Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Around the World, Part 2

The light of the Christmas star to you
The warmth of home and hearth to you
The cheer and good will of friends to you
The hope of a childlike heart to you
The joy of a thousand angels to you
The love of the Son and God's peace to you.

Isn't that lovely? It is an Irish Christmas blessing. I did not realize that there was a difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom. So when I did my preparation for our study of Christmas in Great Britain, I included Northern Ireland in the mix. However, Great Britain only refers to Scotland, England, and Wales. The United Kingdom is Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Who knew? Lots of people, I'm sure. Not my curriculum though. It treated the terms interchangeably. Anyway, it seems that the British are big on pudding and trifles and things soaked in rum with currants and whatnot. Sounds tasty, but not so very second grade-y, especially because Great Britain day hit on a day where I had had it, a day where I was in my robe and slippers until well past noon. I had no desire to make a trifle. Cookies from around the world were already all around my kitchen! So we went with just one, shortbread. Lately, I have had a constant hankering for shortbread.

The Welsh do, or did rather (most of these traditions have all but died), all kinds of really cool things like Plygain which means "cockcrow." This a service held on Christmas Eve from 3-6am for the men! They come and sing and read Psalms while the women stay home to make toffee and other foods for Christmas Day. Basically, the Welsh pull an all-nighter on Christmas. Later in the morning, the women join the men at church, bringing candles to decorate the church. The day after Christmas is, of course, Boxing Day or The Feast of Stephen. But in Wales and Ireland it is also called Wren Day. There used to be a real wren that was hunted and killed, but now there is a fake one affixed to a pole decorated with holly and ribbons which is carried around town by mummers who are dressed in costume and sing songs asking for donations. The donations are then used for charity. Minus the wren, this is similar to everything I read about Boxing Day traditions which were popular in England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (among other countries) where gifts were given to one's employees the day after Christmas. This is not common anymore, but I read that often bonuses are handed out on this day in the same way Americans receive Christmas bonuses.

There is another really unusual event (or is it just a thing?) called the Mari Lwyd, a Grey Mare who visits houses in Wales. It isn't a mare at all, but actually a horse's skull and jaw, covered with a sheet, under which hides a puppeteer, and decorated with ribbons! At new year's, the men would walk around singing and knocking on doors and challenging the people within with rhymes and riddles. After an exchange of comic insults and witty banter at each home, the Mari Lwyd either grants a blessing and moves on or is invited inside for food and drink. I did a quick Google search and was able to find lots of recipes for wassail and for Welsh toffee if you are interested. I won't post any because I didn't try any of them, but they shouldn't be hard to find. One honorable mention of the ones I glanced at though, I loved the blog post by a British baker who made toffee in the post through this link. We opted to make a calennig ourselves. The calennig is an apple with a candle and evergreen or holly sprigs in the top that is decorated all around with nuts and spices, somewhat similar to an orange pomander, I suppose. We found a couple of sites telling us how to make one, but none with any pictures. Maybe I can borrow a digital camera and take pictures of the ones we made to put up here, or perhaps we will show up at your door on New Year's Day between dawn and noon, as the Welsh children do (or did, I mean, I really don't know if anyone does these things anymore), singing carols and offering you our calennig for good luck in exchange for treats! The luck lasts as long as the calennig!

Another Irish tradition is to place a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. The candle is a symbol of hospitality, a welcome to the wandering stranger, a gesture representing what should have been done for Mary and Joseph. The candle is supposed to be lit by the youngest member of the family and only snuffed out by someone named Mary. This is convenient for us as my first name is Mary. Abby Edema, official candle snuffer. The lighting of a candle by a two year old is quite another thing! As the tradition is one for Christmas Eve, I am not sure we will actually remember to do it, and if we do, whether or not we will entrust Elspeth to light it. Perhaps with help she can manage the task.

