Nicholas figure who rides in on a steamboat from Spain with his sidekick Swarte Pete on December 5th every year. Sinterklaas and Swarte Pete ("Black Pete"- various theories on the origin of the name, but the most PC one is that he is black from chimney soot. The most probable, according to several sources was that he somehow represents the Devil, so black like sin. Kind of weird, huh? Other sources say he is representational of a Moorish servant Saint Nicholas may have had.) fly around on a white horse on the night of December 5th (This is confusing because St. Nicholas' Day is the 6th. Some sources have it the night before, some have it the night of. It makes more sense to me that it would be the night before, but what do I know?) and leave gifts in the shoes left out by all good children. Shoes left out by bad children are filled with coal, salt, or a spanking stick! Nice! There are some sources that even say that Swarte Piet will take you back to Spain with him if you have been bad! Anyway, we talked about this and watched a little movie called Santa and Pete with James Earl Jones. It's sort of a fun movie, it reconciles a lot of Christmas legends with each other- a Forrest Gump of Christmas, if you will. This day would work especially well if you actually did it on the fifth and then let the children leave their shoes out to be filled that night. Of course, it would help if you remember to have something to put in the shoes or you might find yourself at Walgreens at one in the morning like George did! We also made Dutch letters and speculaa. I have to admit that I did most of the work, not because I am a sweet Momma, but because I did not have the patience to incorporate the children into the baking. They did have a tasting experience though. And they will have plenty of chances for a baking experience.I am learning that less is more and that I probably should just stick with one recipe per day if I really want to let the kids take part. You know, instead of the three Dutch ones I tried! But here are the recipes, all of which were obtained from really old Better Homes and Gardens Christmas cookie special issues I had squirreled away in my Christmas boxes. I still haven't gotten to that third recipe, but I'll post it when I find time to try it.

Dutch Letters (Banketstaven in Dutch, or just Banket) George couldn't get enough of these and is not too sure how he feels about me sharing the recipe. There are a lot of steps, but they are worth it. However, they are more of a pastry than a cookie.
4 1/2c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 pound butter (yep, a whole pound)
1 egg
1 8 oz. can almond paste
1/2c. granulated sugar
1/2c. packed brown sugar
2 egg whites
granulated sugar for sprinkling
powdered sugar glaze (1 1/2c. powdered sugar, 1 tsp. almond extract, and milk to consistency)
-stir flour and salt together in large mixing bowl and set aside
-cut butter into 1/2 inch pieces and stir pieces into flour to coat and separate (will still be in chunks)
-combine egg and one cup of water. add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture. mix quickly (butter will still be in chunks and flour will not be completely moistened)
-transfer dough to a lightly floured surface; knead 10 times, pressing and pushing pieces together to dorm a rough looking ball. shape dough into a rectangle and flatten slightly.
-on a well floured surface, roll dough into a 10x15 rectangle. fold short sides in to meet in the center, then fold dough in half crosswise to form 7 1/2 x 5 rectangle. repeat rolling and folding process one more time.
-cover dough with plastic wrap and chill 20 minutes. repeat rolling and folding two more times, chilling 20 minutes more.
-meanwhile, combine almond paste, sugar, brown sugar, and egg whites and beat until smooth. cover and chill 20 minutes.
-preheat oven to 375. cut dough crosswise into four equal portions and put three back in fridge. roll quarter portion of dough out into 12x10 rectangle. cut rectangle into four 3x10 strips. spread 1 slightly rounded tablespoon of almond paste mixture down the length of each dough strip. roll strip around the almond paste, brush edges and ends with milk and pinch to seal.
-place log seam down on parchment lined baking sheet and shape into a letter (I did mostly S's because they're easy and that was the picture in the magazine), brush with milk, and sprinkle with sugar. bake 25-30 minutes. cool on wire racks

Speculaas (what are often known as Dutch windmill cookies)- these have a much more pleasant texture than the kind you buy at the store, but have identical flavor. I am not sure how desired the "sandy" texture is, but these spare those of us who don't enjoy it.
1/2c. butter, softened
3/4c. brown sugar
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. salt
1 egg yolk
1T milk
1 1/3c. all purpose flour
3T finely chopped blanched almonds
powdered sugar glaze (optional- 1 1/2c. powdered sugar and milk to desired consistency)
-beat butter with electric mixer on medium high speed for 30 seconds. add brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, nutmeg, cloves, and salt. beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. beat in egg yolk and milk. beat in as much flour as you can, and stir in flour and almonds (I guess this is an issue if you are using a hand mixer. I was able to beat all of this in easily with my Kitchenaid.)
-divide dough in half, cover and chill for one hour until it is easy to handle.
-preheat oven to 350.
-press dough into cookie molds or roll out to 1/8 inch thickness and cut with cookie cutters. place cut or molded dough one inch apart on parchment lined baking sheets (if you don't have parchment, get into your car and drive to the grocery... just kidding! but seriously, what are you thinking? you do need to at least grease the pan). bake 8-10 minutes until golden on edges. cool on cookie sheets on wire racks for one minute (don't leave them for too long!). transfer cookies to racks and cool. if desired, decorate with powdered sugar glaze.