Icebox Shortbread- another from Martha, this one from an Everyday Food Christmas cookie issue I had saved. I love the idea of giving people a couple of refrigerated cookie dough rolls at Christmas so they can refrigerate or freeze them and then slice them and bake them when they have last minute guests or run behind and need something quick, but they are still homemade! I wanted to try these before I decided to give them. I figure I will roll the dough in parchment and tie the ends with ribbon and tie a tag on that says what they are and how long to bake them for. The absence of eggs is not a mistake.
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
1c. confectioners sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
2c. all purpose flour, plus more for rolling.
-beat butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt until smooth
-with mixer on low, add in flour, mixing just until dough forms
-divide dough in half and place each half on a lightly floured sheet of parchment or waxed paper. gently roll each half into a log 1 1/2 inches in diameter. wrap logs tightly and twist ends to seal. refrigerate until firm, 1- 1 1/2 hours
-preheat oven to 350. slice dough into 3/8 inch slices and bake slices, one inch apart,on parchment lined baking sheets 15-20 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking. cool on baking sheets 1-2 minutes, then remove to cool on wire racks.

We had so much to do from UK day that we spilled over into the next. We took the late part of the afternoon to briefly cover New Zealand- kiwi birds, no snakes, kiwifruit, and sheep. Christmas is similar to Australia in that both countries are populated by descendants of British immigrants and both countries are in the Southern Hemisphere and have Christmas in the summertime. But one can always find a recipe right? As we had already made ANZAC biscuits, the only thing left was to try a Pavlova! I had never even tasted Pavlova before. I have to say that it is quite enjoyable. It is more summery than Christmas-y which really makes sense for a place that has Christmas during the summer-- it's both! I thought this blog post was super helpful with step by step instructions and pictures. I have copied the recipe for y'all here as well (use the link if you would rather use vinegar than cream of tartar).

for meringues-
1 1/2T cornstarch
1 1/2 c.sugar
3/4 c. (6 oz, about 6) large egg whites, preferably room temperature
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
pinch of salt
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
for berry sauce topping-
2 pints fresh or frozen berries
1/4 c. sugar
freshly whipped cream

for meringues-
-preheat oven to 275. line baking sheet with parchment. mix sugar and cornstarch together in small bowl.
- in a large bowl of a heavy-duty mixer, fitted with a whisk attachment, whip egg whites, cream of tartar and salt, starting on low and increasing incrementally to medium until soft peaks/trails start to become visible, and the egg white bubbles are very small and uniform, approximately 2-3 minutes.
-increase speed to medium-high, slowly and gradually sprinkling in the sugar mixture. a few minutes after these ingredients are added, slowly pour in the vanilla. increase speed and whip up until meringue is glossy and stiff peaks form when whisk is lifted, 4-5 minutes.
-pipe or spoon meringue into 8-10 3" mounds on the lined baking sheet. with the back of the spoon, create and indentation in the middle for holding the topping after the meringue is baked.
-place baking sheet in the oven. reduce oven temp. to 250. bake for 50-60 minutes, or until meringues are crisp, dry to the touch on the outside, and white-- not tan colored or cracked. the interiors should have a marshmallow like consistency. check on them at least once during baking time. if they appear to be taking color or cracking, reduce temp. 25 degrees and turn pan around.
-gently lift meringues from baking sheet and cool on a wire rack. they will keep in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for up to a week.
-serve with berry sauce or lemon curd and freshly whipped cream.
for berry sauce topping-
-heat berries and sugar in saucepan over medium heat, stirring once or twice, for about 5-10 minutes, depending on how much berries are falling apart. remove from heat and let cool.

Our next big day was Brazil day. Who knew that Brazil is the world's biggest exporter of coffee, soybeans, sugar cane, ethanol, and beef? Well, we do now. We also talked about the animals in the rainforests and the Amazon River. And what would Brazil day be without playing a little kitchen soccer?! But as for Christmas, it seems that the most unique thing I found was something that is unconfirmed. George's aunt sent me a bunch of ideas from all over and one was a Brazilian tinsel tail bird ornament. I can't find anywhere that says this is something Brazillians actually do though. I like to double check, you know. I did read in several places that because they are in the Southern Hemisphere and Christmas falls in the summer for them, they often decorate with flowers from their gardens and have trees made of strings of lights (rather than actually stringing lights on an existing evergreen tree because evergreens are not readily available there). Just for kicks, I tried a recipe that called for several of Brazil's big exports- Brazil nuts, coffee, sugar(of course), and, unfortunately, shortening, which listed soybean oil as the first ingredient so I felt better that it was somewhat "Brazilian," albeit nasty, in that regard (I did later find the recipe with butter instead of sugar; I don't know why I didn't just swap it myself). I don't know how traditionally Brazilian the recipe is, I think there was something about it winning its division in the Pillsbury Bakeoff in 1953, but it's got Brazil in the name which is good enough for me. And I'll just go ahead and tell you that I don't generally like Brazil nuts. On top of which, I didn't have a nutcracker so I ended up pounding the crud out of them with a meat mallet trying to get them open. Shell pieces were shooting out all over the counter, ricocheting off appliances, and pelting small children in their wake as they skidded across the floor. And let me just tell you that there is no smell on God's green earth more foul than a rotten Brazil nut. It makes the worst baby changing experience seem like walking through a rose garden. So these cookies were a total pain in the butt. I'm sorry, but they were. And besides that, they were not very good in the end. I only post the link to the recipe in case, for some reason, you decide to disregard my warnings and make them anyway. You might think that you do have a nutcracker and that you do actually enjoy Brazil nuts and that instant espresso is not so bad and that shortening is a fact of life. But they were not worth my time to make and certainly not to actually type the recipe for you. I should have known, but I think I just really wanted to use up the instant espresso I have had for who knows how long. I know, I know, anything with instant espresso as an ingredient is bound to be dreadful. But sometimes I feel risky like (for some reason, that sentence in my head sounds like how Will Ferrell's George Bush would say it). Well, don't say I didn't warn you: Brazilian Jubilee Cookies.

After Brazil, we "visited" China. China is clearly not much for Christian holidays. Supposedly, they do embrace the commercial celebration somewhat and have trees and other decorations in major cities. Those who do celebrate Christmas get a visit from Christmas Old Man. I so love the name. He looks like an old Chinese man in traditional Chinese robes (I tried to look up a proper name for this but I cannot distinguish between Hanfu and Manchu styles at a glance!) with a long white beard. They hang up muslin stockings for him. And they decorate their trees with paper lanterns, which I imagine looks lovely. I thought about doing Chinese New Year instead, but what a lot of work it would be to figure all of that out! I debated about making fortune cookies because I have always wanted to try that. I made marshmallows on New Year's Day this year and that was something else I always wanted to do. I also made all of the Dutch cookies this year which I always wanted to do. And then there was the Pavlova which I had never tried, so I decided that although they have nothing to do with Christmas, or really even with China, as they were invented in America by Chinese immigrants, I would go ahead and make them. Amabel and August colored little strips of paper and Amabel wrote little fortunes on them to put inside the cookies. The recipe I used had a few ambiguous points to it and after my fortune cookies turned out more like unfortunate pancakes, I read the reviews and found helpful tips from other people who had tried them several times and made them work. I will now become one of those people, and, should I get them right, I will post the recipe in another post with an edited list of instructions.

The last day for this post is Norway Day. Norway Day was supposed to be on Monday the 15th, but when I started preparing for it, I realized that a big day for them there is the 13th which was Saturday. So we did school on Saturday. We didn't do much school, somehow we managed to get over to the Botanical Gardens to see the trains and swing by a "burger joint" (as my dad would say) and the kids built a fort in the woods with George. So I figure we still had a nice Saturday-ish Saturday. Well, it helped for George to actually have the entire weekend off for the first time since he has been working again! I had forgotten about weekends! So the 13th is St. Lucy's Day, which I knew about in Sweden. I suppose I should've guessed that their Norwegian neighbors probably had a similar celebration. I am not completely clear on why they like her so much as she is from Italy and her story is something tragic about having her eyes gouged out. I think the idea is that the name Lucy means light and that the saint Lucy used to bring bread to the persecuted Christians in hiding with the candle wreath on her head to light her way. The Norwegians and Swedes have that dreadful Alaska thing going on where they only get something like three hours of daylight during the winter. So they very much welcome this time of year as the end of the shortening days and the beginning of the lengthening of days; they celebrate Lucy because she brings light. I think? There is other folklore surrounding this day and this saint, but that seems to be the gist. Anyway, on the morning of December 13th, the oldest daughter in the household dresses in a white gown with a red sash and wears a crown with leaves and candles attached and brings the rest of the family breakfast in bed. I am sure a lot of y'all are familiar with this custom, not firsthand of course, but are just aware of it. But George didn't know about it so that is why I am explaining it, albeit very poorly.