The next day I covered three African countries at once, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zambia. This is just because the curriculum had all of these countries included and I found it very difficult to do anything specific for their Christmas celebrations as they are generally poor countries and celebrate Christmas mostly as a result of British colonization, so their customs are quite similar to British customs. We have Britain later on in the unit, so I decided to just cover African countries quickly, discussing capitals, cash crops, and wild animals native to the continent. It was really not so Christmasy, and I wouldn't recommend any of these countries for a Christmas around the world study. I just didn't have a choice. I did discover that in Nigeria, palm fronds are a big part of the decorations and that they represent peace. Also in Nigeria, fireworks are often set off on Christmas. But I don't have access to palm fronds in Missouri in December, though I suppose they could have been made with construction paper a la Palm Sunday, and I didn't fancy setting off fireworks either. One could if one wanted to though.

Moving on then, the next day was Australia. We read a book called Wombat Divine by Mem Fox. The thing about Australia is that Christmas falls in the summer. And Australia has very unique animals. Other than that, they also do a lot similar to the way things are done in Great Britain. Wombat Divine incorporates the summer climate and the Australian critters into a Christmas story so it was a fun and helpful little resource. There is also a recently released book called Roland Harvey's Big Book of Christmas that seems to be fairly unavailable in the US at this point, but should have many around the world ideas in it, particularly Aussie ones as it is written by and Aussie author. For this day we also made an Australian and New Zealand favorite cookie called ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) biscuits. The recipe I used is from Martha Stewart's Cookies:

ANZAC Biscuits- if you are a dough eater, this is the best!
2c. all purpose flour
1 3/4c. old fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2c. sugar
1c. sweetened shredded coconut
pinch of salt
3/4 c. unsalted butter
2T Lyle's Golden Syrup (evidently, available at World Market; I just subbed in honey)
3/4 tsp. baking soda
6T boiling water
-preheat oven to 350
-in a large bowl, combine flour, oats, sugar, coconut, and salt.
-in a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter with syrup. dissolve baking soda into boiling water and add to butter mixture. stir to combine (it will bubble a lot).
-add butter mixture and stir to combine. scoop rounded tablespoons of dough onto parchment lined baking sheet about two inches apart.
-bake for 15 minutes. cool on wire racks.

The next day was Mexico day. There is so much to do for Mexican Christmas! We made paper poinsettias, read two of Tomie de Paola's books, The Legend of the Poinsettia and The Legend of Las Posadas, and we made Mexican wedding cakes and Mexican hot chocolate. You could do a pinata or make any number of Mexican savory foods as well. Las Posadas literally translates "the inns" and is a tradition in Mexico where Mexican children and adults reenact Mary and Joseph going from door to door looking for room at an inn or house. They have a customary song script that is used, and they do this every night from December 16th to December 24th, each night ending at another family's home for a big party. Why don't we do that in the States? It sounds awesome! Nine nights of parties, woohoo! I used one of Paula Dean's recipes for Mexican wedding cookies. I found the one for Mexican hot chocolate online, but it didn't work out very well from what I heard. It took me all day to do Mexico Day and some of the next, and I missed the drinking of the hot chocolate because I had something at church. Evidently though, the recipe I chose was not so great. Maybe I will try it again. Although, I have to say that at this point I feel like I am literally traveling around the world and am exhausted! I have no idea how people do laundry or go to the grocery store when they are homeschool moms. I feel like all I do is teach, change diapers, discipline, and make meals. Maybe if I didn't have a two year old, I would gain a few hours! It was pretty cute though when Elspeth looked at Amabel and pushed up her sleeves to imitate and then held out her little hands for flouring. I gave her a little dough ball and she did a really good job making her cookie! Here's the recipe, and no, the absence of eggs is not a mistake.

Mexican Wedding Cookies
1c. unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2c. powdered sugar, plus more for coating baked cookies
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4c. flour, plus more for dusting hands
1c. pecans, very finely chopped
- preheat oven to 275 and line baking sheets with parchment
-cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer at low speed until smooth, add vanilla, then gradually add flour (still on low speed). mix in pecans with spatula
-with floured hands, take about a tablespoon of dough and roll it into a little ball. place dough balls on parchment lined cookie sheet and bake 40 minutes
-after removing cookies from oven, cooling only as much as necessary to handle them, toss them in powdered sugar and place on cooling racks. although paula doesn't mention this, i was taught after going through the batch the first time, to go back and toss them in sugar one more time

I know this is only four days, and one is a waste doing African countries without much to do with Christmas, but I have had a lot of spilling over to the next day because I tackled so much.I mean, it has definitely had me hating homeschool at times. The planning itself took a lot of time though, so if you don't have a baby in the throws of the terrible twos and just copied my ideas, you could probably reasonably accomplish even more than me without the need for much more than one or two glasses of wine ;) We also take extra time to incorporate our studies into spelling, which you may or may not want to do. We learn how to spell the names of the countries and their capitals and any words associated with the country (like kangaroo, platypus, koala, and echidna for Australia, coffee for Kenya, maple syrup for Canada, etc). Oh, and all of the books and videos, including the cookbooks, are available at St. Louis County Library, and I am happy to get you corresponding craft and coloring sheets for any of these days that I can. To be continued...


e.c. said...

Great work! I love mexican wedding cookies...my mom made some just the other day, and they are delicious warm!

Thanks for the call the other day...Bobby will be gone tomorrow evening, I may try to call then.

Linda Farley said...


Thanks for the book titles. I'll be looking up some of those this week to have some variety in our Christmas books. I can definitely relate to the difficulties of getting everything done as a homeschool mom, and resenting it at times as well. (Written as I am doing laundry at 11:45 pm).


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