Anyway, on Friday I called every bakery in St. Louis and none of them planned to have the saffron buns for St. Lucy's Day on Saturday morning. I wasn't really surprised, I was just hoping not to have to do it myself. I think the biggest deterrent for me was the price of saffron, and the fact that I didn't have any on hand. But I found a recipe, from an American Girl cookbook no less, that mentioned that the saffron was optional. Hurray! I was so happy for myself because another thing I meant to do more of this year was bake bread (Janet, if you still read, I totally thought of you while I made these Friday night!). I also came across this darling Saint Lucy crown craft and decided to make my own as well. Mine ended up being affixed to a ribbon and tied on because Amabel was asleep by the time I got it going and I didn't want to measure her head at the risk of waking her up. Aside from the slightly oversized holly leaves I cut, it turned out super cute. Again, I hope to have pictures to post sometime. Life without a digital camera- agh!

So I went into the children's bedroom on Saturday morning and woke Amabel up. I took her downstairs and told her a little bit about St. Lucy and showed her a picture. Then I showed her the buns I made and the costume she was going to get to wear. It was pretty fun for her, I think. We made a big pot of hot chocolate and then took breakfast to George, August, and Elspeth. I carried up the hot chocolate and the mugs on a tray behind Amabel in her costume carrying her dish of lussekatter (St. Lucy buns). So cute! And the buns smelled so divine when I baked them the night before! They tasted fine the next morning, although I have no idea what they are supposed to taste like, but they probably would have been so much better right out of the oven (and with the saffron, I'm sure). They were easy to make though; y'all know I am a fairly unseasoned bread baker. They are worth making again, but I did later realize that the one place I didn't think to check was the bakery at Whole Foods Market when they popped up in a search, so I might call them before I go to the trouble next time- well, depending on how much else I have going on.

St. Lucy's Day buns (lussekatter) a la American Girl -makes 6
1/3 c. milk
1/4 c. butter
1/4 c. lukewarm water
1 packet dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
1/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. saffron (optional)
2 3/4 c. flour (approximate- you'll need a lot!)
1 T cooking oil
1 T water
24 raisins
-warm the milk in a small saucepan over low heat. cut the butter into small pieces and add to milk. stir until butter is melted. turn off heat.
-measure lukewarm water into a large mixing bowl. sprinkle yeast over water and stir well. set aside for 5 minutes.
-add warm milk and butter mixture to the yeast. stir in the sugar, 1 egg, salt, and saffron. add 1 1/2 c. flour and stir until smooth.
-flour a cutting board and your hands. add enough flour to dough so you can shape it into a ball.
put the dough on the cutting board and knead, adding flour when it gets sticky. after 5-10 minutes, you should have a smooth ball of dough that springs back when pressed. cover dough with a towel and it let rest while washing and drying the mixing bowl.
-spread cooking oil in the clean, dry bowl. roll dough in oil until coated. cover bowl with a towel and set in a warm place for dough to rise. after 45 minutes, it should be twice as large; if not, check back in 15 minutes.
-punch down the dough. divide it into 6 sections. take each section and divide it in half. roll each half into an 8 inch rope. cross the two ropes in the middle, then coil the ends into tight circles. repeat with each section of dough.
-place buns 2 inches apart on a parchment lined baking sheet. cover with towel and let rise for 30-45 minutes, until they double in size.
-preheat oven to 350 (the recipe says "while they are rising" but I always use my oven for letting things rise, so I have to wait until they are finished).
-mix second egg and water with a fork in a small bowl. brush egg mixture lightly over top of each bun. decorate buns with raisins.
-bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown. remove to wire racks to cool.


Jessie said...

You are an amazing home schooler!

The Rays said...

i am not quite sure how you have the energy to do all this. are you sleeping at all? i am hugely impressed!! hope to get to catch up soon.

jennifer h said...

I think you've found your groove using baking and other homemaking elements as a central part of your homeschooling. Kudos on all you're accomplishing and teaching the kids.

Re: wassail . . . I think Chris Smith posted wassail recipes he tried way back (maybe 2 years ago) on his blog. So he might have a good one to suggest to you.

